It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s a…Boat?

Published december 20, 2023 | written by emily cough | edited by bhhs staff
Sepia photo of Victor Vernon flying in his Curtiss Flying Boat above the SS Kronprinzessin Cecilie interned in Bar Harbor.

In a previous Way Back Wednesday, we talked about Alexander Wilson’s flying machine of 1908 and how he soared over the Island in his invention. For a community that relied almost solely on horse-drawn carriages and boats for transportation, it was a sight to behold for the residents who were sheltered from the modern age of automobiles.

It wasn’t long after Wilson’s groundbreaking flight that another flying phenomenon took place. Six years later, in 1914, a pilot made history with his Curtiss Model F Flying-boat. The invention, which was capable of traversing both the sky and the sea, was nothing short of riveting, as the world had never seen anything of the like before. With this flying-boat, the potential of aviation was expanded far beyond what was previously considered possible.

That flying boat pilot was Victor Vernon. Born in Rome, Italy in 1883 to devout Methodist parents, Vernon quickly became captivated by the wonders of the world around him. At age five, his family packed up and journeyed back to the USA, where he spent his formative years in Upstate New York (Cooper, n.d.).

Although the tragic passing of his father marked a profound turning point in Vernon’s life, his upbringing in New York was one he cherished. However, upon leaving high school to pursue a career in mechanics, little did he know the experiences he would soon gain would profoundly shape his future. As a mechanical apprentice, Vernon worked to fine-tune his expertise in the fields of mechanics and engineering, and these formative years laid the foundation of his lifetime of dedication and passion.

After serving in the US Army, Vernon was ready to put the skills gained during his military service to work in his civilian life, putting down roots to marry Charlotte Elizabeth Clay and start a family. 

While he had already established his career as a mechanic, he further solidified his expertise in the trade by working as an automobile dealer. Though his work as a mechanic and car dealer was not all he set his sights on. Despite Vernon dedicating years of his life to studying and mastering various STEM fields, it wasn’t until one momentous day during a family vacation that his true passion was ignited.

Like an apple falling on Newton, a Curtiss flying boat flew overhead of their sailing boat and an idea was struck.

This spurred something exciting inside of Vernon. From that moment on, his fate was sealed.

But what were Curtiss flying boats?

Manufactured by Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, the Curtiss flying boats were a family of flying boats designed to be able to land on water. The company, founded by engine enthusiast Glenn Curtiss, rivaled the likes of the Wright Brothers and was at the forefront of innovation since its inception (Pattillo 2000).

So, after the sight of the Curtiss flying boat during his vacation, Vernon knew he had found his vocation. Not wasting any time, he immediately made the decision to purchase one for himself in the fall of 1913.

Named for his daughter, Elizabeth “Betty,” the plane was “christened the ‘Betty V’” (Cooper, n.d.). But, Vernon still needed to train and learn how to pilot the craft. So, at Curtiss’ flying school in Hammondsport, New York, Vernon “[received] his pilot’s certification [and] started his career as an exhibition pilot” (Peek 2010).

Vernon’s efforts were not met with immediate success. During an initial test flight orchestrated by an experienced Navy aviator, the plane was severely damaged upon landing; making Vernon’s dreams of becoming a pilot seem further out of reach than ever before. However, with the help of a new connection he had formed with Glenn Curtiss, Curtiss offered to have the plane repaired for Vernon, free of charge.

After the repairs to his Curtiss Flying boat made flying a reality for Vernon, he set forth to the skies. His first exhibition flight took place in Buffalo, New York.

From there, that’s also where our story with Bar Harbor begins.

In hearing of his endeavors in Buffalo, The Chairman of the Labor Day Celebration Committee invited Vernon to show off his exhibition flight on September 4, 1914. Vernon was offered “$500 to fly there…[and] all his expenses were to be covered” (Cummins 2010). In the Bar Harbor Record, it was reported that,

With a “large crowd…the smooth mahogany skipped lightly over the water until well out in the bay, and then lifted slightly and rose from the water. The boat, well up in the air, circled the top of one of the Porcupine islands and started toward the shore. For about twenty minutes Victor Vernon circled round the ships and islands, flying over the big battleship” (Bar Harbor Record 1914).

The battleship, of course, was none other than the interned SS Kronprinzessin Cecilie. But we’ll cover that story for a later Wayback.

Vernon’s flight in Bar Harbor was no small feat. According to the Lowell Sun, Vernon flew over two hours from Kennebunkport to Bar Harbor, a total of 150 miles at 2,000 feet in the air. He made three stops along the way, the first in Port Clyde for refueling, then Rockland, and finally Northeast Harbor, which “the aviator mistook for Bar Harbor” (Lowell Sun 1914).

This flight was more than just a thrilling display of aerial stunts. It was a ground-breaking, or rather, sky-breaking flight, as this kind of aviation hadn’t been done before. Despite this, “with the economic uncertainty of war looming Vernon accepted the offer, even though no such flight over the ocean had ever been attempted” (Cummins 2010). With this bold and ambitious step, Vernon was setting out on a path of discovery.

In the years following his historic flight, Vernon went on to have a relatively successful career within the U.S. Army as their Chief Civilian Instructor for its new aviation training program.

After the Great War ended and he received an honorable discharge in 1918, Vernon “secured the franchise for the products of the G.H. Curtiss Company” and formed his own company (Cooper, n.d.). However, just three years later, the company eventually went under and Vernon was forced to pack his and his family’s bags back to the New York area.

However, Vernon would once again face a challenge that tested his resolve. When the Great Depression swept through the country and left many destitute, Vernon lost his successful investment job.

Nonetheless, he was not deterred by these setbacks. After joining the “newly formed American Airways, Inc. as a Vice President and General manager of its Colonial Airways Division” and after “a very serious automobile accident from which it took him three years to completely recover,”Vernon finally settled on a position at American Airlines as the Personnel Director, where he remained until he retired in 1948 (Cooper, n.d.).

Vernon, a man who defied the odds and overcame obstacles to make history, and his story, is one of human ingenuity, resilience, dauntlessness and is a testament to the human spirit. His story teaches us that anyone, regardless of their background or profession, can make their mark on the world. He wasn’t an inventor like Curtiss, but yet he still dreamed and reached for the sky, proving that it takes only boldness and bravery to break barriers and create a legacy that will be remembered for generations to come. It is thanks to individuals like Vernon that history books will always be filled with stories of daring exploits and human ingenuity.

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Reference List

Bar Harbor Record. 1914. “Hydro-Aeroplane Exhibition,” September 9, 1914.

Lowell Sun. 1914. “Over-Water Flight,” September 4, 1914.

Cooper, Ralph S. “VICTOR VERNON’S BIOGRAPHY.” Vernon, Victor, https://www.earlyaviators.com/evernon.htm. Accessed 2023.

Cummins, S. 2010. “Victor Vernon, Guest Aviator at Kennebunk Beach.”Portsmouth Herald, March 31, 2010. https://www.seacoastonline.com/story/news/local/york-star/2010/04/01/victor-vernon-guest-aviator-at/51655312007/.

Pattillo, Donald M. “Origins and Pioneers.” Pushing the Envelope: The American Aircraft Industry, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2000.

Peek, M. M. 2010. “MS-418 – Glenn Curtiss Collection of Early Aviation Photographs.” n.d. Scribd. https://www.scribd.com/document/156978019/MS-418-Glenn-Curtiss-Collection-of-Early-Aviation-Photographs?doc_id=156978019&order=620237091.