When you think of aviation history your first thought will probably be of the Wright brothers and Kitty Hawk; however, our own western New York area actually played a major role in the development of manned flight. There are numerous museums located throughout our region that pay tribute to aviation history, from the early days, to the war years and beyond.
A brief history
During the early 20th Century western New York was one of the country’s leading aviation centers. Many of the early flying enthusiasts belonged to some of the numerous cycling clubs popular in this area in the late 1800’s. A group interested in winged flight formed the Aero Club of Buffalo, the oldest aero club in America. Often members would try out their inventions on what is now the Grover Cleveland Golf Course at Main & Bailey.
Around the same time, Glenn Curtiss, a motorcycle manufacturer in Hammondsport, was experimenting with his own inventions. At one point the Wright Brothers actually sued Curtiss for patent infringement; however later the U.S. District Court of Appeals ruled that anyone who wished to build a plane could do so. By 1908, the Hammondsport area was the only area in the world developing commercial aircraft. Curtiss later moved his manufacturing operations to the Buffalo area during WWI. (His plant was located where Rich Products is today.)
Lawrence Bell was another WNY aviation pioneer. He designed aircraft for the military in the 1930’s; when WWII broke out; the massive Bell plant was built in Wheatfield, in Niagara County. Between 1941 and 1944, over 9,000 planes were constructed in the plant.
Before traveling to the museums described later in this article, your first stop should be a museum we have right in our own backyard, the Niagara Aerospace Museum, in Niagara Falls, NY, where your can get an overview of the region’s role in the aviation industry.
This museum is dedicated to the thousands of area residents who contributed to the aviation and aerospace industries. Included in the museum’s large collection are research aircraft, helicopters, model planes and products made for the aviation industry.
Some of the newer exhibits include a NASA Kids Center, with hands-on exhibits designed to explain principles of flight, a new radar and sonar display and a 1917 Curtiss “Jenny,” which is currently undergoing restoration.
Author note: the Niagara Aerospace Museum has closed and the collection has been moved to the Ira H. Ross Museum in downtown Buffalo)
Several museums to choose from
The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, houses a collection of early aircraft, motorcycles, bicycles and household items that belonged to the Curtiss family. Glenn H. Curtiss (1878-1930), a Hammondsport native, was one of America’s most prominent aviation pioneers. The museum chronicles Curtiss’s life and work and includes a collection of 22 historic aircraft and a restoration shop.
Curtiss, a motorcycle manufacturer, held the title of “Fastest man on earth” for racing his Hercules motorcycle at 136.3 MPH in 1907. He soon became interested in aviation and began building and test flying aircraft in the Hammondsport area. His July 1908 flight of over 5,000 feet in his “June Bug” was the first officially recognized, pre-announced, publicly observed flight in America. In addition, Curtiss held 87 US patents for his inventions, trained the first woman pilot and was considered the “Father of naval aviation.”
Travel southeast from Hammondsport to the Elmira area, where you’ll find two more unique aviation museums. The Wings of Eagles Discovery Center (formerly the National Warplane Museum) houses a collection of military aircraft and aviation memorabilia from the early 1900’s until the present day.
Of special interest is the restoration hangar where all types of aircraft are being restored to exhibiting or flying condition by museum volunteers. According to our guide,”Everyone who volunteers here does so because they love planes.” One of the more interesting planes being restored for display is a Douglas BTD, an experimental aircraft, the only one in the world left out of twenty-nine made.
During the warmer months, you can actually take a ride in one of the three planes the museum has restored to flying condition; a 1942 Stearman PT-17, a AT-6 and a PT-19. (Flights start at $150).
A few miles away, perched high on Harris Hill, just north of the city of Elmira, “Soaring Capital of the World,” is the National Soaring Museum, home to the largest collection of gliders and sailplanes in the world. It is only one of two museums worldwide dedicated to motorless flight.
Interest in gliders began in the late 1890’s, however, once powered flight became popular, soaring took a backseat until the late 1920’s; after Charles Lindberg took his famous flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Public interest in flying grew and many people got involved in soaring because it was inexpensive and easy to learn.
There was some use of gliders in the military during WWII, including combat gliders, training gliders and transporters. After the war, soaring grew to be a popular recreational and competitive pastime. Gliders have also been used for aeronautical and scientific research.
In addition to the numerous aircraft displayed, both on the museum floor and suspended from the ceiling, the museum has several hands-on exhibits, including flight simulators that allow you to see what it is like flying and landing a sailplane.
If you want to experience soaring firsthand, the adjacent Harris Hill Soaring Center offers sailplane rides weekends April-October and daily flights during July and August (weather permitting). During your 20 minute flight you get a panoramic view of the Finger Lakes Region. (Flights are $65-75/person).
There are also a few smaller museums in the region to visit, including the 1941 Historic Aircraft Group Museum in Geneseo. This museum is dedicated to restoring and flying vintage aircraft. They have several fully restored aircraft in their fleet and their annual airshow (July 7-9, 2006) has been rated one of the top 10 airshows in North American by Aircraft Illustrated Magazine.
Dart Airport, in Mayville, has antique airplanes, engines and other aircraft memorabilia, along with model airplanes and exhibits on local history. During the warmer months they offer glider and sightseeing rides.
For a really unique treat, check out Just a “Plane” Bed & Breakfast in Fillmore in Allegany County. Craig and Audrey Smith have turned this 1926 DutchColonial home into a charming bed & breakfast inn. However, what makes it unique is that Craig, a licensed pilot, has his plane parked in a small hangar next to the inn and can take off from his own airstrip out front to take guests on a ride over nearby Letchworth State Park and the surrounding countryside. (There is a charge for the ride; however, you don’t have to be a guest of the inn to book a flight.)
If you go
Niagara Aerospace Museum (716-278-0060) 345 Third St., Niagara Falls. Tuesday-Saturday 10-3. (Note: this museum has closed since the article was published)
Glenn H. Curtiss Museum (607-569-2160) 8419 State Rd. 54, Hammondsport. Open daily 10-4, until 5 in summer.
Wings of Eagles Discovery Center (607-739-8200) 17 Aviation Drive (Elmira/ Corning Regional Airport), Horseheads. Open daily.
National Soaring Museum (607-734-3128) 51 Soaring Hill Drive, Elmira. Open daily.
Harris Hill Soaring Center (607-734-0641 or 607-796-2988).
1941 Historic Aircraft Group Museum (585-243-2100) 3489 Big Tree Lane (off NY 63) Geneseo. Open 10-4 daily.
Dart Airport (716-753-2160) 6169 Plank Rd. Mayville. Open year-round 10-dusk daily, with free admission.
Just a “Plane” Bed & Breakfast (585-567-8338) 11152 NY 19A, Filmore. (Open March-November).