If you're ever soaring above the clouds in an airplane, helicopter or above the atmosphere in a rocket, you can thank Western New York. While Buffalo wasn't the first in flight, it boasted a lot of other aviation firsts.
When you think of aviation history, you probably think of the Wright Brothers and their flight in North Carolina. Buffalo, New York probably doesn't come to mind, but Western New York was actually one of the world's leading aviation centers from the 1900s through World War II.
"The aviation history of Buffalo is almost unmatched," said Walter Gordon, the Buffalo Aero Club President.
In fact, Buffalo has the oldest Aero club in the country and second oldest in the world. Its members flew the first blimp.
Buffalo's commercial aviation history really starts in the early 1900s, when Glenn Curtiss, a motorcycle manufacturer in Hammondsport, was experimenting with developing an aircraft. And by 1908, he was the only one in the world working on a commercial aircraft.
"He ended up doing as much for aviation as the Wright Brothers. Some people believe Glenn Curtiss was more important than the Wright brothers," said Gordon.
During WWI, Curtiss moved his plant to the Buffalo area, which had more resources. Curtiss designed a number of planes, including the first flying boat, the first plane to take off from a ship, and the 1917 Curtiss Jenny, which was the first mass produced aircraft.
“During WWI, 95 percent of the allied pilots learned how to fly on the Curtiss Jenny. Some of the notables that learned to fly were Eddie Rickenbacker, Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh all learned in the Curtiss Jenny,” said Paul Faltyn, the Niagara Aerospace Museum Curator.
Gordon added, "By 1918, when World War I came to an end, the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company in Buffalo, NY was the largest aircraft manufacturer in the entire world."
Curtiss' plans were integral in the World War efforts.
“They designed and built the NC4 which is the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic. They built the Curtiss C46 commando, at the time was the world’s largest transport aircraft,” said Faltyn.
Curtiss was one of many airplane manufacturers in Western New York.
Consolidated Aircraft was founded in Buffalo in 1923. They created the U.S. air mail service.
When they moved to California for better year-round weather to test airplanes, two key employees stayed behind to start Bell Aircraft.
“Bell Aircraft is probably responsible for some of the most life changing events in aviation,” said Faltyn.
Bell also secretly built the first American Jet Plane in what is now the Tri-Main building in Buffalo.
"When the aircraft was completed they needed to transport it to California for flight testing they actually put a fake propeller on it so people wouldn't know that they developed a jet fighter,” said Faltyn.
Even their testing of the jet plane was done in a way to keep the project secret.
"Army air corps pilots were always trying to find out what was going on the research side. So one day he [the pilot] put on his gorilla mask and his bowler hat with the big cigar and flew up alongside this P38, Waved to the pilot then hit the throttle and took off. Well the RVR corps pilot was shocked because he had never seen an aircraft without a propeller and wasn’t going to tell anybody that he saw an airplane without a propeller on it being flown by a gorilla wearing a hat smoking a cigar,” said Faltyn.
Bell also built the first plane to break the sound barrier and developed the first commercial helicopter.
"The Bell helicopter is credited with rescuing over 50,000 allied and American soldiers during the Korean War alone,” said Faltyn.
After the World Wars ended, there was less demand for planes, and many companies shut down or consolidated.
Even though airplanes aren’t manufactured here in Buffalo and Western New York anymore, there are companies manufacturing components for the next generation of aviation.
“We’re making the components that steer them through space and navigate them safely, you know above the air, and under water with the Bell gravitometer systems for nebular submarines,” said Faltyn.
And Bell's components have now been to the final frontier.
“Bell made the Agena Engine, which became part of the Agena upper stage, which was probably the most accomplished upper stage rocket in history. The Bell Agena engine powered the first U.S. spacecraft, and we’re talking the early 60s here. The first U.S. spacecraft to go to the moon, Mars and Venus, they all got there courtesy of Bell engines,” said Gordon.
The lunar module assent engine used in the first trip to the moon and the simulator for astronauts to practice landing was made in Niagara Falls by Bell engineers, many of whom are still alive today.
“This is the rocket that lifted the astronauts off the face of the moon if that thing didn’t work Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would still be sitting up there today,” said Faltyn.
Gordon added, “Armstrong went on the record after saying if it were not for the training he had in the Bell Lunar landing training vehicle, and how good it was, and how close it was to the lunar module, he didn’t think that he would have been able to make that landing successfully and the Apollo program would have a very different ending.”
Western New York's aviation contributions are still flourishing today.
"We have companies like Cal Span which is probably one of the world leaders in in-flight simulation, wind tunnel testing, they’re very innovative company, they’re involved in military contracts that you know changes the way the aircraft fly and they’re operated throughout the world. Then you have Moog in East Aurora, they probably have a part on every commercial and military aircraft in the free world,” said Faltyn.
Today, Western New York's Aviation history can be experienced at the Niagara Aerospace Museum in Niagara Falls.
“Many of the docents, the people who take you on tours through the museum, are engineers who worked on this stuff over their careers, so not only will you see some of the things, some of the amazing things, there’s a lunar assent engine in the museum and you might be given a tour by a gentleman that worked on it. It’s possible,” said Gordon.
Even though the Niagara Aerospace Museum in Niagara Falls is showcasing more than 100 years of aviation history, they have plenty more artifacts behind the scenes and they’re hoping to expand to put everything on display.
Explore more of NY's Aviation History: