I've now lived in Buffalo for about eight months and I'm only just beginning to realize the rich aviation-related history of this area. I've learned that Western New York was an important hub of aerospace technology for many years. In fact, some of America's most important and iconic aircraft and spacecraft have roots in Buffalo. My education on such matters recently got significant boost when I visited the Niagara Aerospace Museum (NAM).
The primary focus of NAM is to showcase the aviation and space-related legacy of the Buffalo area. There are numerous complete airplanes and helicopters on display, several partial ones, as well as tons of engines and other smaller artifacts. Most of the hardware was designed and built in Western New York.
NAM is located at the entrance to the Niagara Falls International Airport. It is about a 15 minute drive from the US side of the actual falls. I think it's totally feasible to fit both attractions into one day.
Preserved World War II Veteran
A centerpiece in the NAM collection is the fuselage from a WWII-era Bell P-39 Airacobra. Like many aircraft that were no longer in production when the war ended, P-39s are somewhat of a rare finds these days. A quick head count indicates three P-39s in flying condition and ten on static display in the US. Even among such exclusive company, NAM's P-39 has an exceptional and somewhat tragic history.
Like all P-39s, the example at NAM was built just a stone's throw away at the former Bell Aircraft plant. This was one of the thousands of Airacobras provided to the Soviet Air Force under the Lend-Lease program. It was flown from Buffalo to Alaska via a network of US and Canadian staging bases. Russian pilots then ferried the little fighter from Fairbanks to the western border of Russia near Finland, overflying vast stretches of the Siberian tundra.
The P-39 was not popular among US pilots who were assigned to fly the unique mid-engined fighter in combat. Russian pilots, however, generally liked their Airacobras…especially the reliable radios. A recovered log book indicates that NAM's P-39 served with the Soviet Air Force in action against the Finnish Air Force. In November of 1944, engine trouble forced Lieutenant Ivan Baranovsky to bring the Airacobra in for an emergency landing on the frozen surface of an arctic lake.
Baranovsky's squadronmates did not see him go down. He had been listed as missing for 60 years when a fisherman noticed the outline of a P-39 on the lake bottom in 2004. The Airacobra was brought to the surface. Baranovsky's remains were still in the cockpit with no apparent signs that he attempted to escape the marginally-damaged airplane after landing. Lieutenant Baranovsky was subsequently buried with military honors.
The recovered P-39 was eventually purchased by NAM and completed its round-the-world journey upon delivery to Buffalo. Decades spent in the frigid lake water have given this Airacobra a truly unique patina. Many of the original painted markings and stencils are still visible. Particularly interesting is the Russian red star painted over the "stars and bars" US insignia.
You won't find velvet ropes keeping you at a distance from the P-39…or most other artifacts at NAM. The museum allows you to get close to these pieces of history and trusts you to be respectful. I spent considerable time with the Airacobra, analyzing every ding, missing rivet, and jagged panel. It is difficult to be near this airplane and not become absorbed by its history.
The complete story of NAM's P-39 can be found in an article by Tim Wright in Air & Space Magazine.
Following WWII, Bell became a driving force in bringing helicopter technology out of its infancy. In fact, Bell Helicopter is still going strong (but now located in Fort Worth, Texas). Many people are familiar with the Bell Model 47 because of its starring role in the TV show M.A.S.H. (the Army called it the H-13 Sioux). The Bell 47 was also a successful civilian helicopter. In 1946, it became the first helicopter certified for commercial use in the US. NAM has the fifth Model 47 ever built. In stark contrast to the P-39, the Model 47 has been restored to appear factory-fresh.
I am not usually very interested in helicopters. That was not the case at NAM. Since I was allowed to get an up-close view of their Model 47 and the other early helicopters on display, I became engrossed with the mechanical aspects of them. I spent several minutes just staring at the complex rotor heads, tail rotor assemblies, and welded framework. It's fascinating stuff.
The Curtiss Connection
Another aeronautical giant formerly based in Western New York was the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company. NAM has several artifacts and displays featuring Curtiss products. Company founder, Glenn Curtiss, was an early aviation pioneer who introduced numerous innovations to airplane (and motorcycle) technology. A surge of military contracts during WWI caused a rapid expansion of Curtiss' business. By the end of the war in 1918, Curtiss employed more than 20,000 workers in his Buffalo and Hammondsport plants, making him the largest aircraft manufacturer anywhere in the world.
One of Curtiss' prime contributions to the First World War was the JN-4 Jenny. The JN-4 was used as a training aircraft by the US military and several allies. After the war, the US government sold thousands of surplus Jennies to civilians at fire-sale prices, prompting a boom in private aviation and kicking off the barnstormer era (The Great Waldo Pepper flew a Jenny).
The Jenny at NAM is notable for its nakedness. Fabric covering that would normally wrap the biplane's skeletal frame has been removed. The intricate woodwork, wire bracing, and control cables are all there to see. You get some appreciation for the amount of work that went into designing, building, and maintaining those early airplanes. The Jenny may be old-school, yet it is anything but simple.
Another Curtiss aircraft on display at NAM is a replica of the 1910 Curtiss pusher. This is one of numerous airworthy replicas of pioneer aircraft that were built (and flown) by famed aviation preservationist, Cole Palen. This aircraft is on loan from the 'Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome' in Rhinebeck, NY…a living history museum founded by Palen in 1958. Rhinebeck is another must-see New York destination for aviation fans. The museum is only open during summer months, but many of the aircraft in its collection are flown each weekend. The Glenn H Curtiss Museum is located in Hammondsport, NY. I have not yet visited, but it is on my short list. I hear it is excellent.
America's Aerospace industry has long been a family tree with few branches. A look at the handful of companies in business today, reveals several that are the result of countless mergers, acquisitions, and takeovers that can be traced back to the earliest days of flying.
One particular wall of NAM features informational signs that helped to explain the genesis of some of the aerospace companies that emerged from Western New York. The history geek in me found it really interesting. I recognized the names of several well-known company founders and engineers. What I learned is how many of these people came together and/or split apart over decades to fundamentally shape and reshape the aerospace industry in America.
Time Well Spent
NAM is not a very expansive museum. I was there for about two hours and felt like I got a thorough look at everything. Your mileage may vary. Nor is NAM a highly-polished and stuffy kind of museum. It's low-key, which is always a big plus for me. So, the next time you're in Buffalo to honeymoon at Niagara Falls…or whatever reason, set aside a few hours to visit the Niagara Aerospace Museum. You'll find some unique artifacts and learn a little about this area's contributions to aviation and space technology.
Terry is a freelance writer living in Buffalo, NY. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also hear Terry talk about RC hobbies as one of the hosts of the RC Roundtable podcast.