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Local aviation experts are calling it a priceless discovery.

The original logbook and other 55-year-old documents from the first commercial helicopter ever built in the United States have turned up in Tennessee.

The find is of great local importance because the helicopter was built at the former Bell Aircraft plant on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Wheatfield.

"These documents are priceless when you consider their historical significance," said veteran pilot Paul Faltyn, who is co-founder and vice president of the Niagara Aerospace Museum. "This particular aircraft paved the way for the helicopter industry as we know it today."

Faltyn compared the acquisition of the logbook and other papers with having original documents from aviation pioneers, the Wright brothers, who first took to the air in 1903.

"This helicopter was to the rotor-wing industry what the first Wright brothers plane was to world aviation," said Faltyn, who knows aviation. He is executive vice president of Aero Instruments and Avionics of Wheatfield, which services instrumentation, communications and autopilot systems for commercial airlines worldwide.

The helicopter -- Bell Model 47, serial number 1 -- belonged to the same series of choppers used by MASH units in the Korean War, said Hugh M. Neeson of Amherst, whose 44-year aviation career spanned the Niagara operations of Bell Aircraft Corp., Bell Aerospace Textron and Lockheed Martin.

"The logbook recorded all the flight testing and other developmental problems in the evolution of the helicopter," Neeson said. "This was a trailblazing helicopter, and any documentation is of great importance."

"It reflects the life of the aircraft and represents the basic helicopter history of Bell Aircraft," said John E. Heine, past president of the aerospace museum's board of trustees.

Museum Executive Director Richard Byron called it "a vital part of the beginning of helicopters."

Bell manufactured more than 5,000 Model 47 helicopters over 30 years. The first ever made -- the NC-1H -- was destroyed in a crash while taking off from Niagara Falls Airport on April 3, 1946, after only 75 hours and 42 minutes of flight time, according to records. Bell instructor pilot E.F. "Ed" Hensley and student pilot G.A. Demming were able to walk away from the accident.

A helicopter similar to the NC-1H is on display in the museum. Known simply as Serial No. 67, "it is one of the rarest helicopters known to exist today," said Faltyn.

"This helicopter was one of the first to be used for crop-dusting and insect control and it has the original spraying equipment that Bell Aircraft designed in 1946," Faltyn said.

The chopper was recovered from Argentina, where it had been sent to help eradicate a locust plague in 1947, he said.

The logbook and other original documents from the NC-1H will be donated to the Niagara Aerospace Museum here to mark the 55th anniversary March 8 of the chopper's certification by the Civil Aeronautics Board, the forerunner of the Federal Aviation Administration.

The logbook, along with the helicopter's airworthiness certificate, registration certificate and operation limitations, have been donated to the museum by former Niagara Falls resident Richard Myers, who now lives in Corryton, Tenn.

Myers' father, Richard, was a pilot and mechanic at Bell Aircraft during the company's boom years in the 1940s and would have been involved with the production of the NC-1H. When Bell moved its helicopter division to Fort Worth, Texas, in 1951, the Myers family moved there also.

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