April 8, 1925 – Jan. 26, 2014
Jack B. Prior, founder of Prior Aviation Services and a major figure in Western New York aeronautical history, died Sunday in Canterbury Woods, Amherst. He was 88.
Mr. Prior, who piloted the nation’s first traffic reporting helicopter in the 1950s, went on to head a charter flight operation based at Buffalo Niagara International Airport and was instrumental in establishing the Niagara Aerospace Museum.
Born to American parents in Bowmansville, Ont., a suburb of Oshawa, he moved to Buffalo’s Riverside section with his family in 1937. He attended School 60 and Burgard Vocational High School, which had a highly regarded aviation curriculum.
He first took to the air in 1940 as a passenger aboard a Piper Cub flown from the Tonawanda Airport on Military Road. In April 1943, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces Aviation Cadet Program.
Chosen to attend pilot school at the end of World War II, when there was no longer a great need for pilots, he survived a rigorous wash-out process and graduated from flight school in May 1945. He completed his tour of duty at Brooks Army Air Field in San Antonio.
Mr. Prior then served for more than two decades in the Air Force Reserve, attaining the rank of major.
Returning from active duty, he worked as a flight instructor and crop duster out of a Lockport airfield, then became an instructor and charter pilot for Mastercraft Aviation, based at the Buffalo airport site.
Beginning in 1949, he was a corporate pilot for local businesses. In the mid-1950s, he became chief pilot for the newly formed Heussler Aviation and in 1958 helped form Helicopter Services of Buffalo.
One of the first helicopter operations in the area, it became well-known for its WEBR Traffic Copter, which gave live highway reports from the air with Mr. Prior as pilot and future Amherst Supervisor Jack Sharpe as announcer.
Mr. Prior did pingpong ball and Easter egg drops from the helicopter, piloted the helicopter arrival of Santa Clauses throughout upstate New York, provided air services for the Grand Prix races at Watkins Glen and formed a Copter Copilots Club that had 43,000 youngsters as members.
In 1961, the company was dissolved, and Mr. Prior joined with local businessmen to form Prior Aviation Service. Based at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, the company provides ground handling, aircraft fueling, aircraft maintenance and flight training, in addition to offering a terminal for its own charter flights and other private planes.
To celebrate the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, Mr. Prior flew a vintage DC-3 from Buffalo to Iceland. He piloted a biplane for a scene in “The Natural,” when it was filmed here in 1984.
Mr. Prior was a past president of the Buffalo Aero Club and the AAA of Western and Central New York. He also was a past president of the Country Club of Buffalo and was a deputy in the Erie County Sheriff’s Aviation Reserve Division.
A charter member of the Niagara Frontier Aviation and Space Hall of Fame, he was instrumental in keeping the only surviving Bell X-22A experimental aircraft in Western New York for display in the Niagara Aerospace Museum.
He was presented the Federal Aviation Administration’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996. He served as a pilot examiner for the FAA for more than 30 years.
A golfing enthusiast, he also enjoyed boating and gin rummy.
His wife of 43 years, Frances A. Ammerman Prior, died May 2.
Survivors include a son, John Bryan; a stepson, David Bain; a stepdaughter, Wendy Burdette; and three grandchildren.
A memorial gathering will be held at a later date at the Country Club of Buffalo.