Western New York aviation buffs are fighting a last-ditch battle to keep a military helicopter from airlifting a pioneering airplane out of Buffalo.
Plans now call for an Air National Guard heavy-lifting helicopter to pick up the last remaining Bell X-22 experimental aircraft Friday and lift it over the suburbs en route to a Schenectady-area museum.
"Unless the Secretary of the Navy intervenes, the last of the 40,000 aircraft built in Western New York will be departing the scene," said Jack Beilman, the longtime manager for Bell's X-22 project.
The aircraft was a pioneering effort in vertical takeoff and landing designs, featuring four large fanlike ducts that rotated from the vertical to horizontal positions for normal flight.
After the program ended, the Navy assigned the last X-22 to its National Museum of Naval Aviation at the Pensacola (Fla.) Naval Air Station. That museum promptly lent it to the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, keeping it in storage in Western New York.
After years in a series of Buffalo Airport hangars owned by Calspan, Prior Aviation and Sierra Research, the 40-foot aircraft was encased in bright blue shrink-wrap in November 1995 for outdoor storage at the airport.
"We had hoped at one time it would be included as part of the new (airport) terminal," said Beilman.
Now, however, the Navy aviation museum has decided to lend the aircraft to the Empire Aero Science Museum in Scotia. That museum plans to dispatch a CH-47 helicopter here Thursday to prepare for Friday's planned lift.
The transfer, ironically, comes at a time when aviation museums again are active in this region. The Niagara Aerospace Museum has begun installing collections at the Summit Park Mall, and a Canadian group is talking to city officials about locating a "Wings of Flight" Aerospace Center here.
Beilman and other members of the former Amherst aviation group also have been working with the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park on a possible display facility for the X-22 and may try to get local congressmen to intercede with the Navy.
The X-22 was the last in a line of Bell experimental aircraft that included the pioneering supersonic X-1, and of an even larger line of military fighters turned out here in the war years.
The odd-looking aircraft, sometimes irreverently dubbed the "flying roller skate," also provided key insights into automated "heads-up" cockpit displays for pilots, and landing techniques.
"There are a number of things we did with that aircraft that were the first in the world," Beilman said.