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WINGS OF THE PAST
FROM BELL AIRCRAFT TO CURTIS-WRIGHT, THE HISTORY OF AVIATION IS CLOSELY LINKED TO WESTERN NEW YORK'S OWN HISTORY. A HIGH-SPEED TOUR OF THE WAY WE CONQUERED THE SKIES.

Buffalo's new airport terminal reflects in steel and glass an aeronautical tradition that once soared on wings of imagination.

Pride in the past and hope for the future mingle in the latest look for the 71-year-old Buffalo Niagara International Airport, with its roof lines sweeping skyward and its mosaic floors depicting the history of the Niagara Frontier.

Once, Buffalo was to airplanes as Detroit is to motorcars -- cutting-edge and leading the nation.

"It was close to being the cradle of aviation in this country," said former Bell Aircraft engineer Dexter Rosen, a member of the Niagara Frontier Aviation Hall of Fame.

Glenn Curtiss and the Wright Brothers met here, at the headquarters of the nation's oldest aero club, when they all were in town in 1910 for the Wright's patent-infringement lawsuit against Curtiss' fledgling company.

World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker, rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and superstar test pilot Chuck Yeager all have addressed the Buffalo Aero Club, second in the world only to the renowned Federation Aeronautique Internationale of France.

An outgrowth of even earlier motoring and bicycle clubs, the group incorporated in 1910 -- seven years after Kitty Hawk, two years after Curtiss' first flights near Hammondsport and the same year Buffalonian George Adell built a biplane and flew it across the Niagara River to Canada.

"We organized when the Wright Brothers were still experimenting with their Walloping Windowpane," claimed the late John M. Satterfield, the first Aero Club president and the "father of aviation" on the Niagara Frontier.

Pilots were as important as the machines. Forty members of the Aero Club raised money and bought planes to organize America's first flying squadron in 1914, joining the New York National Guard a year later before being called to Army Signal Corps duty for the Mexican Border Expedition of 1917.

Several left Mexico for volunteer duty in World War I; Nathaniel E. Duffy, director of the Buffalo Airport from 1927 to 1960, became the first American flier to fight in France, and a member of the famed Lafayette Escadrille.

Buffalo built hundreds of aircraft for World War I, tens of thousands for World War II. Three major aircraft companies and a handful of smaller ones would locate here, before a post-war slump saw Buffalo's pre-eminence fade.

Even in its diminished years, though, Niagara Frontier aerospace engineers would help send planetary probes into space, put the country's first manned space capsule into orbit and help bring back explorers from the moon.

In the new airport terminal, visitors will find a Bell Model 47 helicopter -- the first commercially licensed helicopter, a 1946 design so noteworthy that another of the three prototypes is displayed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

And despite the terminal's own dramatic design, there is still another modern structure in America that reflects Buffalo's aviation history -- the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Visitors entering that complex can look up to see two Buffalo-built planes suspended from the ceiling of the central "Milestones of Flight" hall. The Bell X-1 supersonic plane and the pioneering Bell P-59 jet share space with the Wright Flyer, Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis and a Mercury space capsule that relied on Buffalo-built reaction controls.

Down one main corridor, more spacecraft -- including an Apollo lunar lander with Buffalo-built ascent engines -- draw on those traditions as well. Down the other sits a Curtiss P-40 "Flying Tigers" Warhawk, one of thousands built at a plant next to the airport during World War II.

For Buffalo, the aviation firsts are legion.

Bell Aircraft, formed by Lawrence D. Bell after Consolidated Aircraft moved to California in 1935, can claim the lion's share: the world's first supersonic airplane, America's first jet, first commercial helicopter, first jet with variable swept wings, first American vertical takeoff and landing jet, world's first individual rocket belts and jet packs, America's first air-cushion vehicle and several control and component design innovations.

Curtiss, later Curtiss-Wright, pioneered quantity-produced military aircraft with its famed "Jenny" biplanes and Navy flying boats and produced the first specially designed transports and airmail planes, the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic, and the Navy's first dive-bombers and carrier planes.

Cornell Aeronautical Laboratories, later Calspan, developed the first "fly-by-wire" airplane and the first plane to use fiber optic cable controls, the first large supersonic wind tunnel, and the first in-flight simulator aircraft.

Sports domes around the country also owe something to CAL's development of the first air-supported radar domes for remote places like the DEW Line -- a technology that formed the basis for Bird-Air Co. locally based dome and building business.

Local aviation industries not only launched pilots, they brought them back. Automatic landing systems were developed here -- long after Buffalonian Leslie L. Irvin developed the parachute, made at a company that later relocated to Fort Erie, Ont.

While Bell developed the Agena engine, a series of missiles and some key control systems for use on the Ranger and Mariner space probes, Scott Aviation was developing the oxygen systems demonstrated by cabin attendants on every commercial flight -- and Moog Servocontrols was developing the quick-response controls that made many modern flight innovations possible.

Buffalo even gave the nation its first "traffic copter," in the 1950s when Jack Prior was chief pilot for Heusler Aviation.

Once, Buffalo's aviation industry -- combined with its hydropower, shipping, railroad and steel dominance -- placed it third on the War Department's strategic targets list during World War II, behind only Detroit and San Francisco. Curtiss contributed 24,342 airplanes and Bell 13,392 fighters and bombers to the war effort.

Today, the plants are empty and the bustle is still. But the memories remain -- along with Buffalo's pioneering role in aviation history.