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Museums take flight in Western New York

When you think of aviation history, your first thought will probably be of the Wright brothers and Kitty Hawk; however, our own Western New York area actually played a major role in the development of manned flight. There are numerous museums located throughout our region that pay tribute to aviation history, from the early days to the war years and beyond.

During the early 20th century, Western New York was one of the country's leading aviation centers. Many of the early flying enthusiasts belonged to some of the numerous cycling clubs popular in this area in the late 1800s. A group interested in winged flight formed the Aero Club of Buffalo, the oldest aero club in America. Often members would try out their inventions on what is now the Grover Cleveland Golf Course at Main Street and Bailey Avenue.

Around the same time, Glenn Curtiss, a motorcycle manufacturer in Hammondsport, was experimenting with his own inventions. At one point, the Wright Brothers actually sued Curtiss for patent infringement; however, later the U.S. District Court of Appeals ruled that anyone who wished to build a plane could do so. By 1908, the Hammondsport area was the only area in the world developing commercial aircraft. Curtiss later moved his manufacturing operations to the Buffalo area during World War I. (His plant was located where Rich Products is today.)

Lawrence Bell was another Western New York aviation pioneer, designing aircraft for the military in the 1930s. When World War II broke out, the massive Bell plant was built in Wheatfield, in Niagara County. Between 1941 and 1944, more than 9,000 planes were constructed in the plant.

Your first stop should be a museum we have right in our own backyard, the Niagara Aerospace Museum, in Niagara Falls, where you can get an overview of the region's role in the aviation industry.

This museum is dedicated to the thousands of area residents who contributed to the aviation and aerospace industries. Included in the museum's large collection are research aircraft, helicopters, model planes and products made for the aviation industry.

Some of the newer exhibits include a NASA Kids Center, with hands-on exhibits designed to explain principles of flight, a new radar and sonar display and a 1917 Curtiss "Jenny," which is currently undergoing restoration.

The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport houses a collection of early aircraft, motorcycles, bicycles and household items that belonged to the Curtiss family. The museum chronicles Curtiss's life and work and includes a collection of 22 historic aircraft and a restoration shop.

Curtiss held the title of "fastest man on earth" for racing his Hercules motorcycle at 136.3 MPH in 1907. He soon became interested in aviation and began building and test-flying aircraft in the Hammondsport area. His July 1908 flight of over 5,000 feet in his "June Bug" was the first officially recognized, pre-announced, publicly observed flight in America. In addition, Curtiss held 87 U.S. patents for his inventions, trained the first woman pilot and was considered the "father of naval aviation."

Travel southeast from Hammondsport to the Elmira area, where you'll find two more unique aviation museums. The Wings of Eagles Discovery Center (formerly the National Warplane Museum) houses a collection of military aircraft and aviation memorabilia from the early 1900s to the present day. Of special interest is the restoration hangar where all types of aircraft are being restored to exhibiting or flying condition by museum volunteers.

According to our guide, "Everyone who volunteers here does so because they love planes." One of the more interesting planes being restored for display is a Douglas BTD, an experimental aircraft, the only one in the world left of the twenty-nine that were made.

During the warmer months, you can actually take a ride in one of the three planes the museum has restored to flying condition. Flights start at $150.

A few miles away, perched high on Harris Hill just north of Elmira, the "Soaring Capital of the World," is the National Soaring Museum, home to the world's largest collection of gliders and sailplanes. It is only one of two museums worldwide dedicated to motorless flight.

Interest in gliders began in the late 1890s. But once powered flight became popular, soaring took a backseat until the late 1920s. After Charles Lindberg took his famous flight across the Atlantic Ocean, public interest in flying grew and many people got involved in soaring because it was inexpensive and easy to learn.

There was some use of gliders in the military during World War II, including combat gliders, training gliders and transporters. After the war, soaring grew to be a popular recreational and competitive pastime. Gliders have also been used for aeronautical and scientific research.

In addition to the numerous aircraft displayed, both on the museum floor and suspended from the ceiling, the museum has several hands-on exhibits, including flight simulators that allow you to see what it is like flying and landing a sailplane.

If you want to experience soaring firsthand, the adjacent Harris Hill Soaring Center offers sailplane rides weekends April through October and daily flights during July and August (weather permitting). During the 20-minute flights, you'll see a panoramic view of the Finger Lakes Region. Flights are $65-$75 a person.

There are also a few smaller museums in the region to visit, including the 1941 Historical Aircraft Group Museum in Geneseo. This museum is dedicated to restoring and flying vintage aircraft. It has 25 restored aircraft in its fleet including an early 1980's Russian-designed, Polish-built Antonov, nicknamed "Natasha," the largest bi-plane built. Its annual airshow (July 7-9 this year), rated one of the Top 10 airshows in North American by Aircraft Illustrated magazine, features more than 100 World War II, Korean and Vietnam-era planes. Keeping with the 1941 theme, a corner of one of the hangars has two rooms full of 1940s era domestic artifacts.

Dart Airport in Mayville has antique airplanes, engines and other aircraft memorabilia, along with model airplanes and exhibits on local history. During the warmer months, they offer glider and sightseeing rides.

For a really unique treat, check out Just a "Plane" Bed & Breakfast in Fillmore in Allegany County. Craig and Audrey Smith have turned this 1926 Dutch Colonial home into a charming bed & breakfast inn. What makes it unique is that Craig Smith, a licensed pilot, has his plane parked in a small hangar next to the inn. He can take off from his own airstrip out front to take guests on a ride over nearby Letchworth State Park and the surrounding countryside. (There is a charge for the ride; however, you don't have to be a guest of the inn to book a flight.)

>If you go

* Niagara Aerospace Museum, 345 Third St., Niagara Falls. Info: 278-0060, www.niagaramuseum.org. Hours: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.

* Glenn H. Curtiss Museum, 8419 State Road 54, Hammondsport. Info: (607) 569-2160, www.glennhcurtissmuseum.org. Open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; until 5 p.m. in the summer.

* Wings of Eagles Discovery Center, 17 Aviation Drive (Elmira/Corning Regional Airport), Horseheads. Info: (607) 739-8200, www.wingsofeagles.com. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

* National Soaring Museum, 51 Soaring Hill Drive, Elmira. Info: (607) 734-3128, www.soaringmuseum.org. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

* Harris Hill Soaring Center, (607) 734-0641, (607) 796-2988, www.harrishillsoaring.org. Public rides resume the first weekend in April.

* 1941 Historic Aircraft Group Museum, 3489 Big Tree Lane (off NY 63) Geneseo. Info: (585) 243-2100, www.1941hag.org. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, October through March; and seven days from April through September.

* Dart Airport, 6169 Plank Road, Mayville. Info: 753-2160. Open year-round, 10 a.m. to dusk daily, with free admission.

* Just a "Plane" Bed & Breakfast, 11152 NY 19A, Fillmore. Info: (585) 567-8338.

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