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Return of aerospace exhibits to Niagara Falls offers new start

Another win for Niagara Falls: Following the high-wire walk across the falls by Nik Wallenda, the establishment of a culinary institute in a once-closed building and a state-engineered rescue from a state-engineered funding crisis, the city can celebrate another dose of good news: The grounded Niagara Aerospace Museum is about to take flight again at Niagara Falls International Airport.

The museum was once housed in downtown Niagara Falls before losing its lease to Seneca Gaming Corp. offices. Its last home was in Buffalo’s First Niagara Center, but that ended last year. It was a shame, since the Canalside district seems about to blast off, itself.

Since then, the exhibits have been stored in the former Bell Aircraft Plant in Wheatfield, where the museum also has a research library and restoration facility. While staff members have continued to collect, restore and preserve artifacts, the museum has been open only by appointment.

That’s been the region’s loss. Many Americans – including many Western New Yorkers – aren’t aware of the prominent role Niagara Falls played in the aviation and aerospace industry. It is well worth celebrating.

Among the museum’s collection are the second-oldest Bell helicopter known to exist, a restored 1917 Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” single-engine biplane and a Bell X-22. All have ties to the region, as does – get this – a Bell Rocket Belt, which Hugh M. Neeson, museum development director and a retired Bell executive, once called perhaps “the least meaningful but most widely recognized” byproduct of local aerospace research.

The 1960s jet pack, which could lift the pilot into flight that lasted 30 seconds, had been loaned to the British War Museum, where it was part of an exhibit about the James Bond movie “Thunderball,” which famously included a rocket belt flight.

The museum will also offer exhibits on local companies that continue to contribute to aerospace engineering, including Moog, which is based in East Aurora.

The museum will be renting space from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which owns the airport. The building has been vacant since the NFTA opened its new terminal in 2009.

The challenge facing museum leaders now will be to change its status as the region’s best-kept secret. It has never benefited from the recognition it deserves.

Part of the task in moving it to the airport grounds must also be to spread the word about an attraction that should be second only to the falls. That will require some collaborative effort, but once people know the museum is there, it’s hard to imagine that a good percentage of them won’t want to see its exhibits. That would be particularly true of travelers waiting in the new terminal: a captive audience.

Here’s hoping this is the last move this museum has to make, and that it will become a destination in Western New York. It has drifted too long.