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History of Bell helicopters whirls back to Cheektowaga liftoff

A drugstore now sits at the corner of Union and Losson roads in Cheektowaga.

But back in the 1940s, the corner was home to Union Garage, where Arthur Young, Bartram Kelley and Floyd Carlson, among others, made aviation history.

They designed, built and tested prototypes of the first Bell helicopter.

The Cheektowaga site is being recognized Thursday morning as the birthplace of the Bell helicopter and a bronze plaque installed at that location, in an area formerly known as Gardenville. The American Helicopter Society International, a technical society for engineers, scientists and others involved in vertical flight technology, designated the location as a vertical flight heritage site.

World War II was well underway when Bell Aircraft leased the garage for helicopter development, according to Paul Faltyn, director of the Niagara Aerospace Museum in Niagara Falls, a repository for local aeronautics history – including some early Bell helicopters.

“They didn’t want to mix the helicopter with the aircraft production,” Faltyn explained.

At that time, Bell’s main plant was in Buffalo.

Everyone involved in helicopter development moved to the Cheektowaga site, which also was where the first generation of helicopter pilots was trained.

“That’s where the initial pilots learned how to fly. They had to invent the techniques used to fly the helicopter,” Faltyn said Wednesday.

Carlson, the chief pilot, was from Jamestown. He had been flying since he was a teenager, and Bell originally hired him to test fighter planes.

His son, Todd Carlson, donated most of his father’s belongings to the museum.

Todd explained that his father was the first commercial pilot to complete a helicopter rescue when he picked up two fishermen trapped while ice fishing on Lake Erie, among other accomplishments and awards. “He had a very, very fun career,” Todd Carlson said. “He loved, loved Bell.”

Young, the head designer, was a native of Pennsylvania and Kelley, the chief engineer, was from Rochester. Their descendants were invited as guests Wednesday afternoon at a private gathering featuring John Garrison, president of Bell Helicopter.

It was Young who approached Bell Aircraft about building a helicopter, Faltyn said.

Young began experimenting with model helicopters in 1928 and before approaching Bell, had developed a stabilizer bar to keep crafts level and balanced, according to the Academy of Model Aeronautics. He reached an agreement with Bell in November 1941 to supervise the building of prototypes. Within six months, the first Model 30 was ready.

In May 1944, the second prototype made the first indoor flight in the Western Hemisphere: a demonstration inside the Buffalo Armory for the Civil Aeronautics Authority, forerunner of the Federal Aviation Administration.

The third, which took flight in 1945, incorporated the use of a Plexiglas bubble to shield passengers from the weather.

Piloted by Carlson, the second prototype was pressed into action in emergency situations, just as helicopters commonly are used today. In January 1945, it carried a doctor to help an injured Bell test pilot who was snowbound in a house south of Lockport. Two months later, it picked up two men from a crumbling ice floe on Lake Erie.

Helicopter production moved from Cheektowaga to Bell’s new main plant in Wheatfield in June 1945. Benefiting from their experiences with the Model 30 prototypes, crews quickly developed another: the Model 47.

With Carlson at the controls in March 1946, the Model 47 received certification from the CAA. It was the first American commercial helicopter and also was adopted for military use.

After Bell created a Helicopter Division in 1951, related activities moved to Texas.

News Staff Reporter Christopher Jasper contributed to this report. email: jhabuda@buffnews.com