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First Buffalo-built airplane lands at Smithsonian – and it's not a Curtiss

After a wait of more than 60 years, what’s believed to be the first airplane built in Buffalo has gone on display in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's annex.

The aircraft, the Olmsted Pusher, was donated to the museum in 1955 by the estate of Charles M. Olmsted, an aeronautical engineer who was a distant cousin of renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

“It’s a cool airplane,” says Karl Heinzl, former deputy shop supervisor of the museum, who came out of retirement to work on it as a volunteer. “It’s incredibly unique just in its construction and the ideas employed in the way it was built. It was light years ahead of anything that was built in 1911.

“Everybody else was building a box kite in 1911,” he explains. “This thing is extremely aerodynamic. And the workmanship is just impeccable. It’s a piece of artwork, it really is. It’s a joy to look at.”

It was not the first aircraft that Olmsted constructed.

He “was not the first in the U.S. to design, build and fly a glider, which he did at the age of 13 in 1894, but he was probably the first child to do so," according a biography written by his grandson, Garrett Olmsted, a professor emeritus at Bluefield State College in West Virginia. "During the following year, he made the longest glider flight ever achieved in America till that time.”

Charles M. Olmsted. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Hiday)

Olmsted, who grew up in LeRoy, attended Harvard University, where he studied under astronomer Edward C. Pickering, then did graduate work in Germany at Göttingen University and Wilhelm Institute in Bonn. He was presented with his doctorate degree by Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Returning to do research at the Carnegie Solar Institute at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California, he began calculating how to get the greatest efficiency from airplane propellers and was the first to test full-size propellers in a wind tunnel. His minimum induced loss propeller design is still used in windmills today.

Olmsted returned to Western New York in 1909 when the Buffalo Pitts Co., a leading manufacturer of threshers, steam engines for tractors and other farm equipment, decided to expand into airplanes.

Olmsted was given $50,000 and designed a sleek plane of thin-gauge chrome vanadium steel and other material, incorporating many innovations. It would be driven by his high-efficiency propeller, mounted as a “pusher,” behind the engine, like many other planes at the time.

In 1910, Olmsted and Buffalo Pitts formed a syndicate and became only the third company in the nation, after the Wright Brothers and Curtiss, to be incorporated as an aircraft maker.

Olmsted began building a prototype in the Buffalo Pitts factory, where the Waterfront Elementary School now stands, but work stopped before the tail could be completed. Buffalo Pitts ran out of money. The company, having sold much of its farm equipment on the installment plan, collapsed financially in an agricultural recession and went bankrupt in 1912.

Olmsted established his own firm to make his propellers, which were used by Glenn Curtiss in the flying boat seaplanes America and Edith in 1914 and in various World War I military planes. They also drove the Curtiss NC-4 flying boat that made the first transatlantic flight from North America to Europe in 1919.

He collaborated with Alcoa to develop the first aluminum propeller, but the project came to a halt when the aircraft business crashed after World War I. Olmsted’s company closed in 1919.

He went on to teach at the University at Buffalo, worked with a group researching cosmic rays and, for a while, managed a government building.

In 1942, six years before his death, he introduced the design of a low-flying, high-capacity transport plane that skimmed over water using the wing-in-ground effect, taking advantage of the aerodynamic interaction between the wings and the water surface. The concept gave rise to Howard Hughes’ famous “Spruce Goose” transport plane and the Soviet Union’s massive “Caspian Sea Monster.”

Garrett Olmsted, the grandson of Charles M. Olmsted, talks about the Olmsted Pusher airplane on Oct. 24, 2017, at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., where the plane designed by Charles Olmsted is on exhibit. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Hiday)

His Olmsted Pusher plane, meanwhile, gathered dust in the Buffalo Pitts plant. When the company shut down completely in 1935, the Olmsted family moved the craft to a museum in LeRoy, where it remained until it was donated to the Air and Space Museum.

“We acquired many things in that period and not everything was in exhibition condition,” says Peter L. Jakab, chief curator of the National Air and Space Museum. “Unfortunately, something always came up and the project got delayed.”

So the plane sat in crates on pallets in the museum’s Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Maryland. After the museum opened its Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center on the edge of Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia in 2003, it was taken there.

“I met with Garrett about a year ago,” Jakab says, “and we thought maybe we could put the components on display in our restoration shop. Karl has come in on a volunteer basis to do some conservation work and here was an opportunity to bring the components out. He’s been stabilizing and working on them.”

The Olmsted Pusher will not be restored to look like new, he says, but will be maintained in its current condition.

“The plane was cut in three pieces,” says Heinzl, whose work has included the museum’s restoration of the original Wright Flyer. “What I had to do is design three stands in such a way as to support all three pieces independently and put them together for the appearance of a complete center section.”

Garrett Olmsted holds up images of the Olmsted Pusher plane that his grandfather, Charles M. Olmsted, designed in Buffalo. The plane, the first built in Buffalo, is on display at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Hiday)

Now it’s finally gone on exhibit in Udvar-Hazy’s huge aircraft display hangar, underneath the Concorde jet and next to a much better-known antique biplane, the original Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny.”

“The majority of the airplane is in great shape for its age,” Heinzl says. “The biggest problem with it is, the plywood is deteriorating. You have to get in there and very meticulously glue little bits of plywood back into the ribs.

“I try to do two days a week on it,” he adds. “I will be out there on the floor. If anybody from the public wants to ask me a question about it, they can do that.”

Jakab says the Olmsted plane will highlight a forgotten facet of the early days of flight.

“We have aircraft from the big names of this period,” he explains, “but what people don’t realize is that there were hundreds of people building planes in this early period below the radar. It’s very important in the collection because it represents those people.”

The plane and its creator will get further recognition in 2019. That’s when Purdue University Press is due to publish Garrett Olmsted’s biography of his grandfather in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the first transatlantic flight. Its tentative title: “Buffalo Wings.”

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