Aviation Sights of Long Island

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1. Long Island’s Aviation Seed

The aviation seed planted on Long Island’s Hempstead Plains in 1909, when Glenn Curtiss had first flown above it in his Golden Flyer biplane, had sprouted and grown over a six-decade period until it had ultimately connected its own soil with that of its moon.

Its many aerospace sights, depicting its general aviation, commercial, military, and space branches, and geographically spread between Garden City and Calverton, recount this journey.

2. Cradle of Aviation Museum

The Cradle of Aviation Museum, located on Museum Row in Garden City near the Coliseum, Nassau Community College, and Hofstra University, tells most of Long Island’s aerospace story.

Tracing its origin to 1979, when then-County Executive Francis T. Purcell designated funds to restore two aircraft hangars at former Mitchel Field, it displayed several dozen aircraft until it closed for renovation in 1995. The 130,000-square-foot, $40 million facility, opening on the 75th anniversary of Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in 2002, showcases more than 70 air- and spacecraft, 11 of which are one-of-a-kind designs, associated with or constructed on Long Island and uncovered during a 20-year search which had stretched from the bottom of Lake Michigan to Guadalcanal. They had then been restored and preserved by retired airline and defense aircraft manufacturer volunteers who collectively contributed some 650,000 man-hours to the project. The result had been Long Island’s largest, year-round, educational, recreational, and cultural institution.

According to New York State Governor George E. Pataki, museum visitors “can see the brief span of years that brought Long Island from hosting the fragile biplanes of 1911 to building the Lunar Module that took mankind to the moon in the sixties. Through these displays, the Cradle becomes a powerful mirror that reflects our own skills, intellect, and ability to conquer time and space and pays tribute to American innovation and pioneering spirit.”

The Cradle of Aviation Museum, dominated by its impressive, four-story, glass atrium Reckson Center, greets visitors with a ceiling-suspended Grumman F-11A Tiger supersonic fighter in Blue Angels livery and a 1929 Fleet 2 biplane trainer, symbolically representing the soaring ascent of Long Island’s aviation heritage.

The main exhibits, located in eight galleries in the two restored Army Air Corps Hangars 3 and 4 which still bear the words “Mitchel Field. Elev 90 Feet” on their facades, and now designated the Donald Everett Axinn Air and Space Hall, are accessed by a second floor skywalk at whose entrance a third ceiling-suspended replica of a 1922 Sperry Messenger biplane designed by the Lawrence Sperry Aircraft Company of Farmingdale hangs.

According to the skywalk’s plaque, “Long Island has been at the forefront of American’s aviation and space adventure for the past one hundred years…It all started here on Long Island’s Hempstead Plains.”

A one-flight descent leads to the first of the museum’s galleries, “Dream of Wings.” Depicting the triumph of flight with lighter-than-air craft, it demonstrates how balloon, kite, glider, and airship experimentations turned the dream of flight into reality and led to its heavier-than-air successors, displaying aerostatic lift generation, Alexander Graham Bell’s tetrahedral kite, an Otto Lilienthal glider, and a 1906 Timmons kite built in Queens, the museum’s oldest flying exhibit. A 20-hp Glenn Curtiss airship engine, designed two years later, and a Mineola Bike Shop, demonstrating, in the Wright Brothers’ vein, the technology transfer from the bicycle to the aircraft with propellers and wings, round out the exhibits.

The “Hempstead Plains” gallery, the next encountered, represents a 1910 air meet. Amid recordings of turning propellers and accelerating aircraft, a collection of early designs graces the grass-carpeted field and includes an original Bleriot XI of 1909, the world’s fourth-oldest, still-operational airframe; a spruce-and-bamboo replica of Glenn Curtiss’s Golden Flyer, the first heavier-than-air airplane to fly over Long Island; a replica of a Wright Brothers’ Vin Fiz; a Hanriot monoplane; a Farman biplane, a 1911 Anzani engine; and a 1913 Studebaker “motor car.”

During World War I, as evidenced by the succeeding gallery, the triumph of flight was transferred into the destruction of man, as the airplane assumed the reciprocal role of a weapon, and Long Island had become the center of military aircraft design, testing, and production during this time. On display is the first airplane acquired by Charles Lindbergh, a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny purchased in 1923 for $500; along with a 1918 Breese Penguin trainer, the only one of the 250 originally produced remaining; an airworthy Thomas-Morse S4C Scout biplane with its original Marlin machine gun; and the F. Trubee Davison World War One wooden hangar, which sports the ribbed, uncovered airframe of a Curtiss Jenny with its engine, propeller, and fuel tank; and a 160-hp Gnome Monosoupope, 1916 engine from France.

During the Golden Age of Aviation, which spanned the 20-year period from 1919 to 1938, aviation matured, evolving from a dangerous sport to a viable commercial industry. The motley collection of aircraft in this gallery includes the sister ship to the original Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis and used during the filming of the epic tale; an Aircraft Engineering Corporation “Ace,” which became America’s first sport plane; a replica of a Curtiss/Sperry Aerial Torpedo; a 1932 Grumman F3F-2 Navy Scout fighter; a Brunner Winkle Model A Byrd biplane built in Glendale, Queens; an American Aeronautical Corporation/Savoia Marchetti S-56 amphibian made in Port Washington; and a Grumman G-21 Goose in blue, Pan American Airways System livery.

During World War II, as reflected by its respective gallery, the aircraft produced by Repubic and Grumman had been crucial to US victory, and within the six-year period from 1939 to 1945 depicted, some 45,000 airframes had rolled off the production line. On display are a powerless Waco CG-4 Troop Glider, which had been used to deliver soldiers behind enemy lines; a Republic P-47N Thunderbolt; a Grumman F6F Hellcat, a Grumman TBM Avenger, a Grumman F6F Hellcat, a Douglas C-47 cockpit and nose section, and the Sperry Type A-2 lower gun turret which had protected the undersides of B-17 and B-24 long-range bombers.

The pure-jet engine, as evidenced by the Jet Age Gallery, revolutionized military aviation by endowing aircraft with unprecedented speed, range, maneuverability, and attack capability, and Grumman Aircraft Corporation had been instrumental in this development, having designed more than 40 civilian and military types which totaled some 33,000 airframes and provided employment for 200,000 Long Island residents. Its military aircraft, particularly, had played crucial roles in numerous conflicts, including those in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq. On display are several Grumman designs, inclusive of an E-2 Hawkeye airborne early warning/command-and-control aircraft, an F9F-7 Cougar, the forward fuselage of an F-14 Tomcat, and an A-6 Intruder cockpit simulator, while Republic Aviation is represented by an F-84B Thunderjet, an F-105B supersonic fighter, and an A-10A Thunderbolt cockpit section. A Boeing 727 nose and cockpit section and a Westinghouse J-34 turbine engine round out the exhibits.

The “Contemporary Aviation” gallery features air traffic control radar screens which emphasize the congested JFK, La Guardia, and Newark airport triplex, along with their secondary airports of Long Island MacArthur and Westchester County’s White Plains, and Farmingdale’s Republic Airport, the states’ busiest general aviation/reliever field.

The “Exploring Space” gallery, the last of the eight, depicts the dramatic transition from atmospheric flight to vacuumless space and emphasizes Long Island’s rich contribution to this aerospace sector. Its exhibits include a Goddard A-series rocket; a Grumman orbiting astronomical observatory; a Grumman echo adapter; a life-size model of the Sputnik satellite which had been presented by the Soviet Union and whose original hardware had launched the Space Race; a Grumman Rigel ramjet missile from 1953; a Grumman Lunar Module simulator; and a Rockwell Command Module which had been used during a 25,000-mph earth reentry test in 1966 prior to the manned Apollo flights.

A “Clean Room,” representing the environment in which all Lunar Modules had been hand-made, leads to the gallery’s-and the museum’s-most precious exhibit, an actual, 22.9-foot-high, gold foil-covered LM-13, the thirteenth and last Lunar Module built, dramatically lit with its legs nestled on a simulated moonscape. Designated an historic mechanical landmark, the Lunar Module had been the first-and thus far, only-spacecraft to have ever transported human beings from earth to another planet or its moons.

The Museum Annex Jet Gallery, which shares facilities with the Long Island Firefighter’s Museum, features a Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, the forward fuselage of a Grumman F-14A, a full F-14A Tomcat airframe, a Grumman A-6F Intruder, and the forward nose section and cockpit of an El Al Boeing 707.

Other museum facilities include the seven-story-high, 300-seat, 76-foot-wide Leroy R. and Rose W. Grumman IMAX Theater, New York state’s largest domed venue and Long Island’s only IMAX screen; the Martian-themed Red Planet CafĂ©, which displays a 1961 Grumman “Molab” Mobile Lunar Laboratory designed for lunar surface travel, habitation, and testing; a balcony-located Aerospace Honor Roll; and the Mitchel Field Outpost gift and bookstore.

The Cradle of Aviation Museum is a world-class facility which preserves, showcases, and interprets Long Island’s rich aerospace heritage.

3. American Airpower Museum

The American Airpower Museum, located at Farmingdale’s Republic Airport, oozes with history. It is housed in an historic hangar, where historic World War II aircraft had been built, and these had then been tested at this historic airfield.

Republic Airport itself, founded in 1928 as Fairchild Flying Field when Sherman Fairchild’s existing facility had become too small to support continued FC-2 and Model 71 production, had passed the torch to Grumman for a five-year period, from 1932 to 1937, when the Fairchild Engine and Aircraft Manufacturing Company itself had relocated to Maryland.

Seversky, establishing its presence on the field in 1935, continued its tradition of aircraft building and testing, redesignating itself “Republic Aviation” and considerably expanding its facilities with three new hangars, a control tower, and a longer runway. A major supplier of military designs, it churned out more than 9,000 P-47 Thunderbolts during the Second World War and 800 F-105 Thunderchiefs during the Vietnam conflict.

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