By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News
— Before there was any other airport in the area planes were taking off from the Town of Tonawanda.
Before jumping out of airplanes was something people could do for fun a Kenmore native invented the first ripcord parachute.
And before World War II was a matter of history companies in Western New York were building the planes that would help win it.
John Percy, Town of Tonawanda historian, will elaborate on those bits of local history and more at a lecture titled “WNY Aviation,” at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday at the Tonawanda-Kenmore Historical Society at 100 Knoche Road, Town of Tonawanda — which also houses a display that offers a glimpse into that history.
IF YOU GO
• WHAT: "WNY Aviation" lecture by Town of Tonawanda Historian John Percy
• WHEN: 7:15 p.m. Tuesday
• WHERE: Tonawanda-Kenmore Historical Society Museum, 100 Knoche Road, Town of Tonawanda
"We have a stunning aviation history over here that people don't realize," said Ed Adamczyk, who serves as Percy's counterpart as the Kenmore historian. "We built the planes that won World War II at the Vulcan Street plant of Curtiss-Wright, and not far away at Bell Aviation, the jet pack was invented.
"It's a remarkable history that most people in Western New York are not aware of."
Percy, who served as Kenmore historian from 1969 to 1980 and town historian since 1973, said a number of variables made that history possible.
"We had the right combination of things here to make airplanes: labor, electrical power, transportation — both lakes and railroads. We had the capital ... and we had entrepreneurship," he said. "We had a lot of people in Buffalo who were willing to take a risk. That's why it took off here."
Aviation history in the area, however, didn't actually start with airplanes.
"Most of the aviation industry here was an outgrowth of the bicycle industry," Percy said. "There were more than 50 bicycle makers in the area — and they applied that technology to the aircraft industry. They both had to be lightweight. People wanted lightweight bicycles ... and lightweight airplanes."
Bicyclists' fascination with flying lead to the creation of the Aero Club of Buffalo around 1900. It was incorporated in 1910, only seven years after the Wright brothers' first took flight at Kitty Hawk, and was one of the earliest clubs of its kind in the world, Percy said.
The same year, the first airplane flight in Western New York took place and Curtiss Aeroplane Company incorporated in Hammondsport ... and there was no going back.
By 1916, Curtiss had moved its headquarters to Buffalo, where it manufactured thousands of aircraft and employed thousands of area workers. In 1920, the company started the first commercial airport in the Buffalo area, Curtiss Flying Field (also known as Curtiss Aerodrome and Curtiss Airdrome), near Niagara Falls Boulevard and Sheridan Drive, which served as the principal airport for the area until Buffalo Municipal Airport opened in 1926, Percy said.
In 1929, Consolidated Aircraft Corp. built its own airport in the area, on Military Road in the Town of Tonawanda.
"When Consolidated Aircraft came here, they constructed a test field out there at the end of Knoche Road, across the railroad tracks," not far from where the Tonawanda-Kenmore Historical Society building stands now, Percy said. He recalled riding his bicycle out to the field to watch.
"I was a kid growing up during the war," he said, "and it was a pretty exciting time, to see the planes come and go."
Also in 1929, the Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor Company became part of the newly formed Curtiss-Wright Corp., which had its headquarters in Buffalo and plants on Kenmore Avenue at Vulcan Street and Genesee Street. Workers at those plants manufactured thousands of military aircraft, including the Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk, which was instrumental in World War II, Percy said.
"That was the best airplane we had at the beginning of the war," he said. "It wasn't as fast, as maneuverable as a (Japanese) Zero ... but it could take a lot of punishment."
While aviation history was being made in the area, so were rises in aviation safety — and that's where Leslie Irvin of Kenmore made his mark, Percy said.
"He came up with the first reliable parachute ... the one that opened all the time," Percy said. "The other ones weren't so good. He's the one who invented the ripcord."
The Irving Air Chute Company (legend has it that Irvin was changed to Irving by a secretary who mistakenly tacked a "g" on the end of the name) was founded in Buffalo in 1919, Percy said. He recalled how the parachutes were routinely tested ... by taking a batch of dummies up at the Buffalo airport and shoving them out while the planes were in the air.
History tells that one observer for the company, watching from his car, got a very rude surprise from the experience when he parked a little too close, Percy said.
"A dummy went right through his car roof, into the backseat," Percy said. "He must have been scared witless."
Other topics of the lecture will include a look at Bell Aircraft Corp., which produced many military aircraft — and even a jet pack — at its plant in Wheatfield.
Adamczyk said the next lecture, the last of the spring series, will take place June 12, when he will present "Culture and Entertainment in Kenmore and Tonawanda."
"This is how we reach out to the community: a monthly presentation, open to the public," he said.