Aviation Sights of Connecticut

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With the exception, perhaps, of Ohio, no other state is more synonymous with aviation than Connecticut.  Inextricably tied to many of the world’s most renowned aircraft, powerplant, and propeller manufacturers, it is canvassed by the likes of Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, Pratt and Whitney, Chance Vought, Avco Lycoming, Hamilton Standard, and the collective United Technologies.  Many of their valuable contributions can be viewed by visiting its aviation sights.

National Helicopter Museum

Sandwiched between Avco Lycoming at one end of Stratford and Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation at the other, and located in the abandoned, 48-foot-long eastbound Metro North Railroad Station, the National Helicopter Museum traces the technological and historical development of rotary-wing aircraft.

Brainchild of Dr. Raymond E. Jankovich, a local pediatrician, and Robert McCloud, founder of The Stratford Bard newspaper, it was conceptualized in 1978 because of its helicopter-associated location and potential benefit to the city.  Its realty was cemented with a grant from Avco Lycoming.

Billing itself as the only such museum devoted to rotary-wing airplanes and opening in 1983, it is entirely run by volunteers, most of whom are former Sikorsky employees, and offers a chronologically-displayed photo essay, models, and a few airframe sections which collectively trace helicopter design from nature, which aerial flight had traditionally attempted to emulate, to the 21st century.

The helicopter itself traces its origins to the Chinese flying tops recorded as early as the fourth century BC.  Comprised of short, round sticks, they were affixed with “helicopter blade,” or airfoil-resembling, feathers.  Rotated by either being rubbed back and forth or pulled by a string, they spun and their angled feathers generated lift, causing them to vertically ascend.

Leonardo da Vinci later made numerous sketches of wing-flapping gliders, parachutes, and air screws capable of lifting humans, the screws themselves made of linen in order to ride the air, about which he theorized, “when force generates swifter movement than the flight of the unresisting air, this air becomes compressed after the manner of feathers compressed and crushed by the weight of a sleeper.  And the thing which drove the air, finding resistance in it, rebounds after the manner of a ball struck against a wall.”

The museum’s own “In the Beginning” display illustrates these early concepts.  Man’s first rotary wing was the prehistoric boomerang, which led to the Chinese top and da Vinci’s Helix, the first recorded “helicopter” design.

Its “Early Dreams” drawings, from 1843, depict both round, fan-resembling and side-by-side rotors, while those generated by Sir George Cayley were flatter, forming a wing in flight.

The “Early Prophets” survey indicates that the first successful, powered ascent reached a 40-foot height during a 20-second flight.

A 60-rotor helicopter, designed by Gustave Whitehead in 1911, appears in the “Before Sikorsky” collection, while the “International Achievements” panel depicts the development period between 1930 and 1935.

Professor E. H. Henrich, as evidenced from the “German Ascendency” panel, formed a new company to pursue his dreams of designing a rotary-wing aircraft after serving as Focke-Wulfe’s Design Chief, and it made a 28-second flight on June 26, 1936.

A mural entitled “Birth of First Flight” and obtained from the Sikorsky factory displays a short timeline of his designs beginning with the VS-300-V1 of 1942.

Engine development can be gleaned from “The Gas Turbine Revolution.”  The steam engine, for instance, had too much structural weight to support then-known vertical lift technology, but the lighter gasoline powerplant, appearing just after the turn-of-the-century, was ubiquitously used.  The relatively light, yet powerful rotary engine had been employed during the 1920s for helicopter experimentation, its entire cylinder block rotating round a stationary crankshaft and thus producing significant, air flow-created cylinder cooling.

The “State of Art in Crafts” survey showcases the significant helicopter manufacturers, including Sikorsky, Bell, Hughes, Kaman, Piasecki, Boeing-Vertol, and Robinson, while a half-dozen display cases feature rotary-wing models.

Despite the museum’s small size and artifact dimension-limiting door, it nevertheless displays several actual helicopter components.  The main rotor of an S-58, for instance—weighing 110 pounds and measuring 28 feet from its rotational center—is viewable close to a Sikorsky S-76 tail rotor blade assembly.  Engines include an Avco Lycoming T800-APW-800 turbine and a T55-L-714, which powered such Boeing designs as the CH-47 Chinook, the Model 234, the MH-47E Chinook, and the Model 360.  Also featured are an RAH-66 Sikorsky “shadow” Commanche fly-by-wire test mockup, and the cockpit section of a Sikorsky S-76 in utility/offshore oil configuration; the design has a 43.4-foot fuselage length, a 44-foot rotor diameter, and can achieve 155-knot forward airspeeds.

The museum provides a small, but valuable venue through which rotary-wing technology and history, often discounted in aviation studies, but here singularly responsible for Stratford’s very existence, can be explored.

New England Air Museum

Located in Windsor Locks next to Bradley International Airport, the New England Air Museum is the largest such aviation facility in the northeast, showcasing more than 80 aircraft and often focusing on Connecticut aeronautical achievements in some 75,000 square feet of indoor exhibition space, which is subdivided into three hangars.  Its complete collection encompasses 125 airframes and 200 engines.

The Military Exhibit Hangar, for instance–focusing on pure-jet fighters–features such aircraft as the Republic 105B Thunderchief, the Republic P-47D Thunderbolt, the North American F-86F Sabre, the Grumman F-14B Tomcat, the Fairchild/Republic A-10A Thunderbolt II, and the North American F-100A Super Sabre.

Its earliest design, a Sikorsky S-16 biplane, hails from 1915.  Featuring a 19.33-foot length and 26.25-foot wingspan, the fighter, with an 897-pound empty weight, rests on a quad-wheeled main gear and a tail wheel to facilitate soft field operations, and was the first with a propeller arc-synchronized machine gun.  It attained 74-mph maximum speeds.

World War II-era fighters include the Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat and Connecticut’s own Vought F4U-4 Corsair, the latter proudly sporting its classic, inverted-gull wings and seemingly oversized prop.  The museum’s example bears the name of one of the more famous Marine pilots who fought in the Pacific Theatre, “Pappy Boyington.”

World War II bombers are represented by the North American B-25H Mitchell, the high-wing, twin-engine, medium-range aircraft which had served on every front with the Air Force, the Navy, and several countries, including England, France, China, and the Soviet Union, in the roles of low- and medium-level bomber, anti-submarine patrol, and transport, as well as having flown the famous Doolittle Raid.  The New England Air Museum’s example is the last surviving B-25H variant and the most heavily armed used by the allies, with a .75-mm nose cannon, eight forward-facing .50 caliber machine guns, and six .50 caliber dorsal-, waist-, and tail turret-mounted machine guns.

Several rotary-wing aircraft, including the Bell UH-1B Iroquois, the Kaman K-225, and the Kaman HH-43H, round out the collection.

The Harvey H. Lippincott Civil Aviation Hangar sparkles with some rare gems.

The Silas H. Brooks balloon basket, for example, is both the oldest-surviving basket and portion of a lighter-than-air craft in the world.  Brooks, of Plymouth, Connecticut, had constructed and flown his hot air balloon over Hartford and New Haven, accommodated in a five-foot-long, 200-pound wicker basket made in about 1870.  Today, it can be viewed in a glass case at the entrance to the hangar.

Another pioneer piece, a 1912 replica of a Curtiss Model D Pusher biplane constructed by Howard Bunce, is the museum’s oldest-surviving, heavier-than-air craft and one that had been born on Connecticut soil. 

The result of his several Model D inspections, it first appeared on paper as his own sketches before being sublimated to individual, and then assembled, parts, powered by a nonstandard four-cylinder, air-cooled engine built by Nels J. Nelson of New Britain, Connecticut.  Although it had risen only a few feet off the ground and then crashed at the Berlin Fair Ground because of insufficient power, it lent itself to a second replica in the form of cannibalized parts, and this example, discovered in a barn in 1962, had been reassembled for museum exhibit with a 30-hp Kemp I-4 engine.

Other pioneer designs include a Bleriot XI monoplane from 1909 and a Nixon Special from 1918.

Another portion of a lighter-than-air craft on display is a Goodyear ZNP-K control car from a 1942 K-28 non-rigid airship, and biplanes are represented by a 1930 Gee Bee Model A, a 1930 Laird LC-DW 300 Solution, and a 1933 Viking “Kitty Hawk” Model B-8.

Two historically significant, early-piston airliners are also viewable.

The first of these, the Lockheed 10A Electra, is a twin-engined, low-wing, ten-passenger, tail-wheeled design which was the manufacturer’s first all-metal airframe and provided the foundation for the larger L-14 and L-18 Lodestar.  The museum’s example, bearing serial number 1052, had first been delivered to the US Navy in 1936 for use as a staff transport.

The second, an equally twin-engined, tail-wheeled aircraft, is the Douglas DC-3, the most massively produced, multiple-role, military and civilian design, which for the first time enabled operators to generate a profit solely with the transport of passengers and thus revolutionized the airline industry.  Dubbed “one of the four most important weapons of World War II” by General Eisenhower, it still plies the skies more than three-quarters of a century after it first took to them.

The museum’s DC-3, with more than 53,400 airborne hours in its logbook, served in several capacities, initially in a military role as a C-47 transport and then a commercial one with Eastern Airlines, Purdue University, and a number of smaller carriers.

Center- and showpiece of the Civil Aviation Hangar, however, is both the largest airframe in it and the only surviving example of the Connecticut-designed and –constructed Sikorsky VS-44A Excambrian.  One of three completed in 1942 for American Export Airlines’ nonstop transatlantic routes, the high-wing, quad-engined, long-range, flying boat-hulled airliner, with a 79.25-foot length, 124-foot wingspan, and 57,500-pound gross weight, was procured for war operations, transporting priority passengers and cargo under Army and Navy contracts before serving with several charter airlines.  Extensive damage resulted in its 1968 service withdrawal.

Barged from the Gulf of Mexico to Bridgeport, it was subjected to an extensive restoration by the team of Sikorsky employees who had been instrumental in its original construction.

Today, the aircraft, draped in its original American Export Airlines livery, bristles with a first factory rollout look.

Another, and virtually only, centerpiece—in this case, in the 58th Bomb Wing Memorial Hangar—is the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, the hangar itself named after the wing which had been instrumental in World War II Japanese defeat.  The silver, sleek, 135,000-pound, quad-engined, 3,250-mile bomber stretches 99 feet in length and sports a 141.25-foot wingspan, and carries 11 crew members.  Dropping the atom bomb over Japan, it closed the final curtain on the Pacific Theatre.

Poised outside, as if awaiting passengers, is a Sud-Aviation SE.210 Caravelle, the world’s first short-range, pure-jet airliner.  Featuring the nose section originally designed for the de Havilland Comet; modestly-swept, low wings; triangular-shaped passenger windows; two aft-mounted, Rolls Royce Avon engines; and a cross-of-Loraine tail, the sleek aircraft served as the basis of most subsequent twin-jet configurations, such as the British Aircraft Corporation BAC-111, the McDonnell-Douglas DC-9, and the Fokker F.28 Fellowship.  Two hundred eighty Caravelles of all versions had been built.

Operated by United Airlines, Sterling Airways of Denmark, and small package carrier Airborne Express, it found its way to the museum after the latter carrier had donated it.

Aside from the aircraft, the New England Air Museum features several themed exhibits, some of which showcase Connecticut’s aviation contributions, including “History of Sikorsky Aircraft,” “Lafayette Escadrille,” “AVG Flying Tigers,” “Tuskegree Airmen,” and “History of Pratt and Whitney.”  There is also an Aviation Pioneer’s Theater.

Open-cockpit days, computer flight simulators, audio tours, speakers, special events, workshops, educational programs, an aviation research library, and a sizable Wings ‘n’ Things gift shop round out its offerings.

Sikorsky Memorial Airport

Tracing its origins to the grass-covered Avon Field racetrack, which had been conducive to early aircraft experimentation and had hosted the country’s first air show in 1911, Sikorsky Memorial Airport, a publicly-owned facility in Stratford, later became known as “Mollison Field” after the 1933 crash-landing there by Captain Jim Mollison during his transatlantic attempt.

Despite its location, it had been redesignated “Bridgeport Municipal Airport” four years later when the city of Bridgeport itself had purchased it.

Because of Connecticut’s prevalence of aircraft and engine manufacturers, it had been considered part of the “Arsenal of Democracy” during World War II, and was subsequently renamed “Igor I. Sikorsky Memorial Airport” in 1972 in honor of the man who had transformed the city into the birthplace of the helicopter and whose factory had been largely responsible for its expansion.

Today, its facilities include a passenger terminal with airline check-in counters, three gates, a restaurant, and car rental desks; a general aviation terminal; private hangars; and two runways–4,677-foot Runway 6/24 and 4,761-foot Runway 11/29.  There is also a 40- by 40-foot helipad.

Progressive service discontinuation by three regional carriers, including Continental Connection in 1994, Delta Connection in 1997, and US Airways Express in 1999, had occurred because existing runway lengths prohibited larger, more profitable aircraft operations, although scheduled, commercial, rotary-wing service had been reinstated after a seven-year interval by US Helicopter with its return-to-roots helicopter operations to New York’s Downtown Heliport.  Wiggins Airways provides FedEx Feeder cargo and small package service to the field.

During the 12-month period ending on February 28, 2007, Sikorsky Memorial Airport recorded 77,617 aircraft operations and had 241-based aircraft, of which 72 percent were single- engine, 11 percent were multi-engine, 15 percent were turbine, and two percent were rotary wing.

Conclusion

Connecticut’s rich rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft, engine, and propeller contributions to aviation, whose seeds were planted by some of the most famous names, merit a tribute-paying visit to its many related sights.

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