Cradle of Aviation, Bethpage
In less than 100 years New York’s Long Island has seen aviation and aerospace grow from a group of virtual backyard tinkerers into centres of excellence that produced many of the best aircraft and spacecraft in the world. Although 240 Long Island companies still produce a wide variety of aircraft and aerospace parts, nowadays there is nothing to compare with the WW II and post WW II glory days when big aircraft manufacturing firms like Grumman and Republic Aviation (formerly Seversky Aircraft) employed tens of thousands of people to design and build tens thousands of excellent machines. The recently opened Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, Nassau County, tries faithfully to record that era and link it with important aeronautical events elsewhere.
Long Island was a natural centre for developing aviation. It was close to New York and the Island itself is relatively flat, devoid of big rocks and solid trees. WW I provided an initial impetus, with military flying training and operational airfields dotted all over the Island. In the 1920s big firms like Curtiss and Sikorsky were based in nearby Garden City while Sperry and Fairchild set up in Farmingdale. Charles Lindberg took off from Roosevelt Field for Paris in 1927. All these are within walking distance of the museum.
In 1930 Grumman in Farmingdale and later at Bethpage and Calverton, all on Long Island, started to produce aircraft for the USN. Over the next 70 years these aircraft became as famous for their performance as their durability. Working closely with USN aviators and engineers, the Grumman “Ironworks” built a series of aircraft that matched or bettered the performance of anything flying at the time. Importantly, they were resistant to sea water corrosion and rugged enough to withstand both battle damage and the rigours of deck landing. In 1943 Grumman had 25,527 workers on its payroll (Thruelson 1976 p 141). Nowadays, Grumman is part of a politically-engineered corporate conglomerate and its Long Island facilities no longer design and build aeroplanes.
The museum displays one of only two Grumman F3Fs left in the world, but Australia is not forgotten. In a rare acknowledgement of his seminal influence, a Lawrence Hargrave replica box kite is featured here. Hargrave is described as an “Englishman who migrated to Australia in 1866” and his “curved aerofoil” box kite research of 1893 is correctly acknowledged as an important early contribution to understanding aerodynamics.
Over 30 years in planning and building, Nassau County poured more than US$40 million into the Cradle of Aviation Museum project while private and commercial donors nearly matched these funds. The museum is built on the old Mitchel Field, originally a major WW I military air base. The buildings include two refurbished hangars with new sparkling glass facades that divide into eight galleries housing 60-odd aircraft and spacecraft. Most exhibits are original, others are restored or replicas. There is also an Imax theatre and “essential” add-ons such as a restaurant and gift shop. The museum expects 400,000 visitors a year.
A number of aircraft are suspended from the four-storey atrium ceiling, including a dominating swept wing Grumman F-11 Tiger in “Flying Angels” livery. In contrast, in one gallery is a delicate-looking “stick and string” WW I-era Curtiss JN-4 Jenny biplane that, coincidentally, was once owned and flown by Charles Lindberg. There is also a Grumman F-3F biplane fighter, one of only two left of the 163 built in the nearby Farmingdale factory.
In the WW II-era gallery, a Grumman F-4F Wildcat/Hellcat, dredged from the bottom of Lake Michigan hangs in mute testimony to both the restorer’s art and the dedication of those who seek to preserve history. Another restored aircraft in the museum is a rare Republic F-84 Thunderjet, rescued from Death Valley where it was slated for use as a ground target at a Navy test range.
A Republic P-47 Thunderbolt stands in US Army WW II colours. The “jug” proved an effective mount in Europe for American top-scoring aces. It had a massive cockpit, in contrast to the British Supermarine Spitfire that tended to be “pulled on” rather than boarded. This gave rise to the quite unfounded Thunderbolt’s reputation for strange evasive action when jumped by enemy fighters. Instead of breaking into a maximum rate turn, like a Spitfire, it was said that the Thunderbolt’s cockpit was so big that all the pilot had to do was to “dance madly around the cockpit” to avoid unfriendly bullets.
Grumman F-6F Hellcats shot down 5,200 Japanese aircraft (Tillman and Lawson 1998 p. 36) which adds up to two thirds of all enemy planes destroyed by Americans in the Pacific. A total of 12,272 F-6Fs were built (Angelucci 1990 p 236) and their 2,000 hp Pratt and Whitney R-2800-10 engines gave them a ceiling of 39,400 feet (Thruelsen 1976, p 194). These stark facts, however, obscure the important ability of the aircraft to respond with the pilot. In this regard it became one of the very few aircraft, like the Spitfire, Sea Fury and Skyhawk, that became known as a “pilot’s aircraft”.
What the museum does not show, because the task is not easy, is the amazing family-linked morale that went with the Long Island aircraft factories, and especially with Grumman. “Everybody, if they didn’t work for Grumman, they knew somebody who did,” Bill Kelly of Hicksville is quoted as saying in a recent article (Gootman 2002). He worked there for 17 years. This was the basis for Grumman’s relaxed management style and a worker information feedback system that fostered outstanding shop-floor pride.
In the post-WW II museum display, among the jets and missiles, is a trusty piston-engined S-2F Tracker. Its Wright 1820-82 radial engines delivered 1,525 hp and date back to a 1930s design, but its electronic fit included very modern innovations such as the latest ASW radar and a Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD) boom. Grumman built about 950 Trackers, including those flown by the RAN. In contrast, Faireys built only 256 contemporary ASW Gannets in Britain (Angelucci 1990).
Among the missiles is a pair of Bullpups, including the thousand-pound warhead AGM-12C version. Visually guided and powered by a relatively tiny Thiokol LR-68 rocket, it was first used in Vietnam and became the forerunner of many of today’s precision-strike stand-off weapons.
Finally, there is a comprehensive space age exhibit, including the locally designed and produced Grumman Lunar Landing Module LM-13. Six identical modules landed 12 men safely on the moon between 1969 and 1972. The museum’s particular craft was scheduled for the cancelled Apollo 18 mission in 1973.
To get to the museum by car, head east from New York along the Long Island Expressway for about 30 minutes and turn off at the Meadowbrook Parkway for East Garden City and the Charles Lindberg Boulevard. Then look for the museum signs. Alternatively, the museum is only a short taxi or bus ride from Garden City, Mineola and Westbury railway stations. There are a number of entry packages that vary from US$16.50 to US$12.50 (seniors) for full tours, including the Imax theatre. The museum is open seven days a week, except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day, from 1000 to 1700. Check out www.cradleofaviation.org for details.
Angelucci, E. Rand McNally encyclopedia of military aircraft. Crescent Books: New York. 1990.
Gootman, E. Museum honours runways in the land of the expressway. New York Times 20 May 2002 p B6.
Tillman, B. and R.L. Lawson U.S Navy fighters of WW II. MBI Publishing Company: Osceola.1998.
Thruelson, R. The Grumman story. Praeger Publishers: New York. 1976.