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New York's aviation island.

The "Cradle of Aviation" is what some aeronautics enthusiasts call New York's Long Island. The airstrips and factories on the most populated island in the United States, scenes of many significant advances in the history of human flight, were probably never more important than during World War II. Today the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City preserves all the island's aviation history, including its critical contributions to WWII victory.

In the early 20th century, aviators flocked to the open spaces of the Hempstead Plains, a great prairie that stretched across central Long Island. In 1911, the Hempstead Plains Aerodrome was built in this area, east of Garden City, to accommodate experimental flying machines. It was renamed Roosevelt Field in 1919 in honor of Quentin Roosevelt, an army aviator and son of Teddy Roosevelt who was shot down over France during World War I.

As that war raged, the army opened Field No. 2 just to the south of Roosevelt. It became Mitchel Field, named for John P. Mitchel, an army pilot and former New York City mayor who died in a training accident. After the war, Roosevelt was converted to civilian use, but Mitchel stayed in army hands.

Long Island remained an important aviation center between the world wars. Charles Lindbergh began his 1927 transatlantic flight from Roosevelt Field. Two years later, at Mitchel, Jimmy Doolittle made the world's first blind flight (a flight in which the pilot depends solely on instruments for takeoff and landing).

During World War II, Mitchel Field became the headquarters of the First Air Force, a unit focused on coastal defense. Antisubmarine patrols took off from the base to guard the approaches to New York Harbor. Mitchel was also a staging area for planes preparing to make transatlantic voyages. After the war, pressure to close the base grew as suburbs overtook Long Island's empty spaces. Mitchel ceased operations in 1961.

Today Mitchel Field is the site of the Cradle of Aviation Museum. Exhibits here begin with the island's first fliers--kites and balloons--and move on to such interesting planes as the Curtiss JN-4. Known as the Jenny, the JN-4 was the army's most-used training plane of World War I. After the armistice, daredevil pilots snapped up these government-surplus planes to use for barnstorming. One of those enterprising entertainers was Charles Lindbergh, who bought the Jenny that's on display here back in 1923. It was the first plane he ever owned.

Exhibits related to the years between the big wars focus on commercial and sport aviation. During the 1920s and 1930s, Long Island was home to as many as 20 aircraft manufacturers, among them Republic in Farmingdale and Grumman in Bethpage.

One Grumman plane on display here is the G-21 Goose, a seaplane developed in 1937 for wealthy Long Islanders who wanted to fly to and from their waterfront estates. Many of these machines also became passenger planes. The specimen here was restored as a commercial liner for Pan American World Airways. For World War II, the US Navy purchased more than 200 of these so-called flying yachts for transportation and rescue use. Another prewar Grumman on display is an F3F, America's last biplane fighter. At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, the navy and marines still had 200 of these planes in their inventories and used them for training new pilots.

Grumman produced some of the navy's most important and effective war planes. A plane that Grumman coincidentally unveiled on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack became known as the Avenger. This carrier-based torpedo bomber carried a crew of three and featured an innovative motorized turret behind the cockpit armed with a .50-caliber machine gun. The plane on exhibit here is a TBM-3E variant, which General Motors built under contract for Grumman.

Nearby are two of Grumman's fighter "cats." Suspended from the ceiling is an F4F-3 Wildcat, the successor of the F3F and the workhorse for navy and marine pilots early in the war. In addition to seeing extensive service in the Pacific, the Wildcat also flew off escort carriers in the Atlantic. In 1943, the navy began replacing the Wildcat with the more maneuverable and more heavily armed F6F-5 Hellcat, considered to be one of the best carrier-based planes of the war. The Hellcat here is displayed with one wing folded, demonstrating how the wings would be positioned when the plane was not in use so it would take up less of the limited space aboard a carrier.

All the wartime production at Grumman required a lot of employees putting in long hours. The museum pays tribute to the hard-working civilians who built the planes, with a life-size diorama of a workshop in the Bethpage plant.

Grumman isn't the only warplane manufacturer represented in the museum. Just a few feet away from the cats is another famous Long Island product: a Republic P47N Thunderbolt, a heavy, high-altitude fighter that saw action in both Europe and the Pacific. There is also an F2A Buffalo, a product of the Brewster Aeronautical Corporation of Long Island City. Navy pilots flew the Buffalo early in the war, but it was phased out for the Wildcat, although several other nations continued to use it. The General Aircraft Corporation of Astoria, Queens, is represented here by a plane without an engine: the CG-4 Waco glider. General Aircraft, in conjunction with the home-building company Dade Brothers of Mineola, made about 1,000 of these gliders during the war to carry troops and cargo.

Surrounding these planes are small exhibits that outline their histories and operational roles. One case holds an ordinary-looking piece of dull, dented metal. As the accompanying text explains, the Wildcat hanging from the ceiling was used to train carrier pilots over Lake Michigan. In 1943 one trainee muffed his landing. He survived, but the plane sank. Fifty years later the fighter was raised from the lake and restored. This fragment of the fuselage was saved to give visitors a hint of the plane's unrestored condition.

Video terminals give even more information about the planes, and near the Hellcat there are two small flight simulators where visitors can try to land on the deck of a carrier. All my own attempts ended in crashes, but others might have better luck.

Long Island supplied more than just planes to the WWII effort. Some companies here made related equipment that was vital to US air operations. In Brooklyn, the Carl L. Norden Company manufactured the famous Norden bombsight, the most accurate and technologically advanced of the war. The Sperry Corporation, also based in Brooklyn, produced the ball turret used on the B-17 and B-24 bombers. Examples of both are on display.

The remainder of the museum highlights Long Island's continuing role in military and commercial aviation as well as in the aerospace industry. Anyone interested in aviation will find something fascinating to see at the Cradle of Aviation Museum. But for many, the stars of the show will be the warbirds of World War II. ?


WHAT The Cradle of Aviation Museum

WHERE Garden City, Long Island, New York

WHY A beautifully restored, shiny Grumman Wildcat fighter from World War II * A Grumman Hellcat, a carrier-based WWII fighter with wings that folded up to save space while in storage aboard a ship * A life-size diorama of factory workers on the job at the Grumman plant in Bethpage

For more information call the museum at 516-572-4111 or visit its website at

Mark D. Van Ells teaches at the City University of New York and is currently writing a traveler's guide to WWI historic sites.
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Title Annotation:LANDINGS
Author:Van Ells, Mark D.
Publication:America in WWII
Date:Jun 1, 2014
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