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Aviation History of the Farmingdale-Bethpage Region 

Long Island is well known as one of the early centers of aviation in this country and in fact the world.  Roosevelt Field, for example, from where Charles Lindburgh departed for his dramatic flight to Paris in 1927 was the busiest airport in the world during the early 1930’s.  The Cradle of Aviation Museum, located at Mitchell Field was so named for a good reason.  But less well known to most outside of the Farmingdale-Bethpage area and even some living in its midst is the important role played by this local area in the history of aviation. 

Some of the names associated with that history include:  Lawrence Sperry, Alexander De Seversky, Sherman Fairchild and Leroy Grumman.  They are only the most famous.  Many others were involved in various roles which included providing the parts and materials to help build the planes that others had designed. 

Lawrence Sperry was the son of Elmer Sperry, inventor and founder of the Sperry Gyroscope Company.  Lawrence took after his dad as an inventor and demonstrated the first autopilot by coupling gyroscopes into a Curtis B-2 aircraft and stunning onlookers at a 1914 air show in France.  He was an outstanding pilot but was rejected by the Army Air Force at the outbreak of World War I because he didn’t have a college degree. At the end of WW I Sperry designed and built a sport plane called the Sperry Messenger.  General Billy Mitchell was impressed by the design and ordered a dozen which were built by the Lawrence Sperry Aircraft Company of Farmingdale.  A total of 42 Messengers were ultimately built.  A model of one resides in the Cradle of Aviation museum at Mitchell Field.  Lawrence Sperry died at age 31 in an airplane crash over the English Channel. 

Sherman Fairchild lent his name to many companies within the New York metropolitan area and elsewhere.  However, his first love was photography and aerial photography in particular.  In 1920 he started the Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation to build cameras.  With that company he entered into the mapmaking and surveying fields.  He quickly realized that improved aircraft were required to take better advantage of his cameras.  In 1925 he formed Farmingdale-based Fairchild Airplane Manufacturing Corporation.  The first aircraft produced there were the Fairchild FC-1 and FC-2. 

Perhaps the longest lasting of the Fairchild enterprises that still resides in Farmingdale is Republic Field which is one of the busiest airports in the state.  It was originally called Fairchild Flying Field and was developed in 1927.   Aircraft manufactured by Fairchild, De Seversky and Grumman were tested there. 

Alexander De Seversky was the top Russian World War I naval aviation ace. The Russian revolution began while he was in the United States studying aircraft design and manufacturing. He decided to stay here and became a US citizen in 1927.  After creating many inventions and working with leaders in the field of aviation he attracted the backing of investors and in 1931 formed Seversky Aircraft Corporation located in Farmingdale.  The company developed the first modern fighter which appeared in 1935.  It was the P-35 and was the forerunner of the famed World War II P-47 manufactured by Republic Aviation.  The company sustained serious financial losses under Seversky and he was deposed.  The company was reorganized as Republic Aviation in October 1939. 

The P-47 was designed by another Russian émigré, Alexander Kartveli who had worked very closely with Seversky.  It was one of the top fighter aircraft of WW II.  Well over ten thousand were produced.  The company produced other successful fighter planes including the F-84 which was used in Korea and the F-105 which was used extensively in Vietnam.  At the time of the Korean War, Republic was the largest producer of jet fighters in the western world.  The F-105 was Republic’s last independent design.  Republic Aviation was acquired by the Fairchild-Hiller Corporation in 1965. 

In 1929 at the outset of the depression, Roy Grumman, Jack Swirbul and Bill Schwendler were working for Loening Aircraft Engineering Company.  When the company was taken over and planned to move to Pennsylvania, the three decided to start their own aircraft manufacturing corporation.  With a little venture capital and some of their own money they formed the Grumman Aircraft engineering company.  The first employees reported for work in January 1930.  The company started by repairing Loening aircraft and then the manufacture of aluminum truck bodies.  In 1931 the company got its first contract to build an aircraft.  It was a navy contract for a single fighter aircraft designated the XFF-1.

The company started in Baldwin, Long Island. After a brief stay it moved to Valley Stream and then in 1932 to Farmingdale.  By April of 1937 they were no longer leasing, but had bought their own site in Bethpage. 

During World War II, Grumman was the major producer of aircraft for the navy.  Factories operated 24 hours a day and produced more military aircraft than any other company during the war.  The workhorse for the navy during the first year and a half of WW II was the Grumman F4F Wildcat.  It was the first aircraft to have folding wings which allowed for compact storage aboard aircraft carriers.  A more sophisticated airplane than the F4F but one modeled on the F4F was the F6F Hellcat.  It was designed specifically to defeat the Japanese Zero.  The company produced over 12,000 Hellcats during the war, the largest number of fighters ever made in a single aircraft factory. 

Grumman went on to design and build other important aircraft.  One which many Long Islanders still residing on Long Island worked on and remember fondly is the US Navy’s F-14 Tomcat.  It reigned supreme as a Navy fighter from 1974 when it was introduced until its retirement in September 2006. 

Another major contribution from Long Islanders and the Grumman Corporation came in the form of the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM).  LEM carried astronaut Neil Armstrong on the historic United States 1969 first ever moon landing. It also participated in the rescue of the Apollo 13 crew in their attempt at a moon rendezvous in April 1970.  The story was made into a major motion picture in 1995. 

Before being merged into the Northrop Corporation in 1994, Grumman designed and built the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS).  While in pre-production testing in 1991, the aircraft was deployed to participate in Operation Desert Storm.  The system was able to accurately track mobile Iraqi forces, including tanks and Scud missiles.  JSTARS is programmed to be used until 2025.

The history of aviation on Long Island and Farmingdale-Bethpage is remarkable.  Much of this long and varied history is available not only for viewing, but for lively stories and anecdotes by people at these companies who actually lived the history at two wonderful museums within easy commuting distance.  These are The Cradle of Aviation Museum (www.cradleofaviation.org) and the American Airpower Museum (www.americanairpowermuseum.com).  The latter is actually in one of the Republic Aviation hangers where the P-47 fighter was assembled.

 

For additional information and photographs, the following sites are of interest:

http://www.courant.com/topic/ny-history-hs736a,0,7438847.story?page=1

http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/Aerospace/Republic/Aero43.htm

http://lirepublicairporths.googlepages.com/

http://www.grummanpark.org/farmingdale.htm

http://www.pilotfriend.com/aircraft%20performance/fairchild.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Sherman_Fairchild_companies

 

 

 

 

Sperry Messenger.jpg (137816 bytes)

Sperry Messenger

Fairchild FC-2 Assembly Plant at Farmingdale.jpg (937664 bytes)

Fairchild FC-2 Assembly Plant at Farmingdale

Seversky P-35.jpg (614196 bytes)

Seversky P-35

Republic P-47.jpg (457015 bytes)

Republic P-47

Republic F-105 Assembly Plant  at Farmingdale.jpg (1074187 bytes)

Republic F-105 Assembly Plant at Farmingdale

Grumman XFF-1.jpg (621907 bytes)

Grumman XFF-1

Grumman F-6-F Hellcat.jpg (530927 bytes)

Grumman F-6-F Hellcat

Grumman F-14.jpg (810887 bytes)

Grumman F-14

 

Sperry Messenger Statistics.jpg (889603 bytes)

Sperry Messenger Specifications

 

 

All Photos above

Credits to:

Cradle of Aviation Museum, Garden City, Long Island

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