By Don Glynn
Niagara Gazette — WHEATFIELD — Nearly 80 years ago, it was mostly fields being cleared for the new Bell Aircraft Plant, destined for a significant role in the nation's growing aviation history.
Today, overshadowed by the adjacent Calspan Flight Research Facility and the expanded Niagara Falls International Airport, part of that sprawling Bell property has been leased by several area manufacturers.
Earlier this month, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, based in Reston, Va., designated Bell as a "historic site."
Among many reasons for that: Bell designed and manufactured the Bell X-1, piloted by Maj. Gen. Charles "Chuck" Yeager, that broke the sound barrier Oct. 14, 1947, reaching a speed of 802.2 miles per hour; building key components of NASA's Apollo project, from 1963 to 1968, including the Lunar Module ascent engine; the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle; and the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle, which the astronauts dubbed "The Flying Bedstead."
It still is undecided at this point where the treasured "historic site" marker from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics will be placed. One possibility is inside the new airport terminal, with the approval of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.
Ferdinand Grosveld, director of the AIAA-North East Region, presented the plaque to Hugh Neeson, a retired Bell Aircraft executive and a director of the Niagara Aerospace Museum.
Neeson, who spent 45 years with Bell before retiring as vice president and general manager in 1998, told a gathering for the Oct. 14 ceremony at the Calspan research facility that he was honored to accept the marker on behalf of the 150,000 persons who worked for the company through the decades.
"It's quite an impressive sight to walk into the Aerospace Museum at the Smithsonian Institute and see Bell's planes on display in the center area there," Neeson said, alluding to the Bell X-1 and the Bell X-P59A, the first fighter jet made in complete secrecy in the old Trico Co. building in Buffalo. The latter location was to prevent the Russians from learning about Bell's latest project. The Bell planes share the coveted exhibit space with Orville Wright's 'Flyer" and "The Spirit of St. Louis," the plane Charles Liindbergh flew on his historic New York to Paris flight in 1927,
Bell Aircraft was founded in 1935 by Lawrence D. ("Larry") Bell, a Mentone, Ind., native, who launched his aviation career in the early 1900s with the Glenn Martin Co. of Los Angeles. Later, he worked as a salesman for Consolidated Aircraft in Buffalo. When that company moved to San Diego, owner Rube Fleet agreed to lease the Buffalo facility to Bell, who then started his own company that eventually was housed at the Wheatfield complex, off Niagara Falls Boulevard.