Ask the average American where the birthplace of aviation was, and the answer will inevitably be Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. And that’s true. But ask them where the real movers and shakers of aviation were, and they may be surprised by the answer. The town of Hammondsport in the Finger Lakes region of New York carries the title of the Cradle of Aviation—spurred by pioneer aviator and all-around innovator Glenn Hammond Curtiss.
Ironically, both the Wright Brothers and Curtiss started as cycling enthusiasts, and bicycle manufacturing was how the Wright’s funded their groundbreaking aviation experiments. It was motorcycle production that fueled Curtiss and his research. In 1907, he was officially dubbed the "Fastest Man on Earth" after racing a motorcycle over 136 mph.
While North Carolina may have been the birthplace of flight, Hammondsport is where it grew up and came into its own. Glenn Curtiss is the golden flyboy in these parts, and he spurred the rapid development of air travel, float flight, and eventually came to be considered the Father of Naval Aviation and the founder of the American aircraft industry.
Curtiss’ naturally curious mind and an unheard of mechanical aptitude led him from bicycles and motorcycles to airplanes and warships. His interest in flight started with a request to supply famed hot-air balloonist Thomas Scott Baldwin with one of his motorcycle engines. The result of this pairing became the earliest working American dirigible, or airship. Soon after, he became a member of the Aerial Experiment Association and began his aviation career in earnest. From then on Curtiss was involved in building and piloting flying machines of all varieties.
The possibilities for wartime use soon became apparent, and he gave one of the first demonstrations of aerial bombing over Keuka Lake. This spurred his interest in combining airplanes and water further, and he pioneered the design of float flight, which would eventually become seaplanes. Keuka Lake was itself a key player in the areas aviation development providing a frozen airstrip in the winter and a “safety net” for fledgling flights.
Having made several military connections by this time, Curtiss soon began working with the U.S. Navy, starting a partnership that would become the basis for Naval aviation as we know it today. In 1919, the U.S. Navy Curtiss NC-4 Flying Boat became the first aircraft to successfully cross the Atlantic Ocean, becoming the ultimate feather in the cap of Curtiss’ career.
With a life that reads like a movie script, learning more about this true American dreamer is an absolute must-do with a trip to the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, N.Y. Offering a wide variety of both permanent and temporary exhibits, the museum has artifacts from across Curtiss’ career from aircraft and motorcycles to exhibits detailing the rich history of Hammondsport.
The tradition of flying in the Finger Lakes region continues to this day. Curtiss may have been one of the first men to see Keuka’s unique Y shape from above, but now it’s an experience any intrepid visitor can have. Joe and Mary Costa operate New York's oldest flying service, Costa Flying, out of Painted Post, NY. In business since 1930, Coast Flying takes guests on a thrilling ride over the wineries and stunning geological formations of the Southern Finger Lakes. Trip costs range from $30-$200 per person depending on the length and distance of the tour.
Bobbing along on the waves of Lake Keuka may sound like a peaceful boating experience, but it’s also the start of a ride in a seaplane. Experience this unique adventure at the birthplace of water-based aviation with Finger Lakes Seaplanes. Book a 30-60 minute trip and choose from several options. Prices range from $225-$350 and are based on a per flight cost, which can include up to three adult passengers.
While it was Curtiss’ motorcycle engines that started the aviation industry in the region, today a breed of non-motorized planes also draw rave reviews. In a glider, you can soar with the birds at an altitude of about 4,000 feet and watch the vineyards of the Chemung Valley roll out beneath. Serenity awaits passengers with a flight at Harris Hill Soaring in Elmira, NY. The 15-20 minute rides floating above the region are something special. Those who are inspired can even take classes here. Harris Hill is also home to the National Soaring Museum, which is dedicated to preserving the history of motorless flight. Displaying gliders from the 1890s through today, the museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week March through December.
Last, but not least, strip the bells and whistles of flight all the way back to their beginnings with a hot air balloon ride hovering silently over the lushness of the Chemung Valley. Balloons Over Corning offers an opportunity to see how it all began with an experience unlike any other. Contact them directly for pricing and date availability.
The riveting story of Glenn Curtis has inspired generations of aviators in New York State, and you can explore that history through The Historical Aviation Trail, which links museums and historic sites across the state. Fans of air flight have come together to create several itineraries to follow, including one specifically featuring the Finger Lakes Region.
So explore the past—and enjoy incredible air-based experiences today—when planning a getaway to this scenic region of New York.
Written by Lisa Collard for RootsRated Media in partnership with Steuben County CVB.