Explore the history of aviation in Stratford

As the place where the world’s first practical helicopter flight took place in 1939, Stratford is part of aviation history.

It’s also where Sikorsky Aircraft continues to manufacture helicopters in its large factory next to the Merritt Parkway.

However, Stratford’s connection to human flight goes much deeper.

The country’s first air show in 1911 was held near today’s Sikorsky Memorial Airport, a facility that was visited by early aviation pioneers Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes.

Factories near the airport turned out 7,000 Corsair fighter planes during and after World War II as well as numerous aviation engines and other planes through the decades.

This history is on display in the National Helicopter Museum and the Connecticut Air & Space Center, both all-volunteer, nonprofit operations in Stratford.

The National Helicopter Museum

The Helicopter Museum opened in 1983 and highlights inventor Igor Sikorsky’s contributions. The Russian immigrant designed the first helicopter with a single main rotor and tail rotor design that became the standard for helicopter-making around the world. It first flew in 1939 in Stratford.

The museum, in the former eastbound train station at 2480 Main Street, features the cockpit of a real helicopter, a flight simulator, helicopter and plane models, photos, videos and other artifacts about helicopter history and flying.

Visitors can learn about the origins of flight from boomerangs to Leonardo da Vinci, how helicopters work, the first female helicopter pilot, and U.S. presidential helicopters made by Sikorsky Aircraft.

Raymond Jankowich, a retired physician, helped found the institution. “No one has a helicopter museum,” he thought at the time. “We build helicopters and engines here, and the first flight was in Stratford.”

Jankowich reached out to the Smithsonian Institution and United Technologies, then the parent company of Sikorsky Aircraft, for guidance and others joined the effort.

The museum’s primary mission is to educate the public about the helicopter and Stratford’s role in its development and production, he said.

Museum board president Ken Pike said he wants people to better understand the helicopter’s positive contributions in lifesaving activities, such as rescue and medical missions by both civil and military entities.

“Millions of lives have been saved,” said Pike, who flies helicopters and planes and works in the aviation business.

Pike said young people visiting the museum can learn about aviation-related job opportunities, from flying to maintenance to the business side.

Visitors can spend time inside the cockpit of a real Sikorsky S-76 helicopter. “They can use the instruments and pretend they’re flying,” Jankowich said.

Stan Gorlo, a museum board member and Sikorsky Aircraft retiree, said people of all ages are fascinated while sitting in the cockpit. “You see their faces while they press all the buttons and think, ‘I’m doing something I never thought I would do,’” he said.

When people drop by, sometimes after driving by the museum for years, “they are amazed at all the history and how Stratford is a pioneer,” Gorlo said.

Air & Space Center

The Air & Space Center is located near Sikorsky Airport in two old aviation factory buildings. Visitors must be at least age 18 because the overall complex still is controlled by the military and is being remediated.

The site is where Corsairs were manufactured by Chance Voight during WWII. Part of the complex also was the original Sikorsky factory in Stratford.

“We have history in our buildings, too,” said Chris Soltis, the center’s curator and exhibit designer, recalling how as a child he would visit his father when he worked in the engine plant.

The center focuses on the state’s contributions to aviation, including individuals and aircraft. Two rooms are filled with aeronautical and military memorabilia, from factory workers’ outfits to an Army Horwitzer and specialized cameras used while flying to an Army Jeep.

There’s also a replica of Gustave Whitehead’s No. 21 Condor flying machine, which many believe was used in the first manned flight in 1901. Whitehead lived and conducted flying experiments in the region.

Visitors are then guided into larger rooms with planes, small jets, helicopters and engines undergoing restoration. “We’re having aircraft finished so they’re ready for display,” Soltis said.

He pointed to a 1967 Hughes helicopter that’s almost fully restored. It was shot down and recovered twice in Vietnam. “It’s amazing how many times it was hit,” said Soltis, noting the helicopter later was used by a flight demonstration team similar to the Blue Angels and by a local police department.

The museum’s centerpiece may be a WWII Corsair fighter plane that’s being renovated, one of only a few in existence. “Once finished, [it] will look like it did when it rolled off a factory floor in 1945,” Soltis said.

All aircraft and related equipment are donated. Military veterans and Sikorsky Aircraft employees and retirees volunteer their time to restore them.

The center was founded in 1998. The long-term goal is to refurbish and move into the nearby historic Curtiss Hangar, now vacant.

“We want to be the Mystic Seaport of air museums — to be a living, breathing museum so we can share the history of what happened here and all over the state,” Soltis said.

For more information about the Connecticut Air & Space Museum, visit ctairandspace.org. For more information about the National Helicopter Museum, visit nationalhelicoptermuseum.org.