For aviation enthusiasts, the 1929 Curtiss Hangar in Stratford is something of a holy site.
“This is the most historic place in Connecticut as far as aviation,” says Mark Corvino, vice president of the Connecticut Air and Space Center, and Curtiss Hangar restoration project manager. Corvino is standing in front of the hangar on a cold December morning. The mammoth building is on the grounds of the Igor I. Sikorsky Memorial Airport, and a biting wind blows unimpeded across the sprawling flat runways nearby. Caught up in the history of the place, Corvino does not seem to notice the cold. “Igor Sikorsky developed the helicopter right where those trees are,” he says, pointing to a spot nearby. “Charles Lindbergh kept his plane here … Amelia Earhart was here. They made 8,000 Corsairs here.”
The Corsair was a World War II-era fighter aircraft, built by Vought, an aviation company once based in Stratford. When it was first introduced, the Corsair had the biggest and most powerful engine, the largest propeller and one of the largest wingspans of any fighter. In October 1940, the plane became the first single-engine U.S. fighter to fly faster than 400 mph, when it flew an average of 405 mph during a flight from Stratford to Hartford.
During the war, Corsairs were made at a sprawling factory across the street from Curtiss Hangar. Once completed, “they were stacked up in the hangar,” says Corvino, where they would be flown for 20 hours, primarily by female pilots (most male pilots were overseas), and then flown overseas.
It’s this history that Corvino and others associated with the Connecticut Air and Space Center are hoping to preserve and highlight at the hangar. Last May the organization held a groundbreaking ceremony to begin the first phase of restoration of the hangar, which has long been neglected and at the mercy of the elements. The organization has received $500,000 for completion of this first phase, which will seal off the hangar from the weather, but full restoration is expected to cost about $1.2 million.
Once completed, the hangar will serve as the centerpiece of the Connecticut Air and Space Center and a beautiful cathedral of aeronautic history. It will house a variety of painstakingly restored historic aircraft including a steampunk-looking contraption known as the Sikorsky Skycrane and a Corsair, which will be the museum’s centerpiece.
The restoration process is still in its early stages. Open air peeks through large openings in the roof. Some window panes are missing from the mammoth sliding hangar doors. The arch of the entrance is a faded blue, where the word “Curtiss” can still be made out. But even in its current state of disrepair, it’s clear there is something special about the building.
“Those are the original doors, original brick, original window frames, and we’re trying to keep exactly the same look,” Corvino says as he gestures to the entrance of the hangar.
The hangar was completed in 1928, in the midst of what historians refer to as the “Golden Age of Aviation” when new inventions were emerging and records were constantly being set, many of them in Stratford. The hangar was owned by The Curtiss Flying School, an early competitor to the Wright Flying School owned by the Wright Brothers, but before long the two schools merged into the Curtiss-Wright Flying School. The company couldn’t survive the Great Depression and withdrew from Stratford in the early 1930s. Vought purchased the facility not long after that, and it has been owned by a variety of companies in the years since.
Meanwhile, Sikorsky opened his aviation company next door to the hangar in the 1920s. At first his company built traditional airplanes including the S-42 Clipper, also known as the flying boat, an amphibious monster of an early aircraft. In 1939, Vought and Sikorsky merged, and Sikorsky’s VS-300 lifted off the ground, becoming the world’s first practical helicopter. Soon thereafter Sikorsky began focusing most of his energies on helicopter designs.
Much of this history comes alive at the Connecticut Air and Space Center across the street from the Curtiss Hangar. At the museum, guests can see restored versions of these historic aircraft. A core group of dedicated aviation enthusiasts is responsible for these aircraft restorations, sometimes from wrecks, with original blueprints as a guide. The detail is stunning and allows guests to touch and feel the history.
“The Curtiss Hangar still stands to this day in a sort of stubborn defiance, clinging to that Golden Age of aviators in Silk Scarfs and Radial Engine Biplanes soaring over Long Island Sound,” reads the text of an exhibit at the museum dedicated to the hangar. “While many people see a crumbled facade and torn roof, the reality is her bones are strong.”
As is the passion of those working to restore the hangar.
The Corsair that will ultimately be on display in the hangar had long sat on a pylon at the airport entrance, where it was open to the elements. The plane is in the process of being restored in a nearby hangar. Climbing up to the cockpit, I was amazed at just how small and cramped it looked, then shocked when Corvino informed me that it actually had a large cockpit for a fighter plane of the era.
As I walked with Corvino across the currently empty hangar, it was easy to imagine the Corsair, now painted a bright and vibrant yellow, standing in the center of hangar space and wowing guests. Nearby, a small plane started its engine, filling the hangar with the roar that has long served as the holy hymn of this cathedral. Hearing it and standing in the hangar, one is tempted to join in the decades-old struggle to conquer the skies and is left with the distinct impression that aviation and its history is alive and well in Stratford.