The Gardenville Airport

Here is an article written by local author, Joan Albarella. It first appeared in the West Seneca Chamber Guide.

In the early1960’s my seven-year-old sister and six-year-old-brother decided to pack  several cans of beans and peas and run away from home. Since we lived in the center of Gardenville, close to the corner of Clinton Street and Union Road, the best strategy was to walk to the Gardenville Airport, which was about five miles away. As the story goes, Michael got tired, so Jackie had to carry him on her back. Carrying his weight and the heavy bag of canned goods forced them to return home. Their plan had been to hide in the back of a plane and eat beans as they escaped into the wild blue yonder.

It wasn’t a bad plan. The older Gardenville Airport had become the Buffalo Airpark and was enjoying a rebirth as a historic gathering place for local and national pilots. It was owned by Anthony “Tony” Riccio, who was well-known for his real estate enterprises. The small coffee shop/restaurant on the premises was run mostly by his high-school age daughter, and it was always busy.

Robert Jacobs operated a Master Plumbing business from the location, as well as an aviation ground school. Hank Richter, the Assistant West Seneca Highway Superintendent, was one of the leading flight instructors at the Airpark. He often stopped at his in-laws, the Charles Burchfield’s home on Clinton Street, on his way to his second job.

The Airpark went into bankruptcy when Tony Riccio died in 1986. It was bought by Robert Jacobs, who continued his plumbing business, the flight school, a banner towing company, and scenic flights over Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Jacobs also hosted Fly-In Breakfasts and Car Shows. Neighbors fondly remember the Blockbuster Video Blimp taking off and landing at the Airpark. Some remember the weight of West Seneca snow collapsing a hanger during the blizzard of 1977, and another snow-collapsed hanger in 1983. That one did a lot of damage to a new plane that was parked inside.

The Buffalo Airfield, at one time, covered one-hundred acres of land. Its asphalt runway is still listed as 2668 feet long and 59 feet wide. Wikipedia records that, “For the 12 month period ending June 18, 2009, the airport had 55,000 general aviation aircraft operations, an average of 150 per day. There were 23 aircraft based at the airport, 78% were single-engine and 22% were multi-engine.”

The biggest mystery and/or misinformation concerns the Gardenville Airport and the birthplace of the Bell helicopter, Model 47. This was the first helicopter certified for flight and the most well-known because it is in the opening shot of the “Mash” television program. The Mobile Army Surgical Hospital shuttled injured soldiers from the front line to the field hospitals during the Korean War.

For three years, between June1942 and June 1945, a group of 30-35 Bell engineers settled into the former Union Garage on Union Road and Losson Road. Since it was located a short distance from the Hamlet of Gardenville, in West Seneca, the engineers named their headquarters, “Gardenville.” For government security reasons, this was the “Gardenville Project,” and they were known as the “Gardenville Group”. They all lived nearby and socialized with neighbors from Cheektowaga and West Seneca.

The first three Bell helicopters were designed, built and flown from this Gardenville site. Vice President Truman came to watch the early flights, and rides were given to Governor Dewey and New York Mayor LaGuardia. Once the success of the helicopter was proven, it was moved to the Bell site in Niagara Falls. The Gardenville site was closed and is now a small plaza with a historic plaque marking its existence.

Many people think the Gardenville site was at the Gardenville Airport, but research into the honors and awards that came after this invention prove that wrong. But, I like to think that with the close proximity of the West Seneca Gardenville Airport, these engineers surely took advantage of the landing field to help with the helicopter testing flights.

Although much of the land surrounding the Gardenville Airport has been developed for homes and businesses, it is still a working airport. The owner is listed as L. T. Pezzanite. It is also listed as a “Relief Airport” for the nearby Buffalo International Airport providing overflow and additional capacity to the larger airport. It helps draw general aviation traffic away from the busier airport’s commercial traffic.

There is a Buffalo Airfield Facebook page where new pilots comment, and older fans reminisce. I lived by the Gardenville Airpark for more than thirty years, and although I never took a scenic flight, I did see the small planes and blimps. And my favorite story about that airport will always be the day my brother and sister tried to fly away from home.