“A lot of famous aviators literally walked around barns,” Millington said, referring to popular traveling flight displays of the past. “It was a period in the 1920s when aviation was growing and therefore the demand for airports was increasing,” he said, adding that the new breed of pilots were attracted to the concentrated cluster of airports in the region.
Today, Albany and the Capital Region build on that heritage as a field that is still pushing aviation into the future, through companies like GE Research (part of General Electric) and the arrival from buzzy tech start-up Wright Electric, an electric aviation company. which moved its headquarters to Albany last year. Its lofty goal is to make short-haul commercial flights of one hour or less zero emissions by 2026.
The Capital Region’s pioneering past is on display at ESAM, where the many aviation exhibits include more than 20 meticulously restored historic aircraft. These were spread out on an outdoor lot, displayed in a building where they are suspended above the head as if in full flight and parked in an old shed where children are invited to crawl inside. The museum is located on the grounds of Schenectady County Airport (about a 30-minute drive from Albany), another area airport (established in 1927) that once hosted Lindbergh, aboard his Spirit of St Louis. It was also the site of the nation’s first airmail delivery by jet aircraft, in 1946. (Airmail had previously been delivered via propeller planes, according to Millington, and Curtiss himself claimed to have carried out the first-ever airmail delivery of all bringing a note from the mayor of Albany to the mayor of New York in 1910.)
Notably, ESAM takes place in the buildings of the former General Electric Flight Test Center, which operated here from 1946 to 1964. Millington attributed much of the area’s aviation tradition to General Electric’s advances in jet propulsion, avionics, and missile guidance and control systems in its time. the. Founded by famed inventor Thomas Edison and based in Schenectady, Capital Region, in the late 19th century, General Electric still maintains its local research arm today, focusing on aerospace. And at the historic test center, Millington noted, “You had a mix of scientists, engineers, military, all gathered there.”