BUFFALO, NY - Throughout the world wars, Buffalo was a leader in aircraft innovation. Between Bell and Curtiss-Wright Aircraft, Buffalo supplied the country with technology and aircraft needed to win WWII. While both Larry Bell and Glenn Curtiss provided the ideas, it was the skilled WNY workforce that provided the engine to keep this industrial machine working.
They were known as the soldiers of production, an army that dominated the WNY workplace. In the early 20th century, one of every 5 jobs here was aviation-related. One of the most dangerous jobs was that of the test pilot. One of the largest airplane factories in the world was the Curtiss-Wright plant on Genesee street in Cheektowaga, employing over 16,000 people...
In the early days of World War II, the plant had it's own 9-11. On September 11th, 1942, test pilot Bertrund Purnell was just beginning his test run of a P-40 when it caught fire. The cause of the fire is still a mystery. He jumped and parachuted safely to the ground around Genesee and Union. What happened next was tragically remarkable. Unbelievably, the plane turned back, traveled two miles without a pilot, and slammed through the roof of the Curtiss plant and into the paint shop.
It hit at lunch hour, and even though it could have been much worse, 43 were hurt, 6 died at the scene, another 8 died later, suffering burns and smoke inhalation from the fuel that spilled and caught fire.
A plaque was mounted on the building, which was ultimately torn down in 1999. That plaque now stands on the grounds of the Buffalo Niagara International Airport and a copy is on display at the Niagara Aerospace Museum, remembering the Curtiss-Wright Soldiers of Production.