The History of the National Soaring Museum

The National Soaring Museum (NSM) is one of only two U.S. museums focused on motorless flight. Our local community, Elmira, NY is regarded as the "Soaring Capital of America," in part because of soaring's central role for nearly 80 years in the social and economic history of the region, attracting individuals and associations from around the world for thousands of contests, lectures, symposia, and special events.

The prominence of soaring in Elmira was established with the first 13 national soaring contests, held here from 1930 to 1946. This was made possible through an alliance of the national Soaring Society of America (SSA), the Harris Hill Soaring Corporation (HHSC), and what became our county's Chamber of Commerce. Harris Hill, home to the Museum and HHSC, has since hosted many other national, regional and international contests and exhibitions. The Works Projects Administration (WPA) built Chemung County's Harris Hill Park in the 1930s. These facilities included the gliderport, hangars cabins for housing contest pilots and crews, a youth camp, and an administration building. The field at which the national contests were held is still active (operated by HHSC) with the runway directly in front of the Museum.

Several other milestones also contribute to the area being central to the science, history, and sport of soaring. Schweizer Aircraft Corp. (now a division of Sikorksy), at the base of Harris Hill, produced half of all American sailplanes. At the outbreak of World War II, Elmira was also the first site chosen to develop a glider program and train pilots for the war effort. During the 1930s, 40s, and 50s the SSA also maintained its headquarters in Elmira.

National soaring contests of the 1950s brought about the concept of a national soaring museum. Area soaring then became the predominant theme in a local history museum, created in Elmira during that decade, at the Strathmont Estate. During the 1960s, the gliding portion of this small collection was relocated to Harris Hill through the efforts of HHSC, led by Schweizer Aircraft co-founder Paul A. Schweizer. In 1969, SSA designated Harris Hill as the site for the National Soaring Museum. The Museum serves as the official repository of SSA archives, and on SSA's behalf, it hosts and administers the U.S. Soaring Hall of Fame. Although an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, NSM was the result of another alliance between HHSC, SSA and the County. In 1972, the New York State Department of Education chartered NSM as a non-profit educational institution. NSM replaced the fire-damaged WPA-era administration building in 1979 with a new 16,000 sq. ft. facility. The Board of Trustees undertook a second major capital campaign culminating in 1989 with a 12,000 sq. ft. addition. A 3,200 sq. ft. Collections Annex was completed in 1993 to house a segment of the world's largest collection of motorless aircraft.

Following the opening of NSM, national soaring contests returned to Harris Hill in the 1980s. The 1-26 class competed here for national honors in July 1998, the Sports Class in 1999. During July 1995, NSM and HHSC again demonstrated the enduring preeminence of Elmira in soaring by hosting the first International Vintage Sailplane Meet (IVSM) ever held in the United States. Pilots (91) and gliders (49 ships from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s) from around the world flew off Harris Hill. Over 5,000 people participated in the ten-day event which received media coverage in the U.S, Canada, Italy, Germany, Australia, Japan and elsewhere. The Museum once again sponsored IVSM in 2000, 2005 and 2009. As a result of such events, aviation enthusiasts and historians, sailplane pilots (29,000 registered in the U.S.), and museum and academic scholars, today recognize our Museum as the primary historical institution for motorless flight in the United States.

In 1997 NSM's role as a tourist attraction and cultural center was instrumental in luring the National Warplane Museum (now Wings of Eagles Discovery Center) to relocate to the area. With the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, the three aviation history museums are a focus for cultural tourism and expanded educational enrichment in history and science for area school children.

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