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â€œItâ€™s a bird â€¦ itâ€™s a plane â€¦ itâ€™s a pilotless plane?â€�
This statement might have been expressed by a local resident who could have been surprised to see a pilotless plane around â€œAirport Hillâ€� in Jamestown during World War II when drones were being created and tested in the area.
On Wednesday, historians Sam Genco and Karen Livsey presented â€œJamestownâ€™s Secret War Planeâ€� during the Brown Bag Lecture at the Fenton History Center, located 67 Washington St. The two presented the information they have to date on the TDR-1, which was a pilotless plane being produced in Jamestown for the South Pacific war effort.
Jamestown was selected for the U.S. Navy program because of its rich furniture manufacturing history. Genco said the Navy wanted wooden planes because aluminum was in short supply during the war. With the backing of six furniture companies â€” Jamestown Lounge Company, Randolph Furniture Works, Union-National, Inc., Empire Case Goods Company, Jamestown Sterling Corp and Herrick Furniture Company, Inc. a division of Kling Factories â€“the parts were made at the furniture factories and then they would be assembled at a new plant located near the Chautauqua County/Jamestown Airport. The new plant, today the location of Jamestown Advanced Products, was named the Jamestown Aeronautical Corp.
Genco said in January 1943, the new company started searching for employees. A lot of the employees at the assembly plant and at the furniture manufactures were women, which was representative of the time with the increased employment of females in factories. Employees were sworn to secrecy not to talk about the project outside of work. He said employees from different divisions inside the plant werenâ€™t supposed to talk to each other about what they were making either. Genco said everyone knew they were producing wooden airplanes, but most didnâ€™t realize they were drones.
In July 1943, a prototype of the secret plane arrived in Jamestown. By November 1943, the first drone was produced in Jamestown. Genco said it is uncertain how many were produced locally. He said they can account for at least 14 pilotless planes created by Jamestown Aeronautical Corporation. He added, overall, there were 46 drone mission, with 21 hitting their targets during the war.
In March 1944, the program was canceled by the Navy who no longer found the program feasible, Genco said. Soon after, Jamestown Aeronautical Corp moved out and Duramold Aircraft started to use the factory.
The history partnership between Genco and Livsey started when Genco discussed the unique looking planes shown on an old 16 millimeter film he found in a box of official U.S. Navy motion picture films. He discovered the film canisters at an auction in Westfield. He added one of the canister said â€œclassifiedâ€� and it piqued his curiosity.
While Genco was showing the films he had of the unorthodox looking planes to Livsey, she told him about how those were the pilotless planes produced in Jamestown during World War II.
On Wednesday, Genco showed two films of the drones, some included a cockpit and some didnâ€™t, which obviously an uncharacteristic look for a plane at the time. Genco said the planes weighed about 6,000 pounds, had a 49-foot wing span, had a top speed of 140 MPH, had a range of about 125 miles and carried one 2,000 pound boom or aerial torpedo. The drones could be controlled from 80 miles away, one of the films stated.
On the films you could see how a remote control could be used to move the parts inside the cockpit area. There were closeups of each area of the plane, include the front where a television camera would be located for the remote pilot. The landing gear was supposed to falloff after takeoff because the planes were designed to be kamikaze-like, with no need for a safe landing.
The planes were made of plywood and metal tubing, some of the wooden parts manufactured by Wurlitzer piano company and the metal tubing was made by Schwinn bicycles. There is one surviving TDR-1 located at the National Museum of Naval Aviation I Pensacola, Fla. The Fenton History Center has a few documents relating to the Jamestown Aeronautical Corp, as well as, the issues of the Sky-Gest magazine.
The pair will be presenting their information on the TDR-1 for the Bemus Point Historical Society on Oct. 10.