I’ve been to some great vintage aircraft museums in New York, but the National Soaring Museum near Elmira is the only one I’ve ever visited that’s dedicated to motorless flight.
The National Soaring Museum is located atop Harris Hill, which is between Elmira and Corning in Chemung County, New York. It was on this site that the first 13 National Soaring Competitions were held beginning in 1930. The area was also the site of the country’s first military glider training facility during World War 2.
The museum is located atop the hill, next to an airfield that launches gliders into the air regularly throughout the year, though sadly not on the December day that I visited. They even offer some public rides, but more on that below.
The National Soaring Museum was chartered in 1972 and offers a fantastic look into the history and mechanics of an often overlooked type of flying vehicle.
Visits start with a 10-minute film that covers the history of gliders and why this area of the Finger Lakes was such a magnet for glider aviation. This is a great introduction to the site and definitely worth the time to watch.
Most of the museum’s displays are on the lower level below the entrance, gift shop, and film area. However, before heading down, make sure to check out both the displays on the mezzanine and the great view of the museum from this area.
Walking around the museum, I counted more than two dozen gliders on display. There was a good mix of old and new as well as originals and replicas in the collection.
I especially enjoyed the replica of the Wright Brothers’ 1902 glider, which was a precursor to their first powered flight in 1903. Interestingly, the Wrights were big into gliding even after their powered flights, and Orville Wright held the record for the longest unpowered flight from 1911-1921.
Also of particular interest was the Waco CG-4A glider, which was the most used glider during World War 2. While the wings and other pieces aren’t on display, the main fuselage is and offers a really interesting look into military aviation during the 1940s.
While the large gliders were all interesting to see and the signage on them was excellent, I also really enjoyed some of the smaller items on display, and, in particular, the display of glider models.
Within a large circular area, the National Soaring Museum features 129 models of different gliders that were made from 1883-1998. Looking over this display really allowed me to see and understand how gliders have changed over the past century and a half.
Elmira’s rich history of unpowered flight was also showcased in the Schweizer Aircraft Corporation, which produced gliders near Elmira for many years. The museum has an entire gallery dedicated to the company and offers a really interesting look at how it impacted this field of aviation.
In addition to the main galleries, the National Soaring Museum also features a workshop where you can see decades-old gliders being refurbished. I had a great time talking to the volunteer in the space who told me a lot of information about the glider and how they worked.
Make sure you don’t miss this part of the museum when you visit as it is a little bit hidden.
Before you even enter the museum, you are sure to notice the small airport next to the museum. This is owned by the Harris Hill Soaring Corporation, and it’s not uncommon to see glider flights leaving from here throughout the year (though, again, sadly not on the day I visited).
From April through October, the museum sells certificates that allow you to take a 15-20 minute glider flight from this airport.
This would seem to be a great way to end your visit to the National Soaring Museum after learning about the history of these interesting machines. However, as I haven’t had a chance to do the ride yet, I can’t comment on the quality of the experience.
Overall, whether you take a glider ride or not, I found the National Soaring Museum in Elmira to be quite fascinating. Even having visited many aviation museums in the past, the fact that this museum covered an aspect of aviation typically overlooked by other museums made this a really fantastic spot to visit.
Definitely add this museum to your list of spots to check out in the Southern Tier.
National Soaring Museum
Hours: Daily 9a-5p
Cost: Adults: $9, Kids: $5
Address: 51 Soaring Hill Dr