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Prime Time: Expert on 1930s racing plane receives honor

Friday, February 8, 2013
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Henry Haffke, seated, holds a certificate of merit from the National Aeronautical Association. With him, from left, are Malta Supervisor Paul Sausville, daughter Karen Hart, and sons Raymond and Gary Haffke. (Photo by Stephen Williams)
Henry Haffke, seated, holds a certificate of merit from the National Aeronautical Association. With him, from left, are Malta Supervisor Paul Sausville, daughter Karen Hart, and sons Raymond and Gary Haffke. (Photo by Stephen Williams)

— After nearly eight decades of designing and building model airplanes, former town resident Henry A. Haffke is getting national recognition for his accomplishments.

Haffke, who has also written the definitive book on the history of a 1930s racing airplane known as the Gee Bee, recently received a prestigious Certificate of Merit Award from the National Aeronautic Association.

The association describes Haffke as "one of the foremost experts in the world on the original and modeling versions of the Gee Bee series of aircraft." Indeed, his license plates says: MR GEE BEE.

Malta town Supervisor Paul Sausville presented the award on behalf of the association, with Haffke's three children present.

Haffke, who currently lives in the Wesley Communities in Saratoga Springs, spent decades researching and chronicling the history of Gee Bee aircraft. The planes had oversize engines and a "tear-drop" shape that allowed them to be fast in the air, but gave them a reputation for being dangerous to fly.

The plane, which was developed near where Haffke grew up in Springfield, always fascinated him — and he began designing radio-controlled scale models of it, along with many other models he designed.

Publishes book

After years of research, in 1989 Haffke published a book, "Gee Bee — The Real Story of the Granville Brothers and Their Marvelous Airplanes," which he said showed the planes were actually safer than their reputation indicated.

"My dad got to meet a lot of the 'dead' pilots who supposedly had been killed trying to fly these things," said his son, Raymond, who lives in Londonderry, Vt.

Haffke, 85, said he started making model airplanes with his father when he was only 6 or 7 years old. He grew up in the Springfield area, and then as an adult ran a small motel in central Vermont.

He and his wife of 57 years, Lorraine, moved to Malta about nine years ago, to be closer to where two of their three children live.

Haffke learned to fly at age 15 and served in the Navy at the end of World War II — but even in civilian life he remained fascinated by aviation.

Along the way he discovered the story of the Gee Bee aircraft that were manufactured in Springfield, which became famous for their innovative design and speed abilities that allowed noted aviator Jimmy Doolittle to set a then-speed record of nearly 500 mph in the 1930s.

After years of research, in 1989 Haffke published a book, "Gee Bee — The Real Story of the Granville Brothers and Their Marvelous Airplanes."

"They were responsible for airplanes that set world speed records," Haffke said.

There were five Granville Brothers who worked together to design the plane — and the name Granville Brothers, abbreviated to initials, is where the name of the plane comes from.

In the era when the Gee Bee was popular, crowds would turn out for "barn-storming" air races in much the way people turn out for auto races today.

Model builder

In addition to researching the Gee Bee, Haffke began building scale-models of it that were able to fly, despite many doubters. The planes were quarter-scale models, meaning the models were large enough that they had to include design details right down the location of welded rivets.

Over the years, Haffke has created numerous model aircraft designs, become an accomplished museum-scale airplane builder, and he has published articles in numerous model aircraft magazines.

Haffke is also in the Academy of Model Aeronautic's Hall of Fame, and was once a celebrated roller-skater in New England.

In recent years Haffke has attended local model airplane events talking about model aviation to children and families, and how the hobby is a potential doorway to science, math, engineering and careers in aviation. He has also spoken on the history of the Gee Bee at the Empire State Aerosciences Museum in Glenville.

The National Aeronautic Association, which gave Haffke the award, is a non-profit organization devoted to fostering opportunities to participate in aviation activities and to promoting public understanding of the importance of aviation and space flight.

 
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