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Three Bygone New York City Airports

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DALLAS – New York City has three major airports that are located outside of Manhattan, namely JFK, Newark (EWR), and LaGuardia (LGA). Today we take a look at three lesser-known airports that once served, or almost served, the big apple.

The world’s first officially established airport opened in 1908 on the site of a defunct Morris Park racetrack in the Bronx, but it was quickly torn down for development a few years later, incorporated into the expanding city. In its place, city officials picked a location in south Brooklyn that would become Floyd Bennett Field.

A government siting committee chose the Bronx site as one of six potential airport locations; the other four became LaGuardia, Newark Liberty, JFK, and Teterboro airports. The Wright brothers and other pioneers of aviation frequented the fifth, Governor’s Island, which had a runway until the 1960s, but that’s for another story.

Although plans for a sizable airport in the New York region had been discussed since 1925, little action was taken until 1927, when Charles Lindbergh’s solo transatlantic flight really got things moving.

That year, the Bronx Chamber of Commerce realized it needed to make New York’s first municipal airport a reality.

Bennettfield22121.jpegFloyd Bennet Field. Photo: Msedwick, Public Domain

Floyd Bennet Field

Floyd Bennett Field came into existence in 1928 by the pumping of sand from the bottom of Jamaica Bay into the waterways separating Barren Island and a few other islands from the rest of Brooklyn. The airfield is located in southeast Brooklyn’s Marine Park neighborhood, close to Jamaica Bay. Prior to being used as a naval air station, the airport served as a hub for general and commercial aviation.

Floyd Bennett, a renowned aviator who led the first aircraft to fly above the North Pole and had imagined an airfield at Barren Island before passing away in 1928, had the airport named in his honor.

It was dedicated on June 26, 1930, and on May 23, 1931, it was formally made available for commercial flights. However, Bennett Field did not see much commercial traffic despite the excellent quality of its facilities and was mostly used for general aviation. Aviators flying to or from Bennett Field set scores of aviation records during the interwar period.

The old flying field, which operated from 1911 to 1916, is now a shopping mall, while the eastern field, which was once an industrial park but is now mostly a retail area with townhouses and the Mall at The Source on the site of the former runway.

During the latter 1930s “Golden Age of Aviation,” Floyd Bennett Field served as a home base for numerous illustrious pilots. This resulted from a number of favorable circumstances, including the climate, topography, current infrastructure, and little commercial activity.

Bennett Field served as the starting point or final destination of numerous world or transoceanic record-breaking flights, including 26 such trips and 10 such transcontinental flights.

1626px-Floyd_Bennett_Field_aerial_from_nFloyd Bennett Field from the air, 2013. Photo: Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Bennett Field is currently managed by the National Park Service and is a part of the Jamaica Bay Unit of the Gateway National Recreation Area (NPS). The New York City Police Department (NYPD) still uses a portion of the airfield as a helicopter base, and one runway is set aside for hobbyists flying radio-controlled aircraft, despite the fact that it is no longer in use as an active commercial, military, or general aviation airfield.

The United States Coast Guard and United States Navy began to occupy a portion of the airport in the 1930s. On June 2, 1941, Bennett Field joined Naval Air Station New York as a result of the start of World War II.

During WWII, Floyd Bennett Field served as a focal point for naval operations. The airfield served as a Naval Air Reserve station after the war. Bennett Field was last used by the Navy in 1970. However, the Coast Guard continued to use it until 1998 and a reserve facility remained there until 1983.

Bennett Field was to be used for a variety of purposes; however, it wasn’t until 1972 that it was decided to incorporate the airport within the Gateway National Recreation Area. In 1974, Floyd Bennett Field reopened as a park.

As one of the largest collections and best examples of commercial aviation architecture from the era, and as a result of the region’s significant contributions to general aviation and military aviation during the Interwar period, many of the earliest surviving original structures are included in a historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Lindbergh_takes_off_from_Roosevelt_FieldNearly a thousand people assembled at Roosevelt Field to see Charles Lindbergh off on his historic flight. Underwood and Underwood. Image Number: SI-77-2701 Credit: National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Roosevelt Field

A former NY airport called Roosevelt Field can be found 3.7 kilometers (2.3 miles) east-southeast of Mineola, Long Island, New York. During World War I, the United States Army’s Air Service used Hazelhurst Field, also known as the Hempstead Plains Aerodrome, Hempstead Plains Field, or even the Garden City Aerodrome, as a training ground.

It was renamed in 1919 to recognize President Theodore Roosevelt’s son Quentin, who died in World War I air combat.

Many important flights in the early days of aviation, notably Charles Lindbergh’s solo transatlantic flight in 1927, took off from Roosevelt Field. Other early aviators like Amelia Earhart and Wiley Post also employed it.

Once the property was in civilian hands after the war, the owners divided the remaining land into two distinct zones before selling off pieces along the field’s southern boundary. Half of the western section along Clinton Road was taken up by Curtiss Field, a 300-acre airfield built on the original site of Hazelhurst Field.

The remaining area was occupied by Roosevelt Field, which included an east-west packed clay runway about 5000 feet in length on the bluff, seven hangars, a sizable parking ramp close to Curtiss Field, and other structures.

Aline_H._Rhonie_American_painter_1909-19Aline Hofheimer (1909–1963) painted a 126-foot fresco representing aviation history in Roosevelt Field, Long Island (c. 1935). Photo: Smithsonian Institution. Public Domain

On September 21, 1926, René Fonck attempted to launch the Sikorsky S-35 in pursuit of the Orteig Prize, but the aircraft was significantly overweight and stressed the auxiliary landing gear placed to help support the burden, breaking a wheel in the process. Two of the crew members died when the plane, unable to reach lift speed, cartwheeled off the end of the cliff and caught fire.

The Roosevelt Field runway would late be used by Charles Lindbergh to take off aboard the Spirit of St. Louis on his voyage to Paris the following May.

During World War II, the Navy and Army both used Roosevelt Field, which resumed operations as a commercial airport following the war until 1950, when it was purchased by real estate developers. On May 31, 1951, the field was shut down.

coop-city-nyc-untapped-cities-jeff-reubePhoto: Thomas X. Casey, Public Domain

The Bronx Airport That Never Was

In August 1927, local business people gathered for the opening ceremony of a new airstrip in the Bronx wetlands. Soon after, a single-engine biplane came in for its first landing, but instead of being met with joy, the accident included a parked automobile on the makeshift runway.

Although nobody was hurt, the failed attempt to create an airport in the Bronx was a bad portent. Many residents of New York City and visitors would be arriving in the eastern Bronx today rather than LaGuardia Airport in northern Queens if everything had gone as planned.

On October 1, 1928, one of the New Jersey locations in the Newark region, which is now known as Newark Liberty International Airport, opened. However, a private company’s entry into the competition was set to hamper plans for a New York counterpart.

95963895_360W.pngImage: The New York Times Archives

In 1929, a number of aeronautics companies merged to become the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, which at the time was the largest aviation company in the US.

With more than US$35m in cash on hand, Curtiss-Wright decided to diversify its business beyond the production of aircraft by building an extensive network of airports around the country. The eastern Bronx marshes in New York were a terrific fit and offered good value.

As soon as possible, Curtiss-Wright started acquiring lands in the Bronx with the intention of building what a local newspaper called “the world’s largest airport on the shore of Eastchester Creek.”

A June 5, 1929 Headline from The New York Times read, “$3,000,000 AIRPORT PLANNED IN BRONX; Curtiss Corporation Announces Purchase of Site Adjoining Pelham Bay Park. WORK TO BEGIN SOON Triangular 250-Acre Plot Is Termed Ideal for Sea and Land Planes.”

As you might have guessed, the residents of the nearby Village of Pelham Manor did not enjoy the notion of having an airport in their backyard. Despite the village’s location in Westchester County, local officials tried to change the zoning regulations to stop the airport’s construction.

The airport seemed inescapable until the stock market crash in October 1929. With its property taxes on just one location more than half a million dollars past due by 1936, Curtiss-Wright quickly liquidated its airport subsidiary.

By that point, unsatisfied with the travel time from Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field to Manhattan, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had shifted his sights to northern Queens. In 1934, he refused to deplane at New Jersey’s Newark Airport because his ticket read “New York.” He called for a new, modern airport closer to Manhattan’s business center. That airport, which now bears his name, opened in 1939.

Featured image: A concrete runway at Floyd Bennett Field. Photo: Ad Meskens, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

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