Where New Yorkers First Took Flight

July 10, 2009 at 1:54 am Leave a comment

NEW YORK CITY opened its first municipal airport in May 1931 with a grand ceremony for Floyd Bennett Field, at the end of Flatbush Avenue where the eastern fringe of Brooklyn meets Jamaica Bay. A crowd of thousands craned their necks and held on to their hats as fighter planes staged mock battles against an overcast sky and an armada of bombers thundered past.

Today only radio-controlled model airplanes, armadas of geese and traffic from John F. Kennedy Airport tend to appear in the sky over Floyd Bennett Field. But the runways, old hangars and waterfront are far from idle. Decommissioned in the early 1970s, the airfield became part of the Jamaica Bay Unit of the National Park Service’s Gateway National Recreation Area. The Park Service has preserved the historic look and feel of the airfield while seeding an area larger than Central Park with things to do and see, from camping and gardening to bicycle races, kayaking, fishing, golf and indoor sports. There’s even an archery range and a cricket pitch.

Floyd Bennett Field was named for the pilot of Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s first flight to the North Pole in 1926 (whether he got there has been the subject of dispute) who died in 1928. The broad and flat airfield was created mostly by landfill, connecting the marshy edge of the Brooklyn mainland to several small islands. These included Barren Island, infamous in the 19th century for its noxious horse-rendering facilities, remembered today in the name Dead Horse Bay, across Flatbush Avenue from the airfield. The Gateway Marina there is operated as a concession for the Park Service, along with an adjacent golf driving range and pro shop.

Along Flatbush Avenue the original terminal and hangars still stand, examples of what’s been called a “municipal hybrid” of Art Deco and other styles.

“There are very few intact 1930s airports,” Peter McCarthy, acting superintendent for the Park Service’s Jamaica Bay Unit, said recently. “We’ve done a lot to hold onto the original character of the site.”

Now named the Ryan Visitor Center, the once glamorous terminal and administration building housed a bar, a restaurant and dormitories for flight crews. The stubby control tower seen today is a later modification. Passengers walked in through the Flatbush Avenue doors, past ticketing and luggage counters, and out the back door to their waiting planes. For rainy days there were tunnels with planes parked at the ends of them. The building is closed for a planned restoration.

Four old hangars nearby that had fallen into disrepair were leased from the Park Service and renovated by a business consortium, opening in 2006 as the Aviator Sports and Recreation complex. It includes two N.H.L.-size skating rinks; courts for basketball, volleyball and dodge ball; a fitness center; a rock-climbing wall; a food court; and a bar. Vintage airport signs and photos remind users of the buildings’ former life.

Also near the terminal is one of the largest community gardens in the city, with some 600 plots where gardeners from all five boroughs grow vegetables, herbs, flowers and shrubs.

The airfield opened with two runways, which are still visible: one parallel to Flatbush Avenue, the other cutting straight across the site from the terminal to the shore of Jamaica Bay. Others came later, crisscrossing the flat landscape. Many of the great names of aviation took off from and landed on these runways in the airfield’s heyday. Amelia Earhart, Laura Ingalls (who set a women’s distance record with a 17,000-mile flight) and the racing pilot Jacqueline Cochran used the field in some of their landmark flights. In 1933 the one-eyed aviation pioneer Wiley Post took off from Floyd Bennett in his single-engine Lockheed Vega, the Winnie Mae, and returned a week later to complete the first solo flight around the world. In 1938 Howard Hughes repeated the trip in just under four days.

That same year, after his jury-rigged plane was ruled unfit for transatlantic flight by the Bureau of Air Commerce (a forerunner of the Federal Aviation Administration), Wrong Way Corrigan (whose given name was Douglas) filed a flight plan to California, then flew from Floyd Bennett to Dublin, claiming his compass had steered him wrong. He returned to a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan, and a New York Post headline, “Hail Wrong Way Corrigan,” printed backward.

Floyd Bennett’s era as a commercial airport ended with the 1930s. It became a crucial naval air station in World War II and continued as a facility for military pilot training and the testing of experimental aircraft into the early 1970s. In 1957 the Marine pilot and future astronaut John Glenn made the first cross-country flight at average supersonic speeds from Los Angeles to Floyd Bennett in under three and a half hours. The Marine Corps still maintains a Reserve center there.

Across the field from the terminal stands the cavernous Hangar B, built by the Navy in 1941 to house seaplanes. Kayakers and canoers now put their craft into the water from the old concrete ramp behind the hangar. During World War II “Seaplanes like the PBY Catalina would roll down this ramp and take off from the channel to protect convoys of ships that were leaving New York harbor,” the acting district ranger John Daskalakis said.

Today fishermen cast their lines from the bulkheads beside the ramp. The bay is rich with striped bass, bluefish and other species, Mr. Daskalakis said, and humans aren’t the only ones trying to catch them. Gulls swoop, long-necked cormorants dive, and harbor seals hunt these waters.

Inside Hangar B members of Historic Aircraft Restoration Project, a volunteer organization of aircraft enthusiasts, engineers and pilots, rebuild vintage aircraft and assemble full-size replicas. Standing around the hangar in various stages of repair, the craft include a small Fairchild training plane with bright yellow wings, a postwar-era Lockheed P2V Neptune patrol plane, an A-4 Skyhawk fighter jet like the one John McCain flew during the Vietnam War and one of those PBY Catalina flying boats.

The hangar is open to the public Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Project members happily pause in their work to talk aviation history and tell their own stories to visitors and student groups.

During World War II Joseph Tesoriero worked in a factory that built the Brewster Buffalo fighter (derided as a “flying coffin” by Marine pilots in the Pacific). In Hangar B he’s helping to create a full-scale replica of a Stearman biplane, a ubiquitous training plane of the 1930s and ’40s.

Hank Iken, a lifelong aviation enthusiast, is helping to build a replica of the Winnie Mae. (The Smithsonian Institution has the actual aircraft.) Unable to get engineering drawings from Lockheed, the group is working from old, “exquisite and accurate” model kit drawings, he said, rescaling them to build a full-size replica with a 41-foot wingspan.

Seated in the tight spartan confines of the P2V Neptune, Robert Weiss fondly remembered flying in the same type of plane as a Navy reservist in the late 1950s, patrolling the Atlantic coast for Soviet submarines.

“We never saw a Russian submarine, but we saw a lot of Russian trawlers,” he recalled.

He returns to Hangar B every week. “I love it,” he said. “It brings back memories and keeps us young. You’re 19 and 20 years old again.”

Like the hangars the well-preserved runways see a lot of adaptive reuse. A section of one is marked off for Tuesday evening bicycle races, and there’s also land sailing.

A section of another is a miniature airfield where enthusiasts meet on weekends to fly radio-controlled model airplanes. They range from small biplanes to a model of a Concorde that’s as big as a sports car and powered by an actual jet turbine. Depending on size and sophistication, models can cost from as little as $100 up to $75,000.

On a weekday afternoon in late June, Larry Johnson, a retired flyer, put El Bandito, a battery-powered model jet, through its paces. He expertly guided it through a set of loops and rolls before bringing it in for a gentle landing.

A Russian immigrant who Americanized his name, Mr. Johnson paints the American flag on all his model aircraft.

“In ’91, when Russia came upside down, I leave Russia,” he explained. “I love America very much.”

Mr. Johnson, who took up flying model airplanes about a decade ago, compared the feeling he got when he started flying them to a first love affair. “Same exact thing, maybe a little bit more,” he said with a laugh.

Movie crews often build sets on the runways. Recently Mr. McCarthy drove a visitor through a mockup of a fortified border checkpoint. “You’re now entering North Korea,” he announced.

Near another runway is a campground, surrounded by trees and shrubs, open to the public by permit. This is also the site of Ecology Village, a two-day summer camping program for city schoolchildren ages 8 to 14, many of whom are sleeping out under the stars for the first time.

“They ask if there are bears and wolves in the woods,” Mr. McCarthy said. There aren’t, but the children may spot hawks and sparrows, and enjoy the sights and scents of wild rose, honeysuckle, shore grasses and prickly-pear cactuses.

Standing at the water’s edge near the end of one mile-long runway, flanked by contemplative fishermen, Mr. Daskalakis pointed to the spire of the Empire State Building, distant but clearly visible. Floyd Bennett Field may feel far removed from Manhattan in space and time, he said, but it’s only a subway-and-bus ride away.

By JOHN STRAUSBAUGH
New York Times

 

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Entry filed under: Brooklyn, Go Coastal, Public Waterfront. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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