AIN Blog: A "Golden Age" Relic Is Restored in Brooklyn

 - May 30, 2012, 11:45 AM
The passenger terminal and control tower at Floyd Bennett Field, NYC's first municipal airport
The passenger terminal and control tower at Floyd Bennett Field date back to the early 1930s. (Photo: Linda Epstein)

Quick, what was New York City’s first municipal airport? If you answered Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, give yourself a pat on the back as not many people would know that. Fewer still appreciate the patina that the former airport, located at the southernmost tip of Flatbush Avenue, has accumulated over the past 80 years. As a teen I lived less than a mile from the site, and I scarcely knew anything about it. Let’s hope that this obscurity will all change now that the defunct airport’s terminal and control tower were reopened to the public earlier this month and are now known as the William Fitts Ryan Visitor Center, named after the late New York congressman who was considered the father of the Gateway National Recreation Area, a series of parks and environmental areas that includes Floyd Bennett Field. A $6 million, three–year restoration sponsored by the Department of Defense and the National Park Service saw the terminal’s interior (formerly a dreary mess of peeling paint and crumbling plaster) returned to its elegant 1930s art deco appearance, including murals, polished tile and furnishings based on the building’s original plans. To step inside its doors is to step back in time, a sensation only strengthened by the sound of big-band swing and the period automobiles parked out front for the rededication.

Construction of the airport began on Oct. 29, 1929, a date more widely remembered for the stock-market crash that launched the Great Depression. Originally an island, the site was connected to Brooklyn with landfill, and Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn’s main artery, was extended to provide access. At a time when most airfields were literally fields, Municipal Airport Number 1 had paved concrete runways. Its large hangars could shelter any airplane in existence at the time, and it had a ramp for seaplanes and flying boats.

The airport was named after naval aviator Floyd Bennett, a Brooklyn native and Congressional Medal of Honor winner, who was the pilot in polar explorer Richard Byrd’s attempt to fly over the North Pole. Bennett died in 1928 at the age of 38 after contracting pneumonia during a Canadian rescue mission.

In its heyday, the state-of-the-art airfield was known for having one of the finest arrays of runways in the world. With lengths of more than 3,000 feet, they were well suited for aircraft heavily laden with fuel, and Floyd Bennett soon became a jumping-off point for record-breaking distance flights. The field’s list of patrons reads as a virtual who’s who of the “Golden Age” of aviation, as pilots such as Wiley Post, Jackie Cochran, Roscoe Turner, Howard Hughes, Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan, Amelia Earhart and Jimmy Doolittle used it as either the starter’s gate for their epic attempts or the finish line.

Yet the airport was destined to wither on the vine due to unfortunate geography. At the time, there were no nearby highways or rail service to carry passengers, and mass-transit buses had to travel along the same crowded roads as cars and trucks. Secondly, the fact that the airport was never able to wrest the area airmail contract from Newark Airport meant that airlines refused to move there. La Guardia (Municipal Airport Number 2) was much closer and better connected to midtown Manhattan, and when it opened in 1939 the writing was on the hangar wall for Floyd Bennett. In 1941 New York City sold the field for $9 million to the U.S. Navy, which had been a tenant at the airfield since it opened.

With a name change to Naval Air Station New York, and lengthened runways, the airfield became a hive of aviation activity and the busiest naval air station in the U.S. Since Grumman, one of the navy’s largest suppliers of aircraft, was located on Long Island, NAS N.Y. became the initial destination for completed aircraft and their acceptance flights were flown there before they were ferried to their service destinations—mainly on the West Coast. The Naval Air Ferry Command, which was responsible for distributing the new aircraft, was based at the airport. During the war NAS N.Y. received and commissioned more than 40,000 aircraft.

The field also supported anti-submarine patrols and it was the site of the first helicopter training facility in the world.

The navy operated NAS N.Y. through the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The Navy closed the field in 1972 and it was transferred to the National Park Service. It was added to the register of National Historic Places in 1980. Despite its continued use as the headquarters for the NYPD’s aviation division, and as a park facility, the airfield remained largely fallow and its buildings were neglected until the mid-2000s, when a private company received permission to renovate and repurpose a cluster of four hangars into a recreation complex now known as the Aviator. The agreement called for the preservation of the buildings’ exteriors, but their interiors now contain a pair of ice rinks, basketball courts and a gymnasium. The company is thought now to be casting its eye on the remaining four hangars on the opposite side of the terminal for further repurposing.

One little-known gem on the field is Hangar B, a massive structure tucked away at the opposite end of the airport and home to the largest aircraft collection you’ve never heard of; indeed, many Brooklyn residents would be surprised to know that there is a hangar packed full of vintage aircraft located on the edge of Jamaica Bay. That “publicity challenged” collection is under the care of the Historic Aircraft Restoration Project (Harp), a volunteer group that has spent thousands of hours restoring them in partnership with the National Park Service. Entering the hangar, one is stunned first by the size of the building and its vaulted ceiling, and second by the size of the aircraft within, among them a PBY Catalina, a C-47, HU-16 Albatross, P2V Neptune and even a massive C-97. Interspersed among them are smaller aircraft such as a Beech JRB “Bugsmasher,” a Sikorsky HH-3 Pelican SAR helicopter, a Vietnam-era A-4 Skyhawk and even an immaculate N2S Stearman Kaydet biplane trainer.  Most of the aircraft represent types that were seen on the field during its operational days. Visitors to the working hangar can get up close and personal with the aircraft in a way that many other museums would frown upon. The hangar is open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

For those interested in the early days of civil (and naval) aviation, Floyd Bennett field should be considered hallowed ground, deserving of the attention it is now finally receiving.