The History of Floyd Bennett Field

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There are an increasing number of New York area airports, including those on Long Island, in Westchester County, and in New Jersey, yet few are able to name New York City’s very first airport.  Even fewer are able to explain why it no longer exists.  That airport is Floyd Bennett Field and it has had three distinct historical phases.

                Tracing its origins to Lindbergh’s historic, New York-Paris solo flight, it had alerted the world to the fact that the aircraft had not departed from New York at all, but from Long Island instead, and that the only real “New York” airport had been located across the state line, in New Jersey.  Thus indicating the need for a dedicated, New York-located, municipal airport, it had led to the establishment of a panel headed by famed aviator Clarence D. Chamberlain to search for a suitable site for one. 

The subsequently chosen location, a 387-acre marsh on Barren Island south of Brooklyn, New York, had housed a small community, a horse-rendering plant, and the appropriately-named, single-dirt runway Barren Island Airport, which had been owned by Paul Rizzo and had been used for periodic passenger sightseeing flights.  The site, part of 33 tiny islands, enjoyed favorable winds, lacked approach obstructions, had been predominantly fog-free, and offered vast expanses for future growth.  The airport, intended as a state-of-the-art gateway to what had been considered one of the world’s greatest cities, had been named “Floyd Bennett Field” after the Brooklyn resident and naval aviator who had served as Richard E. Byrd’s pilot on his historic North Pole flight in 1926.  Both had received the Congressional Medal of Honor for the feat.

Construction, by the City Department of Docks, coincidentally occurred on October 29, 1929, the same day that the stock market had crashed, and entailed the connection of the islets by filling in their interspersing channels with six million cubic feet of sand pumped from the bottom of Jamaica Bay and raising its resultant elevation 16 feet above the tidewater, to connect it to Long Island.

Runway 15-33, spanning 3,100 feet, and Runway 6-24, at 4,000 feet, had constituted the airport’s first topographical construction projects, along with a taxiway.  During the two-year period between 1929 and 1931, four pairs of hangars had equally risen from the former marshes: internally measuring 120 by 140 feet, the steel frame buildings featured trussed, arched roofs, concrete slab floors, and wooden decks, and had been supported by 45-foot-long pre-cast concrete piles.

A neo-Georgian-style, red and black brick, two-story Administration Building, completed in 1931, had been sandwiched between the now-extended, airport accessible Flatbush Avenue and the runways, and featured a semi-octagonal, three-floored, projecting control booth of glass and steel atop it.  The building had also served as the passenger terminal.

Floyd Bennett Field, which had been given the three-letter IATA code of “NOP,” had been dedicated on June 26, 1930 amid a flying armada of 600 US Army Air Corps aircraft led by Charles Lindbergh and Jimmy Doolittle and attended by a 25,000-strong crowd.  The airport, which had officially opened a year later on May 23, 1931, had been given the US Department of Commerce A-1-A rating, its highest, because of its hitherto advanced facilities: its modern terminal, paved runways, and their lighting systems for nighttime operations.

These facilities, attracting an increasing number of famous, “Golden Age” pilots such as Wiley Post, Jacqueline Cochran, Roscoe Turner, Amelia Earhart, Howard Hughes, and Clarence Chamberlain, enabled them to commence or terminate record speed and distance flights here because of its strategic, east cost location and long runways, which had permitted high fuel load gross weight take offs to be conducted.

Need dictated expansion.  In 1936, two more runways had been completed: 3,500-foot Runway 1-19 and 3,200-foot Runway 12-30.  The original Runway 15-33 had also been lengthened to 3,500 feet at this time.  Between 1936 and 1938, the Works Progress Administration had constructed additional service wings between each hangar to house machine shops and maintenance facilities.

Although Floyd Bennett Field had become the United State’s second-busiest airport two years after it had opened, with 51,828 annual take offs and landings, few of them had constituted commercial operations which normally transported passengers, baggage, cargo, and mail.  Mayor Fiorello La Guardia had repeatedly attempted to establish the facility as New York’s principle municipal airfield, usurping the role played by Newark in New Jersey, but since passenger revenue had then only been incremental to a carrier’s profitability, and not integral to it, like that of the mail, and since the US Postal Service itself had refused to transfer its New York operations center from Newark to Floyd Bennett Field, the airport could never become the viable commercial facility envisioned during its inception.  Other than American Airlines’ temporary relocation, it had primarily remained a General Aviation airfield.

Nevertheless, the most important chapters of aviation’s Golden Age had been written here.  Between 1931 and 1939, ten notable cross-country and 16 transatlantic and round-the-world flights had all originated or terminated from the marsh-to-concrete transformed patch appendaged to southern Brooklyn.         

In July of 1931, for instance, a Bellanca CH Pacer, a high-wing monoplane powered by a single, 300-hp Wright J-6 Whirlwind engine, had established a distance record of 5,011.8 miles when it had flown from Floyd Bennett Field to Istanbul, Turkey.  On August 29 of the following year, a Pratt and Whitney Wasp Junior-powered Waddell Williams had established a new transcontinental speed record of 10.19 hours on its flight to Los Angeles.  In July of 1933, Wiley Post had flown a Pratt and Whitney Wasp-engined Lockheed Vega named “Winnie Mae” around the world in seven days, 18 hours, 49 minutes, and 30 seconds.  He had also been the first to circumnavigate the globe solo, covering 15,596 miles in four days, 19 hours, and 36 minutes.

Wings had stretched from Brooklyn as far as the Middle East.  In August, for example, an Hispano-Suiza-powered Bleriot 110 had flown the 5,657.4 miles to Syria in 55 hours.

By 1934, eight transatlantic flights had occurred from Floyd Bennett Field and several successively improved transcontinental ones.  Major James H. Doolittle, piloting a Wright Cyclone-powered American Vultee, had notched up a transcontinental record for a passenger transport category aircraft, completing the Los Angeles-New York sector in 11.59 hours.  A second transport category record had been achieved in April of that year when a TWA DC-1 had flown from Burbank in 11 hours, five minutes, 45 seconds.  Douglas DC-1s subsequently established 22 speed records from Floyd Bennett Field with high gross weights, simulating commercial transport payload and range capabilities.

One year later, on April 21, 1936, Howard Hughes had established an intercity speed record when he had flown a Wright Cyclone-powered Northrop Gamma between Miami and Brooklyn in four hours, 21 minutes, 32 seconds.  Later in that year, in October, a Bellanca Flash, powered by a Pratt and Whitney Wasp engine, had flown to Newfoundland and London-Croydon in 13 hours, 17 minutes.

Howard Hughes, taking the spotlight again in 1938, had piloted a Lockheed 14N Super Electra, powered by two Pratt and Whitney 900-hp Wright Cyclones, on a record-breaking global circumnavigation, completing the flight in three days, 19 hours, eight minutes, and ten seconds.

Perhaps the most famous flight blunder, or so it is alleged, also occurred that July when Douglas Corrigan, who had been denied permission to fly to Europe, filed a flight plan to California instead.  After taking off in his Curtiss Robin, powered by a 165-hp Wright Whirlwind J-6 engine, the aircraft proceeded nonstop to Ireland in 28 hours, 13 minutes, allegedly due to “compass difficulties,” thus earning him the nickname of “Wrong Way Corrigan.”

The Germans had flown to Floyd Bennett Field in 24 hours, 50 minutes, 12 seconds in August of 1938 when their Focke-Wulf Fw-200 prototype, powered by four 875-hp Hornet engines, had made the crossing from Berlin.  The return journey had been completed in 19 hours, 55 minutes, one second, beating Wiley Post’s record by five and a half hours.

Despite all this activity, New York’s first municipal airport, intended as an impressive gateway to the world’s most impressive city, never developed into its intended position, remaining a General Aviation airfield instead.  Several reasons could be cited as to why.

  1. The US Postal Service’s March 22, 1936 rejection of Floyd Bennett Field’s air terminal application signaled the airport’s largest and most definitive death knoll.
  2. Flatbush Avenue had served as its only ground access.
  3. Newark Airport had provided greater transportation links to Manhattan.
  4. The airport had commenced construction and attempted to operate within the Great Depression.
  5. Air travel had not yet been accepted as a public transportation means.
  6. Air travel fares had been prohibitive to the general public.
  7. On October 15, 1939, the 558-acre, $45 million Municipal Airport 2, occupying the site of the former North Beach Airport and therefore closer to Manhattan, had been dedicated.  It would later become La Guardia Airport.
  8. Floyd Bennett Field’s second replacement, the larger-area Idlewild Airport, equally located on Jamaica Bay, would also shortly be built.

Floyd Bennett Field’s last commercial flight departed on May 26, 1941, but with war clouds draping themselves over much of the world, it had extracted more than rain from them: it had adopted a new purpose.

II 

                War-sparked expansion of the US Navy, which had first occupied Floyd Bennett Field’s Hangar 5 and later Hangar 1, resulted in the eventual $9 million sale of the airfield by the City of New York to it, and on June 2, 1941, it had been re-designated “Naval Air Station New York.”

                Because of its proximity to New York and Long Island naval aircraft manufacturers, among them Chance-Vought, General Motors, and Grumman, it had logically been the closest airport which could accept, test, and ferry their designs to their respective combat theaters, processing everything from amphibious patrol aircraft to aircraft carrier-based fighters and bombers.  By 1943, the process had been completed in as few as three days.

                The war had necessitated considerable airport infrastructure expansion.  The original Runway 15-33, for example, had been lengthened to 4,500-foot taxiway T-10 by 1942.  The second runway to have been constructed, 6-24, had equally been converted into taxiways T-1 and T-2, and had been replaced by a new, 5,000-foot runway with the same magnetic compass headings.  Runway 1-19 had also been lengthened to 5,000 feet that year and would later become the airport’s longest when it had been extended to 7,000 feet.  And Runway 12-30 had also been expanded to 5,000 feet and, still later, to 5,500 feet.

                Aside from the fixed-wing aircraft activities, the Navy had established the world’s first helicopter training facility at Naval Air Station New York for air-sea rescue operations with Sikorsky R-4 helicopters, practice sorties having occurred directly off of the airport in Jamaica Bay.  Army air Corps, Coast Guard, Navy, and Royal Navy pilots had all trained here before having been sent to the China-Burma-India and Pacific Theaters.

                PBY Catalinas and other patrol aircraft had routinely flown from Naval Air Station New York to escort and protect the ships transporting materials for the Lend-Lease Program from subsurface German U-boats.

                Navy WAVES, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Exceptional Service, directed traffic to and from the airfield by operating radio equipment in the control tower.

                During World War II, the air station, having served as the base for many Atlantic Fleet units, three submarine patrol squadrons, a Scout Observation Service unit, and two Naval Air Transport Service squadrons, had become the busiest and had processed more than 46,000 aircraft.

                The airport had become a post-war reserve station, playing roles in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and had served as the base for the Air National Guard during the Cold War.  It had also been the location of civilian pilot, flight engineer, and mechanic training.

When all these military conflicts had ultimately been resolved, however, the air station’s purpose had progressively diminished.

III 

                Decommissioned and no longer active as either a commercial or General Aviation airport, Floyd Bennett Field had been transferred to the National Park Service in 1972, becoming a part of its Gateway National Recreation Area.  One of the first urban parks in the National Park System, it encompasses three units in two states: the Jamaica Bay Unit in Brooklyn, New York; the Staten Island Unit in Staten Island, New York; and the Sandy Hook Unit in New Jersey.

                Floyd Bennett Field’s only air activity, other than an occasional air show, is that of the New York City Police Department which bases its fleet of Bell Jet Ranger helicopters here and uses part of one of the former runways for operational purposes.  As a heliport, it is designated “NY22.”

                Four of the eight original hangars had been adapted for concession reuse in 2006.

                The former Administration Building/Passenger Terminal, now designated the William Fitts Ryan Visitor Center, is open to the public and, although its halls and rooms offer little more than interpretive displays and a small gift shop, one can still climb the concrete stairs at the building’s façade where passengers had transferred from taxis, cars, and buses, and enter the central lobby, which had been the location of the passenger check-in facilities.  After depositing and weighing their luggage, and obtaining a boarding folder, they had then exited the aft doors to the observation balcony which had overlooked the propeller-spinning aircraft on the ramp awaiting them and accessed by portable boarding stairs.  Baggage had been wheeled by cart from the building’s lower level up the considerably inclined ramp and across the field to the aircraft itself.  The control tower had been directly above them, atop the terminal.

                Although the building is now quiet and deserted, one can still sense the era’s history it had absorbed, of the life scenarios enacted in it and facilitated by it.  Its silence ironically tells its story, serving as the line of contrast between what had been and what no longer was.

                Its internal roadways, once Floyd Bennett Field’s runway and taxiway infrastructure, still bear their magnetic compass headings and can be freely driven.

                Across from the Visitor Center, on the east side and at considerable distance via former Runway 6-24, is another public-accessible building, Hangar B.  Constructed by the Navy during World War II for its VRF-4 base, one of Naval Air Station New York’s Naval Air Ferry Command squadrons, it had been used as a Naval Air Reserve training facility to prepare pilots and ground crews for the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War.  Now used by the National Park Service’s Volunteer-In-Park Program Historic Aircraft Restoration Project (HARP) dedicated, since 1995, to preserving aviation history at Floyd Bennett Field and interpreting its role, it houses a collection of both fixed wing and rotary aircraft which represent the airport’s two principle eras—its Municipal Airport status from 1931 to 1941 and its Naval Air Station function from 1941 to 1971—and the five services which had operated from it: the Air National Guard, the New York City Police Department, the US Coast Guard, the US Marine Corps, and the US Navy.

                Floyd Bennett Field, a tiny parcel of land which had been transformed from marsh to concrete, and had played important roles in New York’s Golden Age and military aviation eras, has been reduced to silence and inactivity as it now sits in the shadow of its replacement, JFK International Airport, from which mulitple, European-bound takes offs routinely occur, a shadow from which those European-bound flights had ironically been proven.  As such, it had served as a stage where a brief, but important piece of New York aviation history had been acted out, leaving only its memory and its effects—indeed, and in essence, the very purpose of the planet itself, proving that, when a life cycle has been completed and has fulfilled its purpose, that it can only pave the way for those to follow, but can never be reused itself.         

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