The 1,401 square mile expanse of Long Island, stretching 118 miles from New York City to Montauk Point is the largest island in the continental U.S.A. Today this densely populated land-mass located in the southeastern corner of New York State is home to some 7.6 million people.
But at the dawn of the aviation age, with its proximity to Manhattan and its native grasslands and flat, wide-open landscape, Long Island was a natural airfield, providing the best platform for daring aviators from the world over, to begin or conclude their experimental flights.
In 1909, one such aviator, Glenn Curtiss, arrived on the Island, and here he flew his ‘Golden Flyer’ biplane a total of 15 miles winning the second stage of the Scientific American Trophy. In the years to follow, Long Island became the epicenter of aviation. During the ‘Golden Age’ of aviation (1920s-1930s) and over the course of the 20th Century, over 80 airfields were located here with the majority of them being small, simply structured fields. Large airfields, such as Floyd Bennett in Brooklyn, Municipal Airport (LaGuardia), Idlewild (JFK International) in Queens, and Mitchel and Roosevelt Fields in Nassau County were the exceptions. With an unending multitude of aviation firsts taking place at these airfields, Long Island ultimately claimed its place in history as the ‘Cradle of Aviation.’
After the Second World War, as Long Island flourished and property values climbed, developers sought land on which to build new communities and industry. Eventually, one by one, these airfields vanished into a bygone era, with their grounds yielding to suburbia, parking lots and shopping malls.
While most of Long Island’s vast, open landscape has changed significantly, rendering itself unrecognizable in the 113 years since Glenn Curtiss’ 15-mile flight, the Bayport Aerodrome (FAA LIN: 23N) has survived the razing of bulldozers. Today, it is the last remaining public grass airfield on Long Island; a historical time capsule and ‘living museum’, resonating the sights, sounds and feel of the iconic airfields that once dotted the Island.
The Bayport Aerodrome (formerly known as Davis Field-Edwards Airport) is a historic rural airport one mile northwest of Bayport, New York, and is owned and operated by the Town of Islip. It is home to the non-profit Bayport Aerodrome Society, established in 1972. Along with the Long Island Early Fliers Education Foundation (founded in 1956 as the Long Island Early Fliers Club), and the Antique Airplane Club of Greater New York, originally formed in 1961 and later incorporated in 1973, all three of these organizations are dedicated to the preservation of antique and classic aircraft and the extraordinary legacy that they and the Bayport Aerodrome represent in aviation history. Since January 22, 2008, the Aerodrome is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP Ref. # 07001456) and as a National Historic District.
“Bayport Aerodrome Is a Treasure and Has Been Part of the Town of Islip for Many Years. The Tenants On The Airfield Open Up Their Hangar Doors to the Community Every Weekend During The Summer. Families and Future Aviators Can Get a Glimpse of Flying History That Comes to Life.”Town of Islip Supervisor, Angie Carpenter
The origins of the Bayport Aerodrome began with the Davis family, one of the oldest families on Long Island, who date back to the 1600s. In 1910, James Davis (of the Davis Building Movers company), bought acreage in Bayport on which to plant corn. After James’ death, his son Curtis turned the cornfield into an airfield in 1945 and built two sets of hangars on the south end for himself, and the north end to rent out. By 1953, after Curtis became ill, George Edwards bought the property and operated a commercial airfield called Edwards Airport. In the early 1970s, Edwards was ready to retire and sought to sell his property to a company whose plan was to turn the tract of land into a housing development.
By then, with the vast majority of Long Island airports shut down and paved over, the sleepy Davis/Edwards Airport was threatened to become yet another housing development. The surrounding community and a large group of pilots and classic aviation buffs led by Bayport resident, John G. Rae (who formed the Bayport Aerodrome Society in 1972), rallied to save the airfield. With the assistance of the Antique Airplane Club of Greater NY, the Long Island Early Fliers, civics and local officials, the federal, state and local governments were petitioned for funding to save the airport. Their efforts paid off and by 1978 the Town of Islip purchased the land from the developers. On July 13, 1980, the Bayport Aerodrome was officially dedicated by the Town, and it literally survives today as one of Long Island’s best-kept aviation secrets.
Within its four-mile proximity to Long Island MacArthur Airport (ISP) and covering over 50 acres of land, the Bayport Aerodrome sports a 2,740-foot-long x 150-foot-wide grass runway that services single-engine, general aviation aircraft. While the Town of Islip owns the land at the Aerodrome, the Bayport Aerodrome Society (BAS) leases its 23 hangars that house a variety of antique airplanes including bi-planes, Cubs, Champs, an NAF N3N and more. An active airport, the Aerodrome has its own flight pattern for landing, and pilots follow Visual Flight Rules (VFR).
The heart and soul of the Bayport Aerodrome Society are its members who are comprised of aviation professionals, recreational pilots and people who have a passion for aviation. These volunteers share their passion for preserving aviation history with the community by offering tours of the Aerodrome, as well as by hosting many on-site social events.
Paul Emmert is a member of the Bayport Aerodrome Society, the L.I. Early Fliers and the Antique Airplane Club of Greater N.Y. A former TWA dispatcher from 1964-1999, Emmert grew up in Queens and built airplane models as a kid. He learned to fly in a Piper Cherokee and obtained his private pilot’s license 50 years ago out of the former Zahn’s Airport in Amityville and Republic Airport in Farmingdale in 1972. He initially came out to the Aerodrome because ‘‘it’s so neat’’, and even though his private license is not currently active, he regularly comes out to Bayport as a volunteer tour guide and to do some ‘hangar flying’ (a favorite pastime of pilots who enjoy sharing flying stories while on the ground, preferably in a hangar.)
Emmert said that there are roughly a dozen bi-planes and tail-draggers (aircraft with undercarriage consisting of two main wheels forward of center of gravity and a single, small wheel or skid to support the tail) and a few that are under restoration, including a YAK 12 in progress. In a gray hangar at the end of the flightline there is also a 1907 REO automobile with a one-cylinder engine and crank start.
Mike Cifelli, a board member of the Bayport Aerodrome Society and Facilities & Grounds Director, keeps his Stearman and Van RV-7 in Hangar 3. Cifelli spoke of his initial involvement with the Aerodrome saying, “After 25 years of piloting, I was looking for a different type of flying, and these airplanes are all antique and taildraggers. They are nostalgic and part of history.” He first became involved with a Piper Cub and flew it for a couple hundred hours and then was invited into a 3-part ownership of a Stearman, eventually purchasing one himself.
“Bayport is a kind of country club for pilots who have an appreciation for preserving aviation history. You don’t have to have a destination when you come here to fly, you just go up and have fun…that’s the best part of it.” Explaining the Aerodrome’s airspace, Cifelli said, “There’s a box covering this area, with MacArthur Airport only three miles away. Pilots are allowed up to 700 feet altitude and then after takeoff you have to go south. Once over the water, you are good up to 1,400 feet, and once over the ocean, you’re clear, but you have to stay under certain airspace traffic-wise.” The range of his aircraft is about three hours, flying at about 90 mph.
“Military flyovers are the best.” says Cifelli, in reference to those he does over L.I. National Cemetery. “We recently did a flight over Greenwich, Connecticut as a tribute to a WWII B-17 navigator and Army Air Force veteran who passed away in May.” With fellow Aerodrome members, Cifelli flew his WWII Boeing Stearman PT-17, alongside John Bianco, Bill Clifford, Bob Mott and Nick Ziroli, who flew their five aircraft over Putnam Cemetery in a ‘Missing Man Formation’.
Cifelli also flies a few other airplanes for people who no longer fly, including a 1933 Waco UBF2, which Cifelli recently purchased after the passing of the Waco’s previous owner and Bayport Aerodrome member, Capt. Mike Scott in February. “He was a good guy. It’s such a beautiful plane. I just didn’t want to see it leave the Aerodrome….it’s a piece of history.”
Landmarked as the only public grass landing field left on Long Island, the Bayport Aerodrome has a strong base of support. “After the Bayport and Bluepoint civic associations were formed to keep this airfield here in the 1970s, they have been a strong advocate ever since,” said Cifelli. ’’We maintain this property, water the grass, maintain the buildings and do all that we can for the Town to keep it part of the town. We are very lucky to do it…I mean, who gets to do this?”
Every year the Bayport Aerodrome hosts a Neighborhood Appreciation Picnic to show their appreciation to local residents and to give back to the neighborhood. The Aerodrome has a unique relationship with a supportive community and the picnic is well attended by many, including those who live only blocks away who never knew the field was there.
Paul Farber earned his pilot’s license at Zahn’s, but he didn’t feel that he knew what he was doing, until he went to the Bayport Aerodrome where he really learned how to fly under the instruction of Tom Murphy, a seasoned pilot in his 70s. Born in 1910, Tom Murphy was an iconic Long Island aviator and flight cadet instructor during WWII who flew until he was 86 years old.
“Tom was an original Pepsi Cola skywriter,” Farber said, “when he used to skywrite, he would have to write everything backwards in the air. So, he had the ability to take a letter and write it longhand in script, backwards! Then Tom could look in the mirror and read it.”
When Farber asked Murphy what kind of plane he should buy, Murphy told him that he used to skywrite in an AT-6 Texan, saying, “The gear goes up, constant airspeed prop…. you buy that airplane and I’ll teach you how to fly it.” Farber then asked him when the last time was, he flew one. Murphy replied, “I don’t know…35-40 years ago?” After naively asking whether he still knew how to fly one, Murphy asserted to Farber, “I’ve got so many hours in one,“ I used to LOOK like one! You buy it, I’ll teach you how to fly it.”
Farber eventually located an AT-6 in Atlanta, Georgia which he purchased in 1987 after its previous owner agreed to fly it north, with Farber as a passenger. Having been poorly maintained, Tom Murphy and Farber worked on the T-6 over the course of 13 months, repairing all of its issues to ensure that the airplane was just right. When the day finally arrived to take the T-6 up for a test flight, Murphy suggested to Farber that he would take it around to make sure it was running in top shape and that he would come back for him. But Farber insisted on going along, recalling, “We took off and went right over the Great South Bay and Tom did beautiful aerobatics, like a ballerina. He was old school. Just unbelievable!” Landing the plane to an observant crowd at the Aerodrome, Murphy said to Farber, “Any field that you could fly a Cub out of, you could fly a T-6 out of… if you just fly it the right way.”
After a recent idyllic day of flying his T-6 at the Bayport Aerodrome, a tow tug carefully positioned Farber’s plane (affectionally named ‘Dazzlin’ Deb’ after his wife) back into the large, red-sided Long Island Early Fliers hangar, where it is kept beneath a full-size replica of a Bleriot XI, meticulously built by LIEF volunteers.
Surrounded by the LIEF ‘living museum’s aviation artifacts, memorabilia and vintage photos, a smiling Farber said, “Tom was the real deal.” Pointing to a framed photo of Tom Murphy during his early skywriting days, Farber was asked whether he has mastered his flying technique on the WWII trainer. “I’m still mastering it,” he replied with genuine humility…. a true reflection of his humble mentor.
Just outside the LIEF hangar, beneath the shade of an old tree that stands beside the Aerodrome’s serene grass airfield is a bronze marker set in granite, placed in memory of Tom Murphy who died in 1996 at the age of 86, only two weeks after what would be his last flight. Inscribed below his image and name the marker reads: AVIATOR – INSTRUCTOR – GENTLEMAN
Always a Sunny Day at the Aerodrome!
A visit to the Bayport Aerodrome is like stepping back into the golden age of the air, where a variety of classic antique aircraft and open cockpit biplanes, with the distinctive drone of flying engines, ascend into the air, or appear in the distance over the horizon after turning base to final as they gradually descend right in front of your eyes….quietly alighting upon the long, open, freshly mowed grass strip. The last remaining public grass airfield on Long Island is truly a historic field of dreams – Long may it run.