There are several New York area airports, including those on Long Island, in Westchester County, and New Jersey, but few people can name New York City’s very first one. And even fewer can explain why it no longer exists. That airport is Floyd Bennett Field, and it has had three distinct historical phases: origins, military use, and preserved history.
Tracing its origins to Lindbergh’s historic, New York-Paris solo flight, it alerted the world to the fact that the aircraft did not depart from New York at all, but from Long Island instead, and that the only real “New York” airport at the time was located across the state line in New Jersey, indicating the need for a dedicated, New York-located, municipal airfield. A panel headed by famed aviator Clarence D. Chamberlain to search for a suitable site for one was established for this purpose.
The chosen location, a 387-acre marsh on Barren Island south of Brooklyn, New York, had once housed a small community, a horse-rendering plant, and the appropriately-named, dirt runway Barren Island Airport, which was owned by Paul Rizzo and was periodically used for passenger sightseeing flights. The site, part of 33 tiny islands, enjoyed favorable winds, lacked approach obstructions, was predominantly fog-free and offered vast expanses for future growth. The airport, intended as a state-of-the-art gateway to what was considered one of the world’s greatest cities, was 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 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, raising its elevation 16 feet above the tidewater to connect it to Long Island.
Runway 15-33, stretching 3,100 feet, and Runway 6-24, at 4,000 feet, constituted the airport’s first topographical construction projects, along with a taxiway. During the two years between 1929 and 1931, four pairs of hangars equally rose from the former marshes: internally measuring 120 x 140 feet. The steel frame buildings featured trussed, arched roofs, concrete slab floors, and wooden decks and were supported by 45-foot-long pre-cast concrete piles.
A neo-Georgian-style, red and black brick, two-story Administration Building, completed in 1931, was 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 also served as the passenger terminal.
Floyd Bennett Field, which was given the three-letter IATA code of “NOP,” was dedicated on June 26, 1930, amid a flying armada of 600 US Army Air Corps aircraft led by Charles Lindbergh and Jimmy Doolittle and was attended by a 25,000-strong crowd. The airport, which officially opened a year later, on May 23, 1931, was given the US Department of Commerce A-1-A rating, its highest, because of its advanced facilities, its modern terminal, paved runways, and 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 begin or end their record speed and distance flights here because of its strategic, east coast location and long runways, which permitted high fuel load gross weight takeoffs to be conducted.
With need dictating its expansion, in 1936, two more runways were completed: 3,500-foot Runway 1-19 and 3,200-foot Runway 12-30. The original Runway 15-33 was also lengthened to 3,500 feet at this time. Between 1936 and 1938, the Works Progress Administration constructed additional service wings between each hangar to house machine shops and maintenance facilities.
Although Floyd Bennett Field became the United States’ second-busiest airport two years after it opened, with 51,828 annual takeoffs and landings, few of them were commercial operations, which normally transported passengers, baggage, cargo, and mail. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had repeatedly attempted to establish the facility as New York’s principal municipal airfield, usurping the role played by Newark in New Jersey, but since passenger revenue was then only incremental to a carrier’s profitability, and since the US Postal Service itself 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 remained a general aviation airfield.
Nevertheless, the most important chapters of aviation’s Golden Age were written here. Between 1931 and 1939, ten notable cross-country and 16 transatlantic and round-the-world flights all originated or terminated from the marsh-to-concrete transformed patch appendaged to southern Brooklyn.
In July of 1931, a Bellanca CH Pacer, a high-wing monoplane powered by a single, 300-hp Wright J-6 Whirlwind engine, established a distance record of 5,011.8 miles when it flew from Floyd Bennett Field to Istanbul, Turkey. On August 29 of the following year, a Pratt and Whitney Wasp Junior-powered Waddell Williams established a new transcontinental speed record of 10.19 hours on its flight to Los Angeles. In July of 1933, Wiley Post flew 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.
By 1934, eight transatlantic flights had originated in Floyd Bennett Field, along with several successively improved transcontinental ones. Major James H. Doolittle, piloting a Wright Cyclone-powered American Vultee, 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 was achieved in April of that year when a TWA DC-1 flew from Burbank in 11 hours, five minutes, 45 seconds. Douglas DC-1s subsequently established 22 records from Floyd Bennett Field with high gross weights, simulating commercial transport payload and range capabilities.
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.”
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 purpose, remaining a general aviation airfield instead. Several reasons could be cited as to why.
- 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.
- Flatbush Avenue had served as its only ground access.
- The airport had commenced construction and attempted to operate within the Great Depression.
- Newark Airport had provided greater transportation links to Manhattan.
- Air travel had not yet been accepted as a public transportation means.
- Air travel fares had been prohibitive to the general public.
- Floyd Bennett Field’s second replacement, the larger-area Idlewild Airport, equally located on Jamaica Bay, would also shortly be built.
- On October 15, 1939, the 558-acre, $45 million Municipal Airport 2, occupying the site of the former North Beach Airport, therefore closer to Manhattan, was dedicated. It would later become LaGuardia Airport.
Floyd Bennett Field’s last commercial flight departed on May 26, 1941, but with war clouds draping themselves over much of the world, it extracted more than rain from them: it adopted a new purpose.
War-sparked expansion of the US Navy, which 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. On June 2, 1941, it was 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 was logically the closest airport that could accept, test, and ferry their designs to their respective combat theaters, processing everything from amphibious patrol types to aircraft carrier-based fighters and bombers. By 1943, the process was completed in as few as three days.
The war necessitated considerable airport infrastructure expansion. The original Runway 15-33, for example, was lengthened to a 4,500-foot taxiway, T-10, by 1942. The second runway to have been constructed, 6-24, was equally converted into taxiways T-1 and T-2 and was replaced by a new, 5,000-foot runway with the same magnetic compass headings. Runway 1-19 was also lengthened to 5,000 feet that year and would later become the airport’s longest when it was extended to 7,000 feet. Runway 12-30 was also expanded to 5,000 feet, and later to 5,500 feet.
Aside from the fixed-wing aircraft activities, the Navy 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 taking place directly off of the airport in Jamaica Bay. Army Air Corps, Coast Guard, Navy, and Royal Navy pilots all trained here before having been sent to the China-Burma-India and Pacific Theaters.
The airport subsequently became a post-war reserve station, playing roles in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and served as the base for the Air National Guard during the Cold War. It was also the location of civilian pilot, flight engineer, and mechanic training.
When all these military conflicts were ultimately resolved, the air station no longer served the airport’s second major, military purpose.
Decommissioned and no longer active as either a commercial or general aviation airport, Floyd Bennett Field was transferred to the National Park Service in 1972, becoming a part of its Gateway National Recreation Area (U.S. National Park Service). 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 there 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 were 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 once transferred from taxis, cars, and buses, and enter the central lobby, which was the location of the passenger check-in facilities.
After depositing and weighing their luggage, and obtaining a boarding folder, they 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 was wheeled by cart from the building’s lower level up the considerably inclined ramp and across the field to the aircraft itself.
Floyd Bennett Field, a tiny parcel of land which was transformed from marsh to concrete and 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, John F. Kennedy International Airport, from which multiple, European-bound takeoffs routinely occur. 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.
Today Floyd Bennett Field is still part of the National Park Service Gateway National Recreation Area NY/NJ.