The journey of Mitchel Field was similar to most of the closed as well as the currently operating airports on Long Island.* They all had their start beginning with a small hard clay runway with several hangars and other modest support buildings adjoining the runway; and then modernizing the airfield and facilities to accommodate larger and faster aircraft, and more passengers.
Prior to Mitchel Field being developed as an airport, the site had a fascinating history. During the American Revolutionary War this property was known as the Hempstead Plains and was used as an Army enlistment center. In the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, it was a training center for infantry units. During the American Civil War, it was the location of Camp Winfield Scott. In 1898, in the Spanish–American War, it was known as Camp Black.
After the site was transformed into an airfield in 1909, it then again morphed into a military facility during WWI and WWII. When the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, the entire field was taken over and renamed Hazelhurst Field in memory of Leighton Wilson Hazelhurst, Jr. Hazelhurst (July 1887 – June 11, 1912) was a pioneer aviator who was killed in an air-crash with Al Welsh piloting. Hazelhurst was the third United States Army officer to die in an aviation accident
As a side note, what is particularly interesting is the number of air facilities on Long Island. If you have an opportunity to study some of the 1930’s and 1940’s aviation maps of Long Island, you would be stunned to count the number of airports that once operated in Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau and Suffolk counties. I count 33 but the number is changeable based on those that were co-joined and others operating from air strips in more than one location.
The Founding of the Airport and the Name “Mitchel”
The founding of Hazelhurst Aviation Field later to become Mitchel Field was a natural consequence of the location and topography. Because of its flat, treeless, hard clay surface at the heart of the Hempstead Plains prairie, enthusiasts of the ‘’new sport’’ of aviation flocked to the site shortly after the turn of the century.
Hazelhurst Aviation Field became Mitchel Field in 1918; and received its name in honor of John Purroy Mitchel. Who was the person that deserved to have an airfield named after him? John Purroy Mitchel was known as the boy Mayor of New York. At age 35, he was the youngest Mayor of New York City. Mitchel was the Mayor from 1914 to 1917. He did an excellent job, but was not re-elected. It seems that in his zeal he stepped on some major toes.
Mitchel entered the Signal Corps Army Air service, and died 13 days short of his 39th birthday, in Louisiana, in a training accident, on July 6th, 1918. A sad end to a life of public service.
The Years of Growth and Transition Into a Military Facility
Glenn Curtiss, the aircraft builder, is credited with making the first flight on the plain on July 17, 1909. He was later followed by Wilbur and Orville Wright, Charles A. Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Chance Vought, Harry Guggenheim and Alexander P. De Seversky, the inventor who founded the Republic Aviation Corporation. What you have with this group are the founders of American aviation.
In the 1920’s and 30’s Mitchel Field continued its growth and several large construction projects were launched to transform the airfield from a small field with a clay surface to a modern – at the time – airport. New brick barracks were built as well as support buildings and warehouses. Eight huge hangers were also built using steel and cement rather than the smaller wood barracks previously on site. Between the wars Mitchel was the Army’s premier air corps base, with a Country Club atmosphere including fine housing, clubs, pools, polo fields and tree-lined streets.
Amongst other activities of the airfield prior to WWII was the hosting of the National Air Races where world speed records were set, and in October 1923, Mitchel Field was the scene of the first airplane jumping contest in the nation.
The first totally blind flight was performed at Mitchel Field on Sept. 24, 1929 by James H. Doolittle, an Army lieutenant at the time and soon to become a WWI hero. He became the first pilot to take off, fly a prescribed course and land with reference only to the instruments before him.
During this, the world’s first totally “blind” flight, a hood covered the cockpit, shutting out the outside world. The 1929 flight, which took 15 minutes, started and ended at the Army’s Mitchel Field on Long Island, but the anniversary flight could not be held there for the simple reason that the airport no longer exists.
Mitchel Field also served as a base from which the first demonstration of long-range aerial reconnaissance was made. In May 1939, three B-17s led by Lt. Curtiss Lemay flew 750 miles out to sea and intercepted the Italian ocean liner Rex. This was a striking example of the range, mobility and accuracy of modern aviation at the time.
During WWII, Mitchel Field was the location of the Air Defense Command, the main point of air defense for New York City, equipped with two squadrons of P-40 fighters. The command was charged with the mission of developing the air defense for cities, vital industrial areas, continental bases, and military facilities in the United States. Later, it was headquarters for the First Air Force, and given the responsibility for air defense planning and organization along the eastern seaboard.
The airfield had its own hospital. Across Hempstead Turnpike from the airfields was an area named Santini Sub Base, and no, a submarine base did not exist smack in the middle of Long Island. This was the typical military abbreviation of a subsidiary facility apart from the main base. Santini Hospital would provide medical services for newly transitioned injured into the United States. During W.W.II, it would treat many of the airlifted wounded. The name of the hospital on Santini Sub Base was “New Cantonment” but was more commonly known as Santini Hospital. The hospital was on the northwest corner of Merrick Avenue and Front Street. This hospital mainly treated overseas returnees, neurological wounds and convalescent-care; and was fully capable of providing all needed medical care.
A poignant observation of conditions at Santini Hospital was made by the author of Santini Hospital, Katherine Kennedy McIntyre: “Santini Hospital received patients 24 hours after they left the front lines. I went to work there one month before the Normandy Invasion, D-Day. As you might imagine, the litter cases were devastating. Men with no faces, only eyes looking up at you. Men without arms. A whole ward of men without any legs. I didn’t know anyone could be as brave as those men. Looking back, I think of President John Kennedy’s words, “Man must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.”
Mitchel Army Airfield became a command and control base for both I Fighter and I Bomber Command. Tactical fighter groups and squadrons were formed at Mitchel to be trained at AAF Training Command bases (mostly in the east and southeast) before being deployed to the various overseas wartime theaters. Additionally, thousands of Army Air Force personnel were processed through the base for overseas combat duty. With the end of World War II, returning GIs were processed for separation at Mitchel.
By 1949, Mitchel was relieved of the responsibility for defending New York City because of the many problems associated with operating tactical aircraft in an urban area. However, Mitchel did serve as the terminus for the last speed record set on Long Island, a transcontinental speed record of 4 hours, 8 minutes set by Col. W. Millikan in an F-86 on January 2, 1954.
After several notable crashes, including a P-47 into Hofstra Universities Barnard Hall, public pressure ultimately led to the fields closure. The last active unit to be based at Mitchel was the 514th Troop Carrier Wing flying Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcars.
The Transformation of an Airport into a Suburban Neighborhood
It’s difficult to imagine now, but at one time, Mitchel Field was being looked at as an extension of the Roosevelt Field Shopping complex. That was just one of the recommendations because since the end of World War II, Long Island officials have been struggling with plans to develop Mitchel Field, the former military base in the heart of Nassau County and one of the largest and choicest pieces of undeveloped real estate in the New York area.
In 1961, bulldozers began clearing the last large expanse of those sand and clay fields, and builders began constructing several major projects that Nassau County Executive Francis T. Purcell said had ‘’created more new jobs for county residents and put valuable property back on the tax rolls.’’
Today, the area that was once Mitchel Field has become a multi-use complex that is home to the Cradle of Aviation Museum, Nassau Coliseum, Mitchel Athletic Complex, Nassau Community College, Hofstra University, and Lockheed, along with the usual suburban sprawl of residential neighborhoods and surrounding shopping.
Decades ago, two historic airfields, only a few miles apart became part of another urban landscape. The demolition of Roosevelt Field and Mitchel field was a given. Nassau County was growing by leaps and bounds and the public and recreational facilities, education centers and business complexes were vitally required to fuel this growth. However, the need to grow does not change the fact that part of Long Islands history is lost forever.
Note: When the author uses the name Long Island, he refers to all four counties.