Only a few nautical miles from Idlewild Airport; Rockaway Airport debuted on July 16, 1939, and was originally called the Edgemere Airport. The airport was opened on the New York City Waterfront Company land between Beach 46th Street and Beach 54th Street. Airport boundaries included the major part in NYC and spilled into Edgemere in Nassau County.
The Airport should not be confused with the WWII addition of a Naval facility on the western end of the Rockaway peninsula called the Rockaway Air Station.
According to the August 1938 issue of the Chamber of Commerce of the Rockaways’ Rockaway Review (courtesy of Michael Azzollini), an airport for the Rockaways was first proposed by the Chamber of Commerce in a letter sent to the Secretary of War & the Secretary of the Navy.
It was pointed out that the Rockaways presented one of the best locations for the defense of New York City and it represented the only remaining open parcel of land in the Rockaways. The property was previously known as the Verdam Estates, and was owned mostly by the New York City Waterfront Company.
The airport was operated by Lawrence resident and commercial pilot Harry Gordon, and was said to be the first privately owned airfield in the Rockaways. Prior to the construction of a hangar, planes for the airport were kept at Roosevelt Field in Nassau County. The airport was created for civilian training and leisure flying.
Harry Gordon, was the originator and operator of the Rockaway Airport, and Jack Gordon, his son who was then 17 or 18 years old, was the chief instructor for ‘Gordon Air Services’.
Following a lawsuit by Gordon, on December 26, 1939 city Commissioner of Docks John McKenzie was ordered by the Manhattan Supreme Court to award a permit to the airport. On July 8, 1940 after 15 months of operation, McKenzie issued a letter informing Gordon that the airport would be closed in 30 days due to not meeting facility requirements for airports in the city.
Specifically, the airport failed to meet the requirements for 1,800-foot (550 m)-long and 300-foot (91 m)-wide runways, and for an “unobstructed approach” to the airport. At this time, work commenced on expanding and developing the airport. The pilots training at the airport included members of the Women Flyers of America.
The airport would later become the headquarters of Women’s Flyers Association of America. The Women Flyers of America (WFA), established in July 1940, invited any women over the age of 18 to join their organization if they were interested in flying ‘for sport, profession, or national emergency.’ This organization helped to guide and prepare women in the various phases of aviation, and local chapters could be found in major cities across the United States.
As an alternative, Golden suggested to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia that the Edgemere Dump be used for the airfield. On January 15, 1941, Mayor LaGuardia publicly rejected both the Bayside and Edgemere proposals, due to costs and potential hazards to Bayside residents. Meyer’s farm would later become the Bay Terrace neighborhood, while John Golden’s estate would become John Golden Park.
On July 26, 1941, the Civil Aeronautics Administration approved Rockaway Airport along with Nassau Airport in Hicksville, Long Island as civilian pilot training facilities. Meanwhile, Idlewild Airport (today’s JFK Airport) was ordered to cease the training of pilots.
At the onset of World War II, in 1941 Gordon offered the use of the airport and a supply of planes and pilots to the United States military in order to monitor and patrol the coast of Long Island during the war. In October 1941, soldiers from Fort Tilden in the western Rockaways began using the airport for ten days to conduct air raid drills. The offer to use the airport was officially accepted by Civil Air Patrol Major General John F. Curry in February 1942.
Following the war, in February 1946 Rockaway Airport was reopened by war veterans Joseph Alta and Perry Fuhr. Alta was an Army Air Force pilot in the China Burma India Theater of the war. Fuhr was a Navy test pilot. Alta had previously operated a flight school at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. Beginning on January 6, 1947, the airport was used as the receiving point for a helicopter mail service originating at LaGuardia Airport or Newark Airport and serving both the Rockaways and Five Towns in Nassau County.
It was apparently used during WW2 as a satellite airfield by aircraft operating from nearby Floyd Bennett NAS. After the end of WW2, Rockaway returned to use as a civilian airport. Jack Gordon recalled, “It was not reopened again until 1945 or 1946 when it was taken over by a friend named Joe Alta.”
Richard Herbst recalled, “I lived about 3 blocks from the airport and with a father & uncle just returned from wartime flying duty, spent much of my time trying to persuade Joe Alta that my father would appear ‘at any minute’ to rent one of his Cubs.
The love affair with the little airplanes lasted although I only got to fly once. The field was rolled cinder recovered from the LiLco plant in Far Rockaway. But from my vantage point, always on the ground, I could not picture the airport layout other than the usual pattern was to take off south towards the Boardwalk, turn east a block from the beach & continue on final over Beach 59th Street.”
Leo Diamond recalled about Rockaway, “I learned to fly the Piper J3 there in about 1946-48. It was then adjacent to a landfill that made landings/takeoffs an adventure…pigeons by the hundreds [over] the landfill.”
By July 1958, the Rockaway Airport was closed and demolished to make way for the housing project. On October 16, 1958, the ground was broken on the Edgemere Houses project, with Robert Moses, Borough President James Crisona, and Governor W. Averell Harriman in attendance. During the ceremony, Moses spoke about his plans for the adjoining Edgemere Park.
The first portion of the park would be a 300-foot (91 m)-wide “buffer between the Edgemere State Housing Project and the operations of the Department of Sanitation”. The plans for the remainder of the park, which would be the “largest park on the Rockaway peninsula,” included an 18-hole golf course and a marina. Moses planned to create several parks on wetlands by filling the land with municipal waste before developing the land into parkland. These included the future Edgemere Park and Spring Creek Park, as well as sites in Marine Park, Brooklyn; Ferry Point, Bronx; Fresh Kills, Staten Island; and Kissena Corridor Park in Queens.