Progressively forgotten with the advance of time and perhaps only associated with a shopping complex, the Roosevelt Field name was once a sprawling expanse of aeronautical activity that earned it the unofficial title of “World’s Premier Airport.”
Like forests that ultimately spring from flat fields, it itself rose from one that was called the “Hempstead Plains.”
“The central area of Nassau County, known as the Hempstead Plains, (was) the only natural prairie east of the Allegheny Mountains,” according to Joshua Stoff in Historic Aircraft and Spacecraft in the Cradle of Aviation Museum 4 (Dover Publications, 2001, p. viii). “Treeless and flat, with only the tall grasses and scattered farmhouses, this area proved to be an ideal flying field, and was the scene of intense aviation activity for over 50 years.”
Often referred to as “The Cradle of Aviation,” it was the result of geographical, as well as topographical, aspects. Its proximity to Manhattan provided it with a dense population base, its east coast location invited country-crossing to the west, and its unobstructed, water-surrounding nature made it the natural origin for flights across Long Island Sound to Connecticut and New England, down the eastern seaboard to the mid-Atlantic states and Florida, and, finally, over the ocean for intercontinental connections between North America and Europe.
Unofficially called the Mineola Flying Field because of the Long Island Railroad’s access to it through its station of the same name, it sprouted its initial wings when Dr. Henry Walden, a member of the Aeronautic Society of New York, took off in the first American monoplane from it in 1909, the result of the unsuitability of the smaller Morris Park in the Bronx the group had formerly used.
Even this proved less than adequate.
“One mile to the east, the Hampstead Plains continued its treeless and unobstructed expanse, and this larger tract was indeed more suitable than the terrain of Mineola, which was narrow and hemmed in by roads in anticipation of building development,” Stoff points out.* By the spring of 1911, the year the expanse became the Hempstead Plains Airfield, sedentary roots took hold east of Clinton Road in Garden City with the Moissant Aviation School, itself relocating from the now inadequately sized Nassau Boulevard Flying Field that definitively closed on June 1 of the following year.
Considered the country’s first airport, it encompassed 1,000 acres and soon sprouted grandstands for air show spectators and some 25 wooden hangars.
After the United States’ entry into World War I, in 1917, experimental flying morphed into bonafide military missions with the delivery of four Curtiss Jenny biplanes. Consequently, the airport was transformed into one of only two of the nation’s Army facilities. During the two-year period to 1919, it adopted the Hazelhurst Field name in honor of Second Lieutenant Leighton Hazelhurst, Jr., who had lost his life in an airplane accident in College Park, Maryland, on June 11, 1912.
With war sparked-demand for ever larger facilities, a second expanse designated Aviation Field #2 was opened south of the existing one in 1917, but was renamed Mitchel Field the following year in honor of John Purroy Mitchel, the New York City mayor who himself lost his life to aviation in Louisiana. After the Curtiss Flying Service relocated to its Garden City headquarters and acquired Hazelhurst Field, it adopted yet a third name, Curtiss Field, with its 1920 purchase.
“In the next ten years, every aspect of civil and commercial flying was offered to the public—flight training, emerging air transport, (and) sightseeing tours,” according to Joshua Stoff in another book, Roosevelt Field: World’s Premier Airport 2.“In ten years, it was estimated that 50,000 passengers had flown over 500,000 miles from the Curtiss Field Terminal.”
“During the 1920s, aviation began to touch all aspects of American life,” according to Joshua Stoff in yet a third book, The Aerospace Heritage of Long Island 3. “The public clearly saw the unprecedented potential of aviation for commercial transport: airmail, aerial advertising, cartography, and sport. All of these trends manifested themselves on Long Island.”
It was during this time that one of the first indigenous carriers was established. Formed in 1923 by pre-Pan American Airways Juan Trippe, along with other former members of the Yale Flying Club and appropriately named Long Island Airways, it served as an aerial taxi service, transporting wealthy New York socialites to country estates in war-surplus airplanes.
It operated between 1923 and 1925.
Although the western portion of the Long Island expanse retained its Curtiss name to reflect owner Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, the eastern section, separated by a gully, was designated what eventually became the famous Roosevelt Field moniker after the death of Quentin Roosevelt, President Theodore Roosevelt’s son, who had perished in a 1918 aircraft crash in France.
In 1929, when Roosevelt Field Incorporated purchased the western, or Curtiss, half, it created cohesion by eliminating the gully separation and began a building boom that resulted in administration edifices, machine shops, a restaurant, a hotel, concrete and steel hangars that could house up to 250 airplanes, ramps, and runways. The Roosevelt Aviation School opened its doors and extension of the Long Island Railroad track provided direct surface transport access. It was now equipped for night and instrument operations, transforming the once spartan east parcel that sported nothing more than a dirt field and two wooden structures into an integral section.
Golden Age of Aviation
Although Floyd Bennett Field, which opened on May 26, 1931, became the nucleus of early commercial operations with its larger area, paved runways, and Brooklyn-proximity to Manhattan, Roosevelt Field boasted its own scheduled airline service.
“In 1932, Licon (for “Long Island-Connecticut”) Airways was established, Roosevelt Field’s first and only scheduled airline,” according to Stoff in Roosevelt Field: World’s Premier Airport 4 “They flew Stinson Trimotors between Long Island and Newark, Atlantic City, Providence, New Haven, and Bridgeport.”
The eight-month service, which commenced on November 10, 1933, ceased the following July.
As the country’s largest civilian airport, Roosevelt Field continued to expand. Thirty-two businesses sold everything from gas to full-size airplanes, which could be stored in the 13,000 square feet of hangar space. Paved road access was facilitated with complementary parking and rail travel was made possible by some 80 daily trains from Manhattan and Brooklyn to the Mineola Station.
Would-be pilots could earn their wings at the Curtiss Flying School. Guests could eat and sleep at the Roosevelt Field Inn and Restaurant. Events were recorded in the airport’s own newspaper. Almost any aircraft type could be purchased through some 20 sales agencies, and they could be maintained at repair shops, service centers, and through parts suppliers. Banner towers used the sky as aerial billboards. Fairchild Aerial Surveys took photographs of the eastern portion of the country. And the era and the endeavors were preserved in the Roosevelt Field Aviation Historical Museum.
At the beginning of the 1930s, up to 400 hourly takeoffs occurred from the facility, which was equipped with three asphalt runways.
The two-decade Golden Age of Aviation, running from 1919 to 1939, paralleled Roosevelt Field’s own era of expansion and accomplishment, providing the foundation for feats, advancements, and record-setting flights. But, like separate Mitchel Field to the south, it soon assumed a World War II-necessitated military role. Five Navy-leased hangars served as modification centers for aircraft being shipped to Europe and military pilot training took precedence over its civilian counterpart.
Decline and Closure
Although 272 aircraft were still based at the field at the end of 1940, the once-premier airfield began to decline and never regained its momentum.
The eastern half of it had already been sold five years earlier. With the greater proximity to Manhattan of Floyd Bennett Field and North Beach Airport (later LaGuardia), it never developed into a commercial facility. Surrounding residential development sparked an ever-increasing number of noise complaints and its unrealized, but once-expected, further expansion reduced anticipated tax revenue.
The temporary relocation of general aviation airplanes to other fields, required by increased military need during the war, never returned to earlier levels. By 1945, the air field area had been reduced to 250 acres.
Without the G. I. bill, the Roosevelt Aviation School, once considered the country’s greatest aviation educational institution, was forced to close by the end of the decade; and, with little activity, the Roosevelt Field Inn Hotel followed suit, now sliding into revenue-scare bankruptcy.
After the last 50 aircraft were flown to their new Long Island homes, the airport, origin of historic flights such as Lindbergh’s own 1927 solo transatlantic crossing in the “Spirit of St. Louis,” lost its last runway on May 31, 1951 when it was officially closed, leaving the silent sentinel that had begun as the Hempstead Plains and had nurtured aviation into significant maturity. From this expanse rose a shopping complex five years later, whose only commonality with the area’s former glory was its name: Roosevelt Field. ■
- 1 – (ibid, p. 5.)
- 2 – (SunShine House, 1992, p. 30)
- 3 – (Heart of the Lakes Publishing, 1989, p. 29)
- 4 – (op. cit., pp 73-74)