I recently heard about Floyd Bennett Air Field, here’s what I learned.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Before LaGuardia and JFK, Floyd Bennett Field was New York City’s first airport, at a time when nearly all air traffic was based out of Newark.

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The old seaplane base on West 31st Street is now a heliport; North Beach is now called LaGuardia Airport.

 

Floyd Bennett Field’s Administration Building is now called the Ryan Vistor Center.

Constructed on the site of Barren Island and additional landfill, Floyd Bennett Field was New York City’s first municipal airport. The airport is located in the southern part of Brooklyn between Flatbush Avenue and Jamaica Bay, and was completed in 1930 ( a smaller airfield, Barren Island Airport, had been there since the mid-1920s) and dedicated by Mayor Jimmy Walker. The airport initially had only two perpendicular runways. The terminal building was topped by an air traffic control tower and featured modern innovations such as underground tunnels extending from the basement to the ramp area. This allowed passengers to comfortably walk from the terminal to their aircraft in any weather. A barber shop, weather room, pilot’s lounge, passenger lounge, and restaurant were also part of the modern terminal (by the nascent airline industry standards).

 

Who’s Floyd? A special thank you goes to the researchers and publishers of the deepcreekyachtclub website…ScoutingNY web site…. and forgotten-ny websites…deciplesofflight websites.

Floyd Bennett, born in Warrensburg, N.Y., had lived in Brooklyn and had been New York’s favorite aviator. He enlisted into the Navy for flight training in 1917. Winning his wings, Bennett first served as a test pilot and later as a Chief Machinists’ Mate aboard the U.S.S. Richmond, in charge of aircraft. It was while aboard the U. S. S. Richmond that Bennett met Admiral Richard E. Byrd. In 1925, he accompanied Byrd on the MacMillan Expedition to the Arctic. On May 9, 1926, Byrd and Bennett took off and made history by being the first men to fly over the North Pole. For this feat, both men were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Plans were being made for a second trip, this time to the South Pole. Bennett did not live to realize the triumph of the South Pole Expedition. In April 1928, while suffering a high fever, he heard of the flight of Irish-German crew of the ‘Bremen’, which was forced down at Greenley Island, Quebec, on an attempted non-stop flight from Europe. Bennett was not acquainted with any of the pilots on board the ‘Bremen’, but they were fellow fliers and explorers in trouble, and despite his fever, he took off immediately from Detroit to try a rescue.

At Murray Bay, he was stricken with influenza, but refused to turn back. Halfway on his journey across Canada, Bennett died of pneumonia. Floyd Bennett was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. Out of respect for Bennett, Admiral Byrd took a stone from Bennett’s grave and dropped it over the South Pole on the flight that he and Bennett had planned together.

 

When first built, Floyd Bennett Field’s Administration Building was flanked by eight fireproof hangars, each measuring 120 by 140 feet. Four concrete runways, from 3,200 to 4,200 feet long and from 100 to 150 feet wide, crisscrossed the field. The two towers at the landing zone were equipped with 5,000,000-candle-power floodlights, which supplement the regular beacon boundary, and obstruction lights. Blind landings at the field were facilitated by directional radio beam and a special runway bordered by contact lights.

 

On this spot, in the rear of the Ryan Center, Howard Hughes took off and landed after completing a round-the-world record flight of 3 days, 19 hours, 17 minutes on July 14, 1938, beating Wiley Post’s old record by more than 4 days. He was met by a crowd of 25,000.

 

On July 17, 1938, the same month Hughes made his record flight, Douglas Corrigan sought to take off from Floyd Bennett to fly to Ireland, but was denied permission by the Civil Aviation Authority (the governing body at the time) becuase his $299 Curtiss-Robin single engine aircraft was not deemed airworthy. Corrigan then took off for his home in California instead. 28 hours later, Corrigan landed in Dublin, claiming that a faulty compass caused him to fly in the wrong direction. His, er, error caught the public fancy and “Wrong Way” Corrigan received public acclaim upon his return to the USA and a ticker tape parade up Broadway.

 

A view of the tower from the runway.

Floyd Bennett is not a “dead” airfield. The tower was manned and busy while we were there; and while we were exploring the nearby swamplands, we heard a low roar and sure enough, saw a chunky cargo aircraft rising into the sky through the weeds. Such flights, we’re told, take place about once a week.

 

This commemorative plaque is hidden at the rear of the tower, evading all but the most persistent seekers.

The plaque dates to the late 1930s when Floyd Bennett was much busier than it is now.

Floyd Bennett Field was built at the southern end of Brooklyn on what was once known as Barren Island. At the time, Barren Island consisted of a marsh with dozens of smaller islands surrounding it. A small community existed on the island, and in fact, one man had even set up his own runway to take passengers on pleasure flights. The marsh was filled in in the late 1920’s…

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…and Floyd Bennett Field was opened on the site in 1930. Named for the famed Arctic pilot, the official dedication was marked by the flyover of 672 army aircraft.

The original military model, the XR-4, was developed from the famous experimental VS-300 helicopter, invented by Igor Sikorsky and publicly demonstrated in 1940.

The XR-4 made its initial flight on January 13, 1942 and as a result of its successful flight tests, the United States Army Air Forces ordered 3 YR-4As and 27 YR-4Bs for service testing and flight training. Of these 30, one went to Burma and one to Alaska, while several others were assigned to the United States Navy, United States Coast Guard and British Royal Navy who named it the Gadfly.

The USAAF flew Sikorsky R-4 helicopters in the CBI theater, performing the first helicopter casualty evacuation. It could only carry one person other than the pilot. They also used the R-6 which could carry two casualties in pods on the side of the helicopter. All Allied helicopter pilots in WWII were trained by the USCG at Brooklyn Air Station. More inforation is available at the web site below.

https://www.uscg.mil/history/aviation/Sikorsky/Sikorsky_HNS1.pdf

Floyd Bennett Field, from the end of WWII to sometime around 1970 was a US Navy Reserve training center. There were a large amount of “Station Keepers” whose job it was train members of the Navy Reserve and also maintain the aircraft at the station. Floyd Bennett was also used as a terminal by members of the congress and high ranking officers having to visit the NYC area. It was also the site used by John Glenn on July 16, 1957 to set a transcontinental speed record flying from NAS Los Alamitos, CA to Floyd Bennett Field in 3 hours and 23 minutes. The Blue Angels also staged air shows from Floyd Bennett when appearing in New York. There was also a Coast Guard Base at the field with helicopter and seaplanes both used for search and rescue. Where the administration building and the hangars along Flatbush Avenue are, the Air Force also had a reserve program whose mission was much the same as the Navy and the Marines.

 

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Today, the aerial view of Floyd Bennett looks very much the same:

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FBF was declared part of the Gateway National Recreation Area in 1972, with a number of its buildings added to the National Register of Historic Places. What this means is that when you visit Floyd Bennett Field today…

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…It’s like stepping back in time:

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Floyd Bennett Field is a great place to explore by bike, because the enormous expanse has so many neat things to discover.

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The crown jewel of the bunch is the old Administration building (seen below on bustling Flatbush Avenue)…

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…which looks as though it were built yesterday:

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Originally, this single building served as passenger terminal, air traffic control, baggage and freight distribution, and sleeping quarters for air crews.

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One of my favorite details in all of Floyd Bennett Field is the insignia on the roof:

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But probably the most fascinating element is the control tower…

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…which was actually added when the Navy took over the field in the 1940’s.

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At the time of Floyd Bennett’s construction, Newark was the primary airport serving New York City. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia pushed hard for the airlines to switch to Floyd Bennett, offering waterplane service directly to Manhattan (seen below – what an amenity!).

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However, at the time, passenger travel was a luxury, and in fact most air travel was centered around freight and postage. When the US Postal Service refused to move out of Newark, so did most of the other airlines.

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I have to admit – when you’re parked at one end of Floyd Bennett’s 4,000 foot runaway, it’s really, really hard not to ignore those pesky 25mph signs and see if your car can take off (doesn’t work, sadly).

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Over its 9 years of operation as a commercial airfield, numerous important and record-breaking flights left from Floyd Bennett – see the very impressive (and often amusing) list here. However, LaGuardia Airport’s opening in 1939 sounded the death toll for Floyd Bennett Field, and it was purchased by the Navy in 1941.

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The Floyd Bennett historic district consists of the Administration Building, as well as a number of hangars and repair shops.

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The below picture taken in 1931 offers a better idea of the layout – the Administration Building is in the center, surrounded by hangars.

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Two of the hangars have been beautifully maintained and repurposed as a sports and events center:

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In fact, one wonders if Hangar 8…

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…is the hangar in the background of this picture featuring Amelia Earhart at FBF (note the arched corner):

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…and compare it to this photograph taken in the 1930’s. The man in the picture? Howard Hughes.

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Different engineers were tackling the first problem by attempting to use two large counter-rotating propellers (similar to today’s Chinooks). This arrangement made these helicopters very heavy. Sikorsky solved this problem by developing a helicopter with one large single horizontal rotor, and one small vertical rotor for countering the torque. This allowed his helicopter to be light enough, combined with the improvement of lighter materials and engines. Sikorsky also developed a way to change the pitch of the blades during their rotation, allowing for both horizontal lift control and lateral control. The VS-300 made the first modern helicopter flight on September 14th, 1939.

Igor Sikorsky flying the VS300, his first helicopter with a successful configuration.

The VS-300 made hundreds of successful flights through the end of 1941, demonstrating its ability to hover and land in small, confined spaces. Spaces that airplanes would never have a chance of operating in, at least not more than once! Sikorsky said of this ability during a 1941 meeting of the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences, “there can be no doubt that an aircraft of such characteristics will open a most important and large now field of air travel.” He received his first helicopter contract for the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941.

Sikorsky’s helicopters did see service in World War II, to the surprise of many aviation enthusiasts. His R-4 helicopter was used in the first helicopter rescues of downed pilots in China and Burma. These helicopters were also aboard some ships in the South Pacific for medical evacuations.

Igor Sikorsky being hoisted in an R4 Helicopter, his first helicopter design to be mass produced.

Sikorksy being hoisted in an R4.

The helicopter proved its value during the Korean War, saving the lives of countless soldiers in medical evacuations, delivering troops and supplies, and even providing offensive support.

Igor Sikorsky passed away in 1972. Today, his Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation is based in Stratford, Connecticut, and manufactures both civilian and military helicopters for over 40 different countries. Their mission statement is “We pioneer flight solutions that bring people home everywhere…every time.”

The company estimates that the helicopter has saved over 2 million lives in rescues since 1944.

A volunteer aircraft restoration program, in which airplane experts and enthusiasts gather to save the flying machines they love. The hangar is often open to the public, and it’s definitely worth checking ahead before visiting:

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Picture courtesy Flickr user Petit Hiboux

Here’s my recommendation. As soon as the days start getting warmer, pick a Saturday, pack a lunch, get a bike, and head out to Floyd Bennett. BUT DON’T PLAN A ROUTE!! Instead, feel your way to FBF. Starting from, say, the Brooklyn Bridge, your goal should simply be to head South and East. Try to resist checking your map as much as possible. I’ve done this twice now, and each time I’ve found myself on streets and in neighborhoods I had no idea existed.

Once you’re there, have a picnic, then go exploring.

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Boating off Floyd Bennett Field circa 1931

 

A mishap at Floyd Bennett Field (according to the notes, the plane flipped forward while trying to take off):

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Why did the military abandon the Floyd Bennett Field? Well most families were far away from the aviators, mechanics, and crew which caused stress and discontent. When WWII ended so did the motivation to be far away from home and hearth.

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Comments


  1. Tom Kufta says:

    Was in the Navy reserves in a VF squadron at Floyd Bennett field went there one weekend every month in the early 1950’s. In summer of 1954 had a boot camp there run by two Marines that had served in the Korean War.

  2. William S. Jordan says:

    Was assigned to the 8709th Pilot Training Wing, SE, USAF Reserve from December 1952 to September 1954. Took basic training at Floyd Bennett and Mitchell Air Force Base. We were trained by the 2230th Air Force
    Flying Training Center. The unit had the T-6 and T-28 aircraft and a
    few C-45 birds. The base had regular Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Air
    Force and Army and also had reserve unit from each of the military
    branch`s and the New York Department`s air unit. The side of the field where the police air unit was referred to as the Air Force side
    while the other side was called the Navy side. Back than it was a very busy place. Originally from Brooklyn. Great memories. Don`t k


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