Where aviators soared high

29 Sep

The New York metro area is served by no less than 3 major airports, together contributing a staggering 3300 flights to its airspace, each day! While Newark is in neighbouring New Jersey, both LaGuardia and JFK are located in the city’s largest borough, Queens. But little known to the hundreds of thousands of daily fliers, and to a majority of New Yorkers, is the fact that the city’s first airport was in fact in Brooklyn!

In the days when flights were few and far between, when passengers walked freely onto the tarmac to board their planes, and when security procedures –  as we know them today – were non existent, ‘Building 1’ was sufficient enough to house the passenger terminal, airline offices and air traffic control for Floyd Bennett Field!

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Named after Bennett, a Brooklyn resident and US Navy pilot, the airfield was built in 1931, by extending Barren Island with landfill, to connect with the south shore of Brooklyn in Jamaica Bay.

Along with ‘Building 1’, eight hangars were built to service some of the largest planes of the day. Today, while their exteriors remain untouched, hangars 5 through 8 have been re-purposed to house Aviator Sports, an arena and events centre!

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In the late 20s, when the airfield was first proposed, most runways across the US were either grass or dirt. But the planners behind Floyd Bennett Field had bigger, better ideas! They built the country’s first concrete runways – 5 in all – electrically illuminated no less, to allow for night landings!

About a decade after the airfield opened, it began to lose its sheen to LaGuardia, which commenced operations in ’39, in neighbouring Queens. But not before Howard Hughes, Amelia Earhart, Roscoe Turner, Wiley Post and several other legendary aviators had used Floyd Bennett Field for their record setting endeavours!

For my part – after having biked up and down its many storied runways – I look back and imagine what it must have been like in its heyday!

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Planes still fly into and out of Floyd Bennett Field today, albeit of a different kind – the model airplane variety!

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The north end of Runway 1-19 hosts model airplane enthusiasts from the Pennsylvania Avenue Radio Control Society or PARCS, on most days in the week, with attendance – and model air traffic – reaching its peak on weekends!

Biking over to the south end of Runway 1-19, I spot an altogether different hobby – one that utilises the wind as its source of power but remains firmly rooted to the ground – land sailing!

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Although commercial operations ceased at Floyd Bennett Field by 1941, the airfield found favour with the US Navy, which set up a Naval Air Station there. The Air Station was operated for three decades, and in the interim, the centre of all activity was ‘Hangar B’!

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Today, ‘Hangar B’ houses over a dozen vintage aircraft, sourced from the US Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and the NYPD, some already restored, others in the process of being rehabilitated – all of them in the loving care of HARP (Historic Aircraft Restoration Project) volunteers!

I spend about an hour looking at the various fighter planes, amphibious craft and choppers and then make my way to the HARP workshop, where this sign catches my attention..

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I can’t help but think how very applicable this is to the Indian scenario!

Floyd Bennett Field caters to more than just the aviation enthusiast and wind buggy rider – it boasts the city’s only campground, has plenty of hiking trails and several spots for fishing. During my exploration, I chance upon a couple of anglers trying their luck in Jamaica Bay. The midtown skyline peeks out from behind, reminding me that I’m still in NYC!

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Built in an era that favoured the automobile, Floyd Bennett Field isn’t easily accessible by public transit, save for the Q35 bus. Your best bet is to drive there, or when the weather’s favourable, to bike!

On my ride back to the subway (the B,Q is the closest subway line), I decide to detour through the Manhattan Beach neighbourhood of south Brooklyn. Known for having some of the most diverse Jewish populations, including Sephardi (Iberian), Ashkenazi (German) and Russian Jews, it is also home to the eponymous beach, one of the smallest and most untouched in the city!

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Manhattan Beach is bounded by Brighton Beach and Coney Island to the west, the Atlantic on its south and east, and the neighbourhood of Sheepshead Bay to the north. Sheepshead refers to a variety of fish that were once found in the waters of the bay.

While exotic marine life may be hard to come by in the bay today, Swans are in abundance on the water, a marina is visible in the distance and the promenade along Emmons Ave is lined with seafood restaurants – the makings of a New England fishing village, pretty much!

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And this time, there’s not even a hint of the famed skyline to remind me where I am 😉

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A full set of pics can be seen here.

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One Response to “Where aviators soared high”

  1. Mohan October 1, 2010 at 7:59 am #

    I had heard or read about Floyd Bennet Field several times in the past but didn’t know it was in Brooklyn! Another well written post that showcases what a great city New York really is – I think Mayor Bloomberg ought to pay you for your services! And you’re right – that sign does says it all (esp. in the context of y’day’s HC decision on the Babri/Ram Janambhoomi tangle).

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