Abandoned airfields: history in our midst

Most pilots love airplanes, but do you love airports too? For all the publicity flying machines get, I find the places they call home to be even more interesting. Airports are one of our most-overlooked resources, museums hidden in plain sight. Almost every time I visit one, I see the history of aviation told through old hangars and black and white photos in the terminal building.

South Columbus Airport abandoned

An all-too-common sight: South Columbus airport is now an industrial park, although you can still make out the remains of the runway.

Phil Scott’s recent article about the birth of airports (a thoroughly enjoyable read if you haven’t seen it yet), got me thinking about airports in a different way. As Phil showed, airports rarely started out with master plans and vision statements. More often, they were open fields close to the city–places that welcomed the general public. It’s a far cry from today’s massive concrete complexes far outside the city limits, communities of their own that are divorced from everyday life. Some even have their own zip codes.

Unfortunately, many of the early neighborhood airports were doomed precisely because of their location. Their valuable land means they have disappeared in large numbers, overrun by office buildings, housing developments and even Mother Nature. But while these airports may be gone, they are not forgotten thanks to the heroic efforts of Paul Freeman. His website (Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields) doesn’t sport the fanciest design, but it holds a treasure trove of history and pictures for over 1600 airports that are still among us, but no longer on the sectional.

It’s both enchanting and sad, like going through a deceased relative’s possessions: you can relive old glories but you’re also acutely aware that these good times are never coming back. There’s no more depressing example than Roosevelt Field on Long Island, the famous airport where Charles Lindbergh took off from in 1927, headed for Paris. The website shows a number of  pictures, charts and ads from the glory days, all depicting a vibrant airport at the leading edge of the aviation boom. Today it’s a giant shopping mall, with no trace of the airport left, save for a single plaque.

Hicksville aviation country club

Long Island once boasted an “aviation country club,” as this incredible picture shows.

Indeed, Long Island was once dotted with numerous airports, including the utterly unique Long Island Aviation Country Club in Hicksville. This airport, which was eventually replaced by the massive Levittown housing development, once offered a grass runway, a paved parking ramp, a clubhouse with dining room, a large pool and a tennis court. Lindbergh was an early member and supposedly taught his wife to fly there. It seems like a concept that is due for a renaissance–wouldn’t it be interesting to dig up the driving range at your local country club and make it a runway?

New York certainly doesn’t have a lock on abandoned airports. Indeed, all 50 states are represented on Freeman’s website, from former Wright brothers fields in Ohio to the stunning number of airports in the Los Angeles area. Each airport has its own story, most of them totally unknown to pilots and yet quite interesting.

Take Alexander Airport in Colorado Springs. There’s no sign of the runway anymore, but this small airport was once home to one of the largest aircraft manufacturers in the world. In the 1920s, the Alexander Film Company decided to go well beyond movies and built the popular Alexander Eaglerock biplane at a factory right on the airport. The Alexander brothers’ airport even included their own film studio for a while. Today, an eagle-eyed visitor could still pick out some buildings that were once an airplane factory, right next to the bank and the divided highway.

Stories like these take you back to the heady post-Lindbergh days when aviation was booming and people like the Alexanders were perfectly comfortable starting airplane companies in their back office. It was probably foolish (they went bust after all), but their naive ambition is quite a contrast to today’s dying industry. Aviation was far more exotic then, and yet it was somehow more accessible too.

Austin Executive

Austin Executive Airport is slowly being swallowed up by Dell Computer.

This website is more than just a history project, though. I make it a point to review Abandoned Airfields as part of my preflight checklist. If there’s an old airport somewhere close to my destination, it’s definitely worth a fly-over and maybe a visit on foot. A few years ago I visited the old Austin Executive Airport in Texas while I was in town. Part of the runway is still there, and some of the old hangars have been turned into factories, but the whole area is slowly being swallowed by Dell Computer’s sprawling campus. It was fascinating to walk around, sort of like visiting a Civil War battlefield: you need to know a little history and use a little imagination, but you can almost see the place as it once was.

It’s easy to get depressed browsing around this website and realizing how many airports are disappearing from history. But change is inevitable, and we should really be thankful for the history that is still around us. Unlike a building, an airport can’t simply be torn down, so it quite literally leaves a scar for many years to come. With a little research, you may surprised at how many old airports are close by.

That’s not to say that all is well: development or nature does eventually win and too many airports are fading away. Worse still, it’s very rare that an abandoned airport is replaced by a new one. But complaining about it won’t fix anything; all we can do is preserve the memory of what’s gone and protect what’s left.

Let’s take care of our airports–we don’t want any more showing up on Paul Freeman’s website.

12 Comments

  1. If you look on Google Earth now, though, that’s as far as the York, AL, housing project ever got. I sure wish I had photos of all the airports I used to fly over or into – more than a few no longer exist.

  2. Matt Falcus says:

    Interesting article! I love overflying abandoned RAF airfields in the UK (there’s hundreds of them!)

    I recently wrote this article about 5 lost European airports today: http://www.airportspotting.com/5-lost-european-airports-today/

  3. Ken Walker says:

    It’s great to find out where old airports used to be, but sad at the same time. Where I live in Southern NJ, there were at least five airports that were closed and have been taken over by modern society. There are websites out there that document what they can, and most of the information is based on people who actually used to fly out of those airports. I particularly liked Atlantic City’s Bader Field which was right on the island and stayed their until the early 2000s.

    http://www.airfields-freeman.com/

    GREAT website for looking up abandoned airports in anyone’s locale.

  4. Peg Ballou says:

    The airport at which I learned to fly was a grass field in Oneonta, NY called F & F Airpark. It is now a putt-putt golf course and Oneonta Municipal on the hill is the remaining airport. The land we live on had a grass strip years ago, and we plan to reopen it to offer a Women’s Aviation Retreat Center with housing and hospitality. A niche in time.

    Sycamore Ohio had an airport in the early 1930s, home of Lauretta Schimmoler who was secretary of the 99s under Amelia Earhart. She talked the manager into moving the airport to Bucyrus, Ohio, and she became the first woman airport manager in the United States. Her hangar with her Waco was burned under suspicous circumstances… Later she starred with Ronald Reagan in a now-lost movie Parachute Nurses, depicting her dream of an Air Force Parachute Nurses Corps.

  5. Doyle says:

    Too often, the powers that be, (local and national politicians,) have no idea, or concern, of their actions, and, most of the time, they are the ones directly responsible for this loss to the nation as a whole. All they see is their little pond, and seem to think that is the whole world, and they are going to change it for THEIR benefit.
    They don’t realize the actual cost to the local economy with the loss of that facility.
    Clinton County, NY, KPLB, is no longer an active airport. It was closed, (along with its crosswind runways) both 5,000 foot strips, because the FAA would not support two airports within a specified distance of each other, (even though there was no conflict with the jet traffic at the new, former air force base and its bigger single N-S 11,789 foot runway, now called KPBG, Plattsburgh International.)
    That closure cost several businesses their major income, as well as a place for old fogeys like me to enjoy themselves.
    Bigger is NOT always better. Especially when the majority of the local politicians have no interest in anything except the big dollars they get from big airliners, and that usually interferes with GA, (us littler guys.)

  6. Jim Densmore says:

    After a day at the swim meet across the street, I, my daughter and her swim team and parents all repaired across the street to the mall for dinner. The Roosevelt Mall. As we were eating, I quieted the group and got everyone’s attention. Ladies, is anyone aware of the historical significance of this spot? Of course, no one was, but I enlightened them. For all we knew, one of us was sitting at the exact spot where Lucky Lindy finally lifted off on his journey to Paris and unfathomable fame. It was bittersweet to sit there and dream of that day. We did find that little plaque. It’s not very big.

  7. Chris says:

    I donated a few bucks to Mr. Freeman’s site last year, after using it for several years on various personal research projects. He even emailed me a nice note of thanks. I highly recommend a donation if you feel it worthwhile, just because I want to keep his web-based resource flying too! (No affiliation or sponsorship, just a user of his site.)

    I just heard a single engine fly over the house as I was typing this. I love this country!

  8. Greg Ellis says:

    Fortunately, Austin Executive (KEDC) is alive and well, albeit in another location. It moved to an area well away from Dell Computer. :)
    I remember flying into the old Austin Executive back in 1992 before Dell was anyhwere close to it. At that time there was nothing around the airport. Shame that we are losing some of this history that should be treasured.

  9. Greg Johnson says:

    There is a web site of abandoned airfields in North Carolina that shows what they looked like when in service and, sometimes, how they look now. Many were military airfields from WWII.

  10. I’m looking for a historic hangar worthy of dismantling to be moved to central N.C. It would be used for an air museum on my airfield. If anyone knows of such a building, please email or call me.

    Thanks much,

    Roland Gilliam. amg3636@hotmail.com. 910-695-5216