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.
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.
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.
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.