On a recent Saturday, with sunny skies and a brisk breeze off Jamaica Bay, rangers at the Gateway National Recreation Area unveiled the newly renovated Ryan Visitor Center, a noble re-creation of what was once the main terminal at Floyd Bennett Field; a portal through which thousands of pre-jet-age travelers passed when headed to and from far-off, and not so far-off, lands.
Its glory newly restored, the Ryan Center provides a glimpse into the sky that was a novel and charming realm that has faded and dwindled into obscurity amidst the inglorious trials of modern air travel.
And it stands as a reminder to all of us of a time before jumbo jets could land themselves, when men (and women) with guts flew planes for the thrill and glory of it all, and many started or ended their trips on a Brooklyn marsh, and, later, when the nation’s top-of-the-line commercial airliners — whose destination was officially New York — could only touch down on a tarmac in Brooklyn.
In the dark days of Empire State aviation, before the Floyd Bennett Field Municipal Airport graced Brooklyn’s Barren Island, sky pilots headed to the city had to pass by the glittering towers and glitzy streets of the Big Apple, and terminate their romantic tour of the clouds in the stogy, rank-aired wilds of Newark, New Jersey.
Painfully aware of the unfortunate travel prospects facing plane-born passengers from his city, the wise mayor of New York City, one Fiorello Henry LaGuardia, fighting like a wounded fox caught by the farmer in a hen house, convinced the city to build a new municipal airport, one that would allow city-bound commuters to bypass dirty Jersey — forever.
Famed aviator Clarence D. Chamberlin, the second man to pilot a fixed-wing aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean, chose the 387-acre marsh of Barren Island — actually 33 separate islands — as the site for the august airport in 1929.
Three years and six million cubic yards of sand later, Floyd Bennett Field was finished.
Completed in 1931, the airfield’s electrically lighted, concrete runways and lavish terminal facilities made it one of the most technologically advanced and luxurious airports of its day, earning it the highest rating by the US Department of Commerce.
Dubbed Floyd Bennett Field after the famous naval aviator who was first to fly over the barren, icy crags of the North Pole, the airport became a hotspot for daring pilots eager to turn heads and make headlines.
In 1933, Wiley Post broke his own record flying in and out of Floyd Bennett Field. Taking off on July 15, 1938, it took Post seven days, 18 hours, and 49 minutes to circumvent the globe.
In 1938, Howard Hughes and a crew of four finished their round-the-world flight, covering 14,791 miles in three days, 19 hours, eight minutes, and 10 seconds. Of course, he took off — and landed — at Bennett.
Mere hours following Hughes’ globe-spanning flight, Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan embarked from the now-famous field, in a plane he rebuilt with his own hands, on a flight scheduled to land in California. But it was not to be.
No, Wrong Way didn’t crash somewhere over the Great Plains. Instead, the daring Corrigan landed his Curtiss Robin OX-5 monoplane in Ireland 27 hours later — completing a trans-Atlantic flight that the government had decreed was too much for his flying machine to handle.
Maybe it was the luck of the Irish — or the fact that he took off from Brooklyn — that ensured he landed safely. But one thing is certain — he didn’t take off from Jersey.
These days, the only planes that lift off from Floyd Bennett Field are of the model variety and the occasional vintage aircraft that have been painstakingly rebuilt by our beloved members of the Historic Aircraft Restoration Project.
But that doesn’t mean that Barren Island isn’t without its relics, antiques, renovations, and ruins, which echo with the spectral stutter of prop-engines, pulling visitors into a sky filled with history.
And, it is said that sometimes, standing on the Field’s unlit runway alone at night, you can hear the spin of old propellers, and feel the wind in your face as a ghost plane pushes itself from the ground and soars into the air.
Then, the beautiful music is drowned out by a modern aircraft, noisily landing at nearby John F. Kennedy International Airport, sadly dropping off passengers — in Queens.Reach reporter Colin MIxson at cmixson@cn