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Abandoned, Historic, Military

Landing at Floyd Bennett Field, New York’s First Airport

Hangar Exterior_Floyd Bennett Field_0054

A dilapidated airplane hangar at Floyd Bennett Field.

Mrs. Bennett wept as the memorial tablet was unveiled, damping the freshly broken ground of New York City’s first municipal airport. For all time, Floyd Bennett Field would honor the legacy of her departed son, the Brooklyn native and national hero who’d won the Medal of Honor by breaking barriers as the first to fly over the North Pole.

Floyd may have made his mother proud that day, but historians have since determined that the feat was a fraud.  Perhaps he sold his soul for a ticker tape parade—the remaining two years of his life were fraught with failure, culminating in a dramatic end.  Bennett perished while attempting to save a shipwrecked crew on a deserted island.  Two months later, a deserted island was named for him. Perhaps it, too, was doomed to fail.

It was an unlikely upgrade for Barren Island, a plot of marshland in Southeast Brooklyn that had spent half a century as the final destination for New York City’s garbage.  An hour’s drive from City Hall, with no access to major highways or train routes, the location was heavily criticized by the growing aviation community, but financial concerns ultimately outweighed their objections.  Barren Island had one major advantage over the other proposed sites—the city already owned it.

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Hangars on the south side of the property are a fine example of early aviation architecture, despite their state of disrepair.

Dredgers began pumping thousands of tons of sand from the depths of the Jamaica Bay to fill and level 500 acres.  Completed at a price of $4.5 million, Floyd Bennett Field was dedicated in 1931 with a spectacular air show, drawing crowds of 25,000. By all accounts, the airport was a fine one, with eight hangars capable of accommodating fifty planes, a state-of-the-art lighting system, and innovative accommodations for amphibious aircraft.

As the fanfares subsided, the airfield struggled to compete with New Jersey’s Newark airport, which dominated passenger flights into the New York City area.  At the time, carriers depended on airmail contracts with the US Post Office to ensure profits on underbooked flights, and the Postal Service never agreed to transfer its operations from Newark to Floyd Bennett Field.   Ultimately, the new airport could only attract a single commercial airline to its runways; American Airlines landed its first passenger flight in 1937.  As predicted, travelers complained of the long transit times into the city.

Despite its failings in the realm of commercial flight, Floyd Bennett Field was the site of dozens of notable achievements during the golden age of aviation. In 1933, Wiley Post made the first solo trip around the world, a record that was broken years later by Howard Hughes on the same spot. “Wrong Way” Corrigan made a memorable trip across the Atlantic in 1938, claiming he had accidentally gone the wrong direction after he was unable to get approval for the flight.

With the Second World War raging overseas, the Navy purchased the underused airstrip from the city in 1941. During the war, Naval Air Station – New York was the busiest installation of its kind in the United States. Aircraft Delivery Units positioned at Floyd Bennett Field were responsible for the commission, testing, and delivery of aircraft to combat zones throughout Europe and the Pacific.  The field was reorganized in 1946 as a Naval Air Reserve Training Station.  As the military scaled back operations in the 1970s, most of the airfield’s military functions were phased out, and the vast majority of the property was abandoned.

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Dilapidated artifacts in an old Navy barracks.

Three conflicting plans emerged from the local, state, and federal governments on how to repurpose the newly available land, but the winning bid came from the Nixon administration, which proposed including the site in the nation’s first attempt at an urban National Park. The Gateway National Recreation Area included 1,300 acres of waterfront parkland scattered through broad areas of the Rockaways, South Brooklyn, Staten Island, and New Jersey, largely composed of defunct military posts.  At the time, critics accused the Gateway proponents of creating a “vast wasteland.”  To some extent, these words proved prophetic. The Gateway area is currently the largest contiguous open space in New York City, but relatively few New Yorkers have ever heard of it.

As of 1991, daily visitors to Floyd Bennett Field averaged around 30, and even today, the Gateway remains largely unknown. During the Reagan years, the area was allowed to languish when the Parks Service was set back by a series of budget cuts. A 2003 bid to connect the areas with ferry links and rebrand the Gateway as the “National Parks of New York Harbor” failed to raise the private funds necessary to overhaul the parks.  Meanwhile many of the area’s military structures—there’s over 400 scattered throughout the Gateway—have fallen into a state of disrepair.

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This former repair shop has been completely neglected.

For a place where relatively little happens, Floyd Bennett Field seems to be in a perpetual state of emergency—police cars and rescue vehicles are a constant presence, and choppers often loom overhead. The NYPD operates its helicopter division and runs Emergency Service training here. Pockets of civilian activity are scattered throughout the park, including Brooklyn’s largest community garden. In Hangar B, a group of enthusiastic craftsmen are preserving the airfield’s history by restoring and displaying historic aircraft. On summer nights, the park is a meeting place for amateur astronomers, offering some of the darkest skies in the five boroughs. Notably, it’s the only legal campground within city limits.

The recent restoration of the Administration Building, now a visitor’s center, is a significant sign of progress.  Several buildings have been cleared out and renovated, but there’s still much work to be done.  Recently, a $38 million sports and entertainment center salvaged four of the historic hangars, combining them into a single structure.  Beyond the packed parking lot of the Aviator Sports complex, the crowds drop off quickly, leading to a sea of grass and vast stretches of empty pavement.

The sparsely populated acreage of Floyd Bennett Field can feel deserted at times, but you’re more likely to strike up a conversation here than the teeming walkways of Central Park; visitors invariably have something in common. They’re birdwatchers, dog walkers, cook-out captains, and retirees who all share a love of the outdoors and an appreciation for quiet places.  Most importantly, they all know about this place, and cherish the secret.  Floyd Bennett Field is due for a rebirth, and it’s just waiting to be discovered. Until then, let’s enjoy the silence…

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These hangars have been cleared out somewhat recently.

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The renovated administration building looking lonely on a foggy morning.

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Feral cats roam the old airport, choosing the most remote places to die.

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A desiccated feline makes a tomb of a former officer’s quarters, where piles of animal waste collect in the bathtub and cover the stairs.

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These rooms are only touched with the first signs of decay, but the windows are already shuttered with ivy.

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The later buildings typify the blandly pragmatic architecture of military installations of this period, but inside, the right angles break down.

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Odd lighting in a projection booth overlooking a gymnatorium.

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This building on the southwest edge of the park was last used by the park police.

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I almost missed this incredible camera obscura…

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An undistorted view of the projected image.

-Will Ellis

For more abandoned military installations, check out Fort Totten:

Inside Fort Totten

Click through for more of New York’s military past.

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Discussion

19 thoughts on “Landing at Floyd Bennett Field, New York’s First Airport

  1. The camera obscura shot is really fanatstic! To see the outside projected upside down is so very cool and it makes a memorable image! Well done!

    Posted by sph3re | 3-30-13., 12:05 pm
    • Thanks Pascal. I originally bypassed the room because it looked too dark, good thing I gave it another look. These occur naturally in a lot of abandoned buildings, but this was the clearest I’ve seen.

      Posted by abandonednyc | 3-30-13., 1:46 pm
      • Thanx for the tip. Next time I go urbex, I’ll keep me eyes open for this phenomenon.

        Posted by sph3re | 3-30-13., 2:33 pm
  2. I thoroughly enjoy your well-researched and informative history lessons.

    Posted by kqduane | 3-30-13., 1:19 pm
  3. Photos and narrative both terrific!

    Posted by ellis3000 | 3-30-13., 3:29 pm
  4. I grew up adjacent to Floyd Bennett Field, in Rockawy and one of my earliest memories was going there to see these huge horses that worked for a man called Budweiser. They were stabled there for the winter. It must have been 1981-1982…

    Posted by Greg L | 3-30-13., 10:45 pm
  5. This is amazing. Thanks for sharing — and that camera obscura image is extraordinary!

    Posted by broadsideblog | 3-31-13., 7:50 am
  6. The hangars you are referring to have been cleared out because they are the proposed site of an acre natural gas facility that is part of the park’s improvement or “progress”. The construction of that facility isn’t exactly going to be quiet either.

    Posted by Karen Orlando | 4-6-13., 6:03 pm
  7. Thank you for a fascinating blog about Floyd Bennett Field. Yes, there are several abandoned buildings in disrepair at Floyd Bennett Field, but your article does not fully capture the incredible serenity and beauty of the place. Every year many people enjoy the wonderful activities that FBF has to offer: fishing, hiking, boating, cycling, kite flying, nature watching and outdoor festivals, just to name a few. We should also remember that FBF is a breeding ground for and home to a tremendous variety of living creatures including water birds, marine life and butterflies. There are very few places in NYC where one can see three vultures circling nearby, two bunnies hopping along or a black snake slithering quickly across the concrete like I have.

    I share Ms. Orlando’s concern about proposed plans to building a huge metering and regulating gas facility on historic hangar row. Such an industrial facility does not belong in a beautiful park like Floyd Bennett Field. We have plenty of industrial areas on NYC already. Our government should not be trying to create a new one.

    Posted by Jack | 4-7-13., 3:53 am
  8. Hi Will, Hope you are great. Your work is featured in our journal. If you are able, please come to the release party. It would be wonderful to meet. Details are here:

    http://www.vanalenbooks.org/post/49793656354/launch-party-plot-volume-2#moreAll the best, Kathleen

    Kathleen Cholewka Master of Landscape Architecture Student Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture The City College of New York 347-922-8206 kathleencholewka@gmail.com

    Date: Sat, 30 Mar 2013 16:00:44 +0000 To: djlupeloop@hotmail.com

    Posted by littleredbag | 5-7-13., 3:24 pm
  9. floyd bennett is one my favorite places in the city…probably only about 1 in 10 people know what it is. but we like it that way, right?

    Posted by Pipe Adams | 5-12-13., 12:21 pm
  10. Amazing article! Maybe my old squinty eyes missed it, but did you mention above that the space is open to the general public? Is the area usually empty on weekday/weekend? Thanks!

    Posted by Khanh | 6-3-13., 8:12 pm
    • Floyd Bennett Field is part of the Gateway National park. Yes, Floyd Bennett Field is open to the public 7 days a week, but certain areas are closed off. Go to the federal government’s National Park Service website to get more info about activities, phone numbers, etc.

      Posted by Stop the Pipeline | 6-9-13., 5:26 am
  11. Amazing that with all this commentary not one word is mentioned of the Coast Guard Air Station that operated there for 60 years. On November 19, 1943, the station was designated a helicopter training base. Three Sikorsky HNS helicopters were assigned. Shortly after this, the British Admiralty requested that the Coast Guard train a number of pilots and mechanics for them. Four British helicopters were assigned for this purpose. A number of pilots were also trained for the USAAF, the U.S. Navy, and the C.A.A. By the end of the first year of operations, over one hundred pilots and one hundred and fifty mechanics had been trained to fly and service these aircraft. Over 3000 hours had been flown by the HNS helicopters attached to Air Station Brooklyn. The rescue hoist was also developed as were several pickup harnesses. Coast Guard Air Station Brooklyn was decommissioned in May, 1998 and its resources transferred to the newly established Group-Air Station Atlantic City, which opened 8 June 1998.

    ——————————————————————————–

    Posted by George Lohr | 7-8-13., 2:53 pm
  12. what a shame. That was my first duty station and boot camp.

    Posted by Steve Kramer | 8-6-13., 11:39 am

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