The Aviation Foundation of Long Island

The Aviation Foundation of Long Island

Sparsely populated, as evidenced by the once thin scatter of farmhouses, Long Island, still in its nascent state, had been carpeted by forests, but a single, central clearing, the largest east of the Mississippi River, stood like an oasis in the desert, and served as a spawning ground for aerial life. It was called the “Hempstead Plains.” Almost predestined as the threshold to air, its flat, unobstructed expanses called to flight, providing a venue for aircraft experimentation, flying fields, and piloting schools, an area where vehicles spread wings and rose from the womb which had incubated them, pursuing an ascending path which would one day eclipse the atmosphere and connect the planet with its moon.

Located on the eastern edge of the country, a dividing line which only pointed transcontinentally toward the west or transatlantically to the European continent, the area, in close proximity to New York, the world’s most populous city, only served to geographically cement this aviation foundation.

Glenn Hammond Curtiss, the first to aerially triumph over Long Island with his Golden Flyer biplane, won the Scientific American trophy after making a 25-kilometer, 30-circuit flight round Mineola Airfield on July 17, 1909, attracting other aeronautically-inspired people and the first commercial buyer of an airplane.

The burgeoning aviation interest and experimentation, quickly eclipsing the boundaries of the tiny field, resulted in the establishment of the nearby Hempstead Plaines Aerodrome whose almost 1,000-acre expanse had sprouted 25 wooden hangars and grandstands by the summer of 1911. The Moissant School, the country’s first such civilian institution, had opened with a fleet of seven Bleriot monoplanes operating out of five structures. It subsequently issued the first female pilot license, to Harriet Quimby.

Long Island’s soil, nurturing aviation as much as grass, had provided the stage for the first International Aviation Meet the prior year at Belmont Park in Elmont, attracting both US and European pilots who raced and established speed and performance records with an ever-increasing collection of early designs, while Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn had served as the origin of the first transcontinental flight piloted by Calbraith Rogers in a Wright Brothers’ designed EX Vin Fiz biplane on September 17, 1911. It terminated in San Diego, California, 49 days later, despite a dizzying array of enroute stops and airframe reconstruction-necessitating crashes.

The first US airmail route, albeit the short, temporary, six-mile stretch from Garden City to Mineola in a Bleriot aircraft, also occurred that year.

Hempstead Plains Airfield, assuming a military role, provided the location for New York National Guard pilot training in 1915, and two years later, it had become one of only two Army fields in the United States with a fleet of four Curtiss JN-4 Jenny aircraft. It had also been the year when it had been redesignated “Hazelhurst Field,” in honor of an Army pilot who had lost his life in an airplane accident.

In order to cater to increased Army pilot training demand, Field #2 had been established south of the existing Hazelhurst Airport in 1917 and was subsequently renamed “Mitchel Field” in July of the following year after then-New York City Mayor John Purroy Mitchel.

The first regularly scheduled air mail service, occurring in May of 1918 from Washington to Belmont Park with Curtiss Jennys, yielded to the first heavier-than-air craft transatlantic crossing from Long Island to Portugal the following year with a trio of Navy-operated, quad-engined, amphibious Curtiss NC flying boats, only one of which ultimately reached the European continent after two intermediate stops in Newfoundland and the Azores.

The roots of many Long Island aircraft manufacturers were planted during World War I.

The “Golden Age of Aviation,” associated with numerous speed, distance, and altitude records, resulted in two famous nonstop flights. The first of these, entailing a single-engine Fokker T-2, had resulted in a 26-hour, 50-minute transcontinental crossing from Roosevelt Field to San Francisco in 1923, while the second had been Charles Lindbergh’s world-renowned, solo, nonstop, transatlantic flight four years later, on May 20, 1927, in the Spirit of St. Louis.

Following its almost symbolic roll-out into the fog-shrouded dawn prior to departure, the silver monoplane was plunged into the darkness, doubt, and obscurity of consensus belief concerning the attempt, yet the tiny orange glow piercing the sky on the horizon somehow reflected promise and hope–a target for which to aim. From the present standpoint, however, France seemed just as infinitesimal in size. Yet, the precarious, mud- and water-impeding take off, which barely cleared the trees, served as the threshold to the successfully-covered 3,610 miles across the Atlantic to Paris.

By 1929, Roosevelt Field, having integrated with its former half known as “Curtiss Field,” had been considered the “World’s Premier Airport” because of its paved runways and taxiways, instrument flying equipment, hangars, restaurants, and hotels, and by the early-1930s, had been the largest such facility in the country with 450 based aircraft and some 400 hourly movements. It had also been home to the Roosevelt Aviation School, one of the largest civilian pilot training facilities in the US.

During a three-year, post-World War I expansion phase, occurring between 1929 and 1932, Mitchel Field developed into one of the United States’ largest military facilities, with eight steel-and-concrete hangars, barracks, operations buildings, and warehouses, and served as home to many fighter, bomber, and observation squadrons. The first nonstop transcontinental bomber flight, operated by a B-18 in 1938, departed here, while two P-40 Warhawk squadrons had been based at the field during the Second World War.

Indeed, war-necessitated demand only served to deepen Long Island’s aviation core, resulting in an explosive peak of military aircraft design and manufacture by 1945, at which time some 100,000 local residents had been engaged in aviation-related employment, primarily with the Republic Aircraft Corporation and the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, in a man-and-machine merge which had ultimately triumphed in war.

The first of these, founded in 1931 as Seversky Aircraft Corporation, relocated to larger facilities, redesignating itself Republic Aviation Corporation seven years later and becoming the second-largest supplier of fighters to the Army Air Corps because of the copious quantities of superior-performance P-47 Thunderbolts sold to them.

The second of these, founded in 1930 by Leroy Grumman, became the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation and had been synonymous with Navy and amphibious aircraft, the former including the two-seat FF-1, the F4F Wildcat, the F6F Hellcat, the TBM/TBF Avenger, the F7F Tigercat, and the F8F Bearcat, and the latter encompassing the Grumman Goose, Widgeon, Mallard, and Albatross.

Changing, post-war conditions, however, began to pull at Long Island’s aviation roots, as no-longer needed military aircraft contracts were canceled and encroaching suburbs choked Roosevelt and Mitchel Fields into closure. Nevertheless, more than 64,000 civilian and military aircraft had been hatched by its manufacturers by this time.

Transcending the atmosphere, aviation transformed itself into aerospace.

Dr. Robert Goddard, who had successfully designed the world’s first liquid-fueled rockets in Massachusetts, received a $50,000 grant from Harry Guggenheim on Long Island to pursue related research and testing, and he ultimately designed a liquid fuel rocket engine, a turbine fuel pump, and a gyroscopic-controlled steering device.

Eleven aerospace companies subsequently bid to design and produce the needed Lunar Module transfer component of the Project Apollo Moon Mission, enabling crew members to travel between the orbiting Command Module and the lunar surface, and NASA awarded Grumman the contract in 1962. Two simulators, ten test modules, and 13 operational Lunar Modules had been built during the Apollo Program, the most famous of which had been the LM-5 “Eagle,” which had disappendaged itself from the Apollo 11 spacecraft on July 20, 1969 and connected the first human being with the moon, leaving his footprint and the base of the Lunar Module itself as eternal evidence of this feat.

The aviation seed planted on Long Island’s Hempstead Plains had thus sprouted and grown, connecting its own soil with that of its moon.