Flight & Flyers By DENNIS PARKS
During the two years following Lindbergh’s success across the Atlantic, the United States saw the swift transition of aviation from an experimental posture to a recognized part of the world of transportation and commerce. Air mail had become an accepted fact and passengers could fly coast-to-coast.
The Curtiss Company, realizing that the nation’s flying fields and airports were inadequate, decided that modern airports and facilities were required to meet the future demands of aviation. In 1929, the company came up with a plan to build a nationwide chain of modern airports containing service facilities that would make them the aviation centers of the future. Strategic points were selected on the most heavily traveled lines of transportation to set up the first nationwide chain of airports in the United States. All of the sites selected would be in easy reach of the great business centers of the country.
With this plan in mind, Curtiss formed a new group to build and operate a chain of airports in 15 cities. This was not a small venture as the new endeavor was capitalized to the tune of $35.2 million.
Locations for the airports included Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, Los Angeles and multiple locations in and near New York City.
In addition to aircraft services, the company planned to obtain revenue from parking spaces for automobiles, from grandstands erected atop the hangars, and from food and soft drink concessions.
A pamphlet produced by Curtiss in 1930 declared that the airports were “destined to become the great aviation centers of the future.” According to the publication, this was because the developments had been selected for their strategic positions on heavily traveled main lines of air transportation, that each served a great commercial and industrial center, and that each had modern equipment and provided all the facilities for growth and expansion.
Curtiss was indeed already heavily involved in air commerce. During 1929 the Flying Service carried 122,400 passengers, and its fleet flew more than 5 million miles. More than 3,500 ground and flight students also were in training during that year.
Big events were happening in 1929, including a $70 million deal combining Keystone, Wright and Curtiss, plus other companies, forming the largest domestic aviation holding company. With this merger, the Curtiss Airports Corporation became the Curtiss-Wright Airports Corporation.
In July 1929 the company unveiled plans for a parent field for the airports corporation. Based in Valley Stream Long Island, the facility had four runways, six hangars and parking for 10,000 cars.
The field at Valley Stream replaced the old Curtiss Field at Mineola and contained a flying school, a repair base and a service department. The airport was fully lighted with boundary, obstacle and flood lights for night flying. Among the buildings were a dope and motor shop, a cafeteria, two exposition buildings and the flying school. The four runways crossed each other so that planes could land directly into the wind for safety. They ran in length from 2,900 to 3,500 feet, the longest being into the prevailing wind. The field was located with one corner at the Valley Stream railroad station.
New York City was the hub of airport development, with four Curtiss airports operating in the area by 1930, as well as two others in the planning stages. In addition to Valley Stream, there was the North Beach Airport at Bowery Bay, a combination land and seaplane base; the Essex Airport in Caldwell, N.J., situated in the wealthier suburbs, including Montclair, Morristown and East Orange; and the Hadley Airport in New Brunswick, N.J., center of the largest air mail operation in the east.
The Curtiss-Wright developments were systematic of the high level of interest and activity in aviation development at this time. A survey in 1929 showed that more than $390 million was scheduled to be spent on the construction and development of airports in the United States. Henry Blee of the Department of Commerce stated, “aviation was becoming a vital factor in our business and social life,” and urged construction of airports.
The Curtiss airports in the New York area live on today in the form of La Guardia Airport (LGA). Originally developed by Curtiss as North Beach Airport, it was leased to the city of New York in 1934. An expansion of the airport was undertaken in 1937 and it was rededicated in 1939 as the New York Municipal Airport. Later the airport was renamed for Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who was instrumental in the airport’s development.
Today, La Guardia remains one of the busiest airports in the United States, a lasting legacy of the Curtiss-Wright Airports Corporation.
Dennis Parks is Curator Emeritus of Seattle’s Museum of Flight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.