Long Island’s Commercial Aviation Heritage: Airports and Airlines

Although Floyd Bennett Field and JFK International and La Guardia airports can be geographically classified as “Long Family Island Cheats” venues, there were some half-dozen Nassau and Suffolk County facilities that offered varying degrees of scheduled and charter, passenger-carrying airline service in traditional-land, amphibious flying boat, and rotary-wing helicopter forms.

Progressively forgotten with the advance of time and perhaps only associated with a shopping complex, the Roosevelt Field name was once a sprawling expanse of aeronautical activity that earned it the unofficial title of “world’s premier airport.”

“The central area of Nassau County, known as the Hempstead Plains, (was) the only natural prairie east of the Allegheny Mountains,” according to Joshua Stoff in “Historic Aircraft and Spacecraft in the Cradle of Aviation Museum” (Dover Publications, 2001, p. viii). “Treeless and flat, with only the tall grasses and scattered farmhouses, this area proved to be an ideal flying field, and was the scene of intense aviation activity for over 50 years.”

Often referred to as “the cradle of aviation,” it was the result of geographical, as well as topographic, aspects. Its proximity to Manhattan provided it with a dense population base, its east coast location invited country-crossing to the west, and its unobstructed, water-surrounding nature made it the natural origin for flights across Long Island Sound to Connecticut and New England, down the eastern seaboard to the mid-Atlantic states and Florida, and, finally, over the ocean for intercontinental connections between North America and Europe.

Unofficially called the Mineola Flying Field because of the Long Island Railroad’s access to it through its station of the same name, it sprouted its initial wings when Dr. Henry Walden, a member of the Aeronautic Society of New York, took off in the first American monoplane from it in 1909, the result of the unsuitability of the smaller Morris Park in the Bronx the group had formerly used.

“One mile to the east, the Hampstead Plains continued its treeless and unobstructed expanse, and this larger tract was indeed more suitable than the terrain of Mineola, which was narrow and hemmed in by roads in anticipation of building development,” Stoff points out (ibid, p. 5.)

By the spring of 1911, the year the expanse became the Hempstead Plains Airfield, sedentary roots took hold east of Clinton Road in Garden City with the Moissant Aviation School, itself relocating from the now inadequately sized Nassau Boulevard Flying Field that definitively closed on June 1 of the following year.

Considered the country’s first airport, it encompassed 1,000 acres and soon sprouted grandstands for air show spectators and some 25 wooden hangars.

But after the US’s entry into World War I, in 1917, experimental flying morphed into bonafide military missions after delivery of four Curtiss Jenny biplanes, the airport transforming itself into one of only two of the nation’s Army facilities. During the two-year period to 1919, it adopted the Hazelhurst Field name in honor of Second Lieutenant Leighton Hazelhurst, Jr., who had lost his life in an airplane accident in College Park, Maryland, on June 11, 1912.

With war sparked demand for ever larger facilities, a second expanse designated Aviation Filed #2 was opened south of the existing one in 1917, but was renamed Mitchel Field the following year in honor of John Purroy Mitchel, the New York City mayor who himself lost his life to aviation in Louisiana.

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