AOPA Centennial of Flight Sweepstakes

Waco Secrets Revealed!

March 1, 2003

Prospecting Long Island's ghost airports for our Waco's history

There was no guarantee that sauntering among three Long Island, New York, airports used by our AOPA Sweepstakes Waco in the early 1940s would yield clues to its past. One, Floyd Bennett Memorial Field, is now a ghost airport waiting for restoration by the National Park Service. The second, Roosevelt Field, lies under a shopping mall. The third, Bayport Aerodrome, where NC29352 spent decades in retirement after war service, is still active.

The trip got off to a promising start shortly after my arrival at Islip's Long Island Mac Arthur Airport. A giant picture of our Waco UPF-7 has hung in the pilot lounge of Mid-Island Air Service at that airport for 17 years. It was taken in the mid-1980s during a fly-in at Brookhaven Airport in Shirley, New York, by Jack Adams. Adams now operates Fokus Photo in New Jersey and commutes to work in a Piper Archer from Islip to Teterboro Airport, New Jersey, most workdays.

During past trips to Long Island I have ended up lost and asking for driving directions from just anyone. This trip was no exception, and there were lots of friendly New Yorkers to keep me from losing the trail of our Waco's history. Despite clearly written directions, I was lost shortly after departing Long Island Mac Arthur Airport. A lady just arriving at the Islip Post Office saved the day, but didn't want to hear about where I thought I should go. " Listen to me! I've been heah awl my life," she scolded. I did as she said, and the search was soon back on track.

The first stop was Floyd Bennett Memorial Field, a ghost airport except for the New York Police Department helicopter unit and a few other operations. It is four miles southwest of John F. Kennedy International Airport. Our Waco, according to title search information, was built in September 1940 in Troy, Ohio, and was sold to Flying Service in Hangar 6 at Bennett Memorial. Park Ranger Lincoln Hallowell met me at the airport's main terminal building and quickly pointed out the stone art-deco Hangar 6, now a storage facility. Restoration of the airport, now a part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, could begin as early as 2005, but for now it is all crumbling plaster and broken windows. There are former Navy aircraft under restoration conducted by the Historic Aircraft Restoration Project in Hangar B.

Passengers arriving at the Bennett Memorial terminal reached aircraft from a tunnel leading from the terminal building, emerging molelike through a hatch in the ramp and then climbing up out of the ground to the steps to the aircraft. That method kept the passengers out of prop wash. Hotel rooms on the second floor of the terminal were used for pilots remaining overnight. The airport manager's office on the second floor still says "Commanding Officer" from the airport's days as a military base in World War II. The public was never told, but Navy aircraft on missions to lo#ate and attack enemy submarines operated from Bennett Memorial.

Hallowell suggested I might check a collection of photos at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum taken by Rudy Arnold, a photographer based at Bennett Memorial. It was a long shot, but he might have photographed the 2002-2003 AOPA Centennial of Flight Sweepstakes aircraft. Hallowell also said Hangar 6 was occupied by Erickson and Remmert in 1940 as well as Flying Service. But the name of Flying Service was probably Hoey Flying Service, Hallowell said. Was the flying school operating the aircraft as part of the Civilian Pilot Train,ng Program? The program provided government-owned aircraft to civilian flying schools to train civilian pilots and thus create a pool of pilots later needed for the war effort. Without it, some think, the United States might have lost the war.

It was time to reenter Long Island's confusing — at least to me — road system. Leaving Floyd Bennett, I was soon lost again. This time it was the clerk behind the service counter of a Jeep dealership who saved the day. "You can't miss it," he promised. "I just did," I noted. Onto the expressway, past JFK, I naturally missed a turn, and this time an insurance salesman working late at his office saved the day.

Once safely at the Long Island Marriott, I found more aviation history buried under the pavement. The Marriott is located on what was once Mitchel Field, and a plaque in the lobby proclaims that Doolittle took off on his famous "blind" flight from the hotel's gift shop. He didn't, though. That actually took place a few hundred yards away near the restored hangars of Mitchel Field that now house the world-class Cradle of Aviation Museum. It is comparable in quality, if not in size, to the National Air and Space Museum and also includes an IMAX Theater.

On a day when business is bad and the hotel parking lot has few cars, the outlines of the Mitchel Field runways and taxiways can be clearly seen, a hotel employee said. The AOPA aircraft either left Bennett Memorial in February 1941 or was kicked out when the Navy took over, and found a new home at Roosevelt Field, which is next-door to Mitchel Field. The airport is named after Teddy Roosevelt's son, Quentin, who was shot down by seven enemy aircraft in aerial combat during World War I.

The Marriott is five minutes by car from Roosevelt Field Mall, where another plaque, this one under a staircase and hidden by storage boxes near the Disney store, implies that Charles A. Lindbergh took off from Mickey's checkout counter. That isn't true, either. He took off from a checkout counter all right, but it is in the Best Buy store of a different mall nearby. Driving his takeoff roll in my rental car, I determined that he roared along the ground for more than 2,000 feet, finally lifting off near the parking garage for the Fortunoff department /tore. (The performance specifications for the Spirit of St. Louis indicate it required a takeoff roll of 2,500 feet when loaded for the Atlantic-crossing flight.) He lifted off but stayed in ground effect for another 1,000 feet, just barely clearing the wires near TGI Friday's restaurant. The wires are fine. I checked.

Renaming of the airports over the years created confusion as to the location of Roosevelt Field. The mall where Best Buy is located is sitting on the original Roosevelt Field. At the time Lucky Lindy took off, Curtiss Field occupied the land now used by Roosevelt Field Mall, but the two airports later were combined. They both became one big Roosevelt Field. In present-day language, Lindbergh stored his airplane near Roosevelt Field Mall but had it pushed up the hill to Best Buy in a second mall for takeoff. (Doing the same thing today, he could purchase a CD player for the Spirit of St. Louis to keep him awake, and get free installation.)

After consulting with Cradle of Aviation Museum historians several times, I discovered that our airplane must have been based near Roosevelt Field Mall at, according to the title search records, Safair (pronounced safe air) Flying School. Safair gave a "Sportsman" flying course that provided four to six weeks of training for just over $300. It was in that same row of hangars 11 years earlier that Lindbergh had stored his aircraft.

Two documents guided my overall search: One was the list of former owners from AOPA's Title and Escrow Service, and the other was an e-mail containing historical information and a list of contacts provided by Richard Reed of the Floyd Bennett Field Task Force. His group was formed to tell the story of Bennett Memorial from 1941 to 1972 when it was known as Naval Air Station New York and was the base for the Naval Ferry Command.

Was our Waco in the Civilian Pilot Training Program while at Roosevelt Field? One historian warned that there would have been no civilian flying of any kind at Roosevelt — it was used mostly by the military services for Training aircraft mechanics. I left thinking Roosevelt had revealed no secrets, and drove back to Islip to see the grass runways of Bayport Aerodrome where our Waco is well known.

I tried to find the entrance to Bayport on my own — a mistake — using a handheld aviation GPS receiver, but couldn't find the serpentine path through surrounding neighborhoods. I needed a guide — or two. My tour guides for the day were Spud Gili, a designated examiner and 1999 flight instructor of the year for the FAA Eastern Region, and Rich Giannotti, an instrument instructor. Both had flown NC29352 over the years thanks to the generosity of John A. Schlie, who owned it most of the 30 years it was at Bayport. Even Gili had difficulty finding the airport entrance, but we finally arrived.

Gili remembers a flight in our Waco from Bayport to York, Pennsylvania, to attend an antique aircraft fly-in. Additional biplanes joined in along the route until there were nearly a dozen airplanes in formation. Giannotti recalls flying to picnics and riding through spins in the airplane. He sat in front and watched through the tiny windscreen as the world whirled beneath.

The Waco occupied a hangar nearest ,he picnic tables at Bayport, an appropriate location for an aircraft used primarily for fun. One year a hurricane came along and bashed the hangar roof onto our aircraft, pushing its propeller into another antique biplane. There was surprisingly little damage to either plane. Today Bayport remains a funky little airport built primarily for fun with a small FBO that, on the day I was there, hosted 30 pilots at an FAA safety meeting. There are two runways — actually one wide runway split in half. The grass recovers for a few weeks on one side while airplanes use the other.

My tour of our UPF-7's past ended with Gili leading me back a few miles to Long Island Mac Arthur Airport — no chance of getting lost that time.

After returning to AOPA headquarters I called Brian Nicklas of the archives room on the top floor of the National Air and Space Museum to see the Rudy Arnold collection of photos. And it was payday, at least for someone measuring currency in historical facts.

First came a shoebox full of color prints and negatives, neatly cataloged. Under the Waco UPF-7 section there were lots of Wacos with registration numbers close to that of the AOPA aircraft, but not ours. So it was on to the box of black-and-white prints and negatives. In the back of the box — and this is just like in the movies — was a negative of NC29352 taken only two months after the aircraft was manufactured. It reveals what the Waco looked like when it was new. More important were the words painted on the side of the aircraft, "Flying Service, U.S. Gov't Aircraft, Al Dehle Instructor." The photo was taken on November 5, 1940. The fact that it was a U.S. government aircraft proves it was part of the Civilian Pilot Training Program. I showed the negative to Nicklas and ordered a print.

"This is your golden nugget," Nicklas said. "But you might want to just take a look through these." He brought out additional stacks of records. Most were factory reports of tests on new aircraft prior to delivery — none of them ours. But in one of them someone had stored a 1950 clipping from The New York Times.

"Shortly before World War II it [Roosevelt Field] got a shot in the arm from the Civilian Pilot Training Program of the federal government," the story said. That offered the possibility that AOPA's aircraft was still supplying pilots for the war effort while at Roosevelt Field.

Aircraft operations have long since stopped at two of the airports that our Waco called home. Floyd Bennett Memorial Field was the scene of record-setting flights by Col. Roscoe Turner, Jimmy Doolittle, Wiley Post, Louise Thaden, Jackie Cochrane, Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan, and Howard Hughes. Roosevelt Field (under all its various names) was the departure point for famous flights by Wilbur Wright, Adm. Richard Byrd, Doolittle, Post, Amelia Earhart, Ruth Nichols, and Laura Ingalls. Developers have paved the obsolescent airfields and literally put up a parking lot. But for AOPA Pilot editors searching for the past there's gold in them thar malls.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Flight Training 65 Years Ago

A 1930s brochure has been discovered from Safair Flying School, the Long Island company that operated our AOPA Waco UPF-7 in 1941. It was sent to Dolores Perno of Bay Shore, New York — now in her 80s — when she was a teenager. She provided a copy to AOPA Pilot.

The school promised modern equipment, including the Curtiss Fledgling — especially designed for student pilots — Challenger Robin, Kinner Bird, Wright Whirlwind Cessna, and Bellanca Pacemaker. Parachutes were used for all instruction; a trial lesson was $5.

"Below you is spread a stupendous panorama," the brochure promises. "The green carpet of the earth laced with rivers and roads, speckled with cities and towns. Down there the teeming crowds struggle along the old familiar paths — up here you are in a new world, alone with the steady hum of your engine and the song of rushing wind."

Courses offered included the Sportsman Pilot's Course for $318. The end result was a solo pilot license that entitled the holder to all of the privileges of the private pilot rating with the exception of carrying passengers. It required 15 hours, including eight of dual instruction and seven of solo flying. Spins were part of the training.

Safair's Private Pilot's Course cost $735 and included, in addition to the hours required by the Sportsman course, 25 hours of solo and dual flying for a total of 40 hours. It included vertical banks, pylon 8s, "strange-field landings," wingovers, loops, rolls, and half rolls. The course included five hours of cross-country training.

The Limited Commercial Pilot's Course cost $785 and included all the training for the private pilot certificate plus "advanced work" that allowed carrying passengers for hire in a limited area and acting as a copilot on "air transport lines."

The fourth course was the Transport Pilot's Course and cost $2,980. It required 175 hours of flying time including 140 hours of solo flight. It included advanced aerobatics and a cross-country flight to "cities 1,000 miles distant in which all kinds of flying conditions are encountered." Instrument flight, then called blind flying, was taught "in a specially equipped plane with hooded cockpit, special instruments, and radio." Formation flying was part of the standard course. Students were also required to conduct flight tests of various aircraft to determine speed, rate of climb, ceiling, and load.

For ground school, students went to New York University to study airplane and engine construction and maintenance, air commerce regulations, meteorology, and navigation.

"Flying to many has always seemed an attainment reserved for supermen; they have never considered it within range of their own capabilities. Nothing could be further from the truth!" the brochure promised. The brochure repeatedly emphasized men, but it wasn't enough to dissuade Perno and her friends from a passion for aviation, one that led to her keeping a flying school brochure for 65 years. — AKM

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.