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No place to land

Are airports an endangered species?

Barry SchiffThe Twilight Zone was a popular television series from 1959 through 1964. The brainchild of Rod Serling, it was a strange mix of horror, science fiction, fantasy, drama, comedy, and superstition—and often had surprise endings. Many of us can recall at least one episode that made an indelible impression. In my case, it was episode 54, The Odyssey of Flight 33, which first aired on February 24, 1961.

The story opened with a Global Airlines Boeing 707 passenger flight en route from London to New York. During cruise flight, groundspeed suddenly rose sharply. This was accompanied by severe turbulence that ended with a brilliant flash of light. Upon arriving in the New York area and unable to contact anyone on the radio, Capt. Farver descended to visual conditions beneath the overcast only to discover that there was no airport to be found—nor were there any signs of civilization. There were no manmade objects of any kind. There were only grazing dinosaurs.

Flight 33 had passed through the “time barrier.”

The crew agreed that their only hope of returning to the present was to climb back to altitude and repeat their penetration of the “time barrier.” Instead of returning to 1961, however, Flight 33 found itself flying over the 1939 World’s Fair. There were no runways long enough to safely land a Boeing 707, and the tower controller at LaGuardia Airport did not understand what the crew meant when they identified themselves as a jet airplane. The captain decided to again penetrate the “time barrier” for another attempt at returning home. Serling provided no resolution for Flight 33, and we were left with the impression that the aircraft had become an airborne Flying Dutchman, the legendary ghost ship that could never make port and was doomed to sail the oceans forever.

Impossible? Yes, of course, but haunting nevertheless. I found it disturbing because many general aviation airports are threatened and seem to be disappearing at an alarming rate. For this reason, it is not inconceivable that someday we, too, might descend from the sky and find ourselves without a place to land.

Some of the airports I used to visit are long gone, but I had no idea that so many airports have been closed and seemingly forgotten until I stumbled upon a fascinating and educational website (www.airfields-freeman.com). This is a collection of 1,900 airports from all 50 states that no longer exist. The site, however, is much more than a list of closed and abandoned airports. Each listing contains data, photographs, excerpts of old aeronautical charts, historical information, and much more.

This fascinating project is a labor of love for Virginia resident Paul Freeman, a 20-year private pilot and aerospace engineer specializing in ADS-B technology. Some years ago he became intrigued by the abandoned airports he discovered on aeronautical charts and began to investigate these areas, initially using Google Earth. Being a history buff, he decided to start a website dedicated to closed and often forgotten airports. He was encouraged to expand the site by the many who contribute photographs and other memorabilia relating to these airports.

One of my favorite airports used to be the Palm Desert Airpark near Palm Springs, California, a place where you could land on sweet-smelling grass, walk a few feet to the motel, and jump into the pool. I looked it up on Freeman’s website and found many nostalgic reminders of what once was. For example, there is a photograph of actors Brian Donlevy and William (Hopalong Cassidy) Boyd dining in the restaurant overlooking a row of airplanes there. Another is a photo taken from the 1963 motion picture, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. It shows Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett in the tiedown area of Palm Desert during the filming of a scene. Included also are brochures and other interesting material from when the airport was popular and vital.

An especially well-done section deals with Chicago’s Meigs Field. The provided material and photographs about this storied airport are enough to fill a book.

Also interesting is the section about the Hughes Airport in Culver City, California, that belonged to the reclusive billionaire and was the longest private runway in the world. Included are fascinating photographs showing developmental activity that took place at the adjacent Hughes facility.

In addition to being an invaluable historical reference, Freeman’s effort is a reminder that GA airports could become an endangered species. Almost any small airport—and some large ones—have the potential to be threatened with extinction. Unfortunately, an airport closed is an airport gone forever, although it will be memorialized in Freeman’s website.


Barry Schiff started flying at Clover Field (Santa Monica Municipal Airport) in California in 1952 when he was 14 years old.

Barry Schiff

Barry Schiff

Barry Schiff has been an aviation media consultant and technical advisor for motion pictures for more than 40 years. He is chairman of the AOPA Foundation Legacy Society.

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