Urban Ghosts has previously explored a tiny proportion of the forgotten World War Two-era bases and airfields lost amid the long grass of rural Britain, some of them American. In this article we turn our attention to continental United States, where a wealth of historic airfields can be found scattered across the country in various states of disrepair. This article examines a range of these abandonments, from international airports to modern military bases and remote airstrips that helped steer the course of history.
Stapleton International Airport, Denver
It passed the mantle to the third largest airport in the world in 1996, but until then Stapleton International Airport served the city of Denver for more than six decades. Stapleton opened in 1929 as Denver Municipal Airport and was renamed in 1944 in honor of Benjamin F. Stapleton, the city’s mayor between 1923 and 1947. The original Concourse A from 1929 was still in operation when the airport closed in 1995.
At its peak Stapleton served as a hub for Frontier, Continental and United Airlines, and previously for TWA, causing major congestion. Upgrades in the 1980s culminated in six massive runways, while scenes from the film Die Hard II were shot there. On February 25, 1995, the last plane (Continental Flight 34) departed from Stapleton International Airport bound for London Gatwick. The airport closed the same day and nearby Denver International opened for business the next morning. Find out more about its redevelopment here.
Wendover Field, Utah
Isolated on the edge of a vast salt lake in northwest Utah, Wendover Air Force Base is one of the best preserved World War Two training airfields in the U.S., and one of the most historic. Built in 1940 to prepare B-17 and B-24 bomber crews for war in Europe and the Pacific, it was also used for training by the 509th Composite Group, the B-29 unit that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Its remote location has ensured the survival of many original buildings, including hangars, taxiways, ramps, barracks and support structures. Two runways of the original vast system are still used for municipal purposes, but much of the base – including what has been dubbed the Manhattan Project’s Enola Gay Hangar – is in poor condition. This abandoned hangar housed B-29 Enola Gay while its crew trained to drop “the bomb”, and is considered one of the most endangered historic sites in the United States.
Wendover closed as a military base in 1965, and has since been used in a number of films including Mulholland Falls and Independence Day, where it stood in for exterior shots of Area 51. Several flying scenes for Con Air (1997) were also filmed at Wendover, and producers donated a nonflying “movie prop” – a Fairchild C-123K aircraft mounted on a bus chassis – as an attraction for visitors.
Floyd Bennett Field (NAS New York), New York
Named after the famed aviator and Medal of Honor recipient, Floyd Bennett Field was New York City’s first municipal airport. Opening as a commercial airfield in May 1931, it was sold to the U.S. Navy during World War Two and operated as Naval Air Station New York until 1971. It was subsequently used by the Coast Guard but today only the New York Police Department maintains a heliport there.
Floyd Bennett Field is now controlled by the National Park Service as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. One of the original runways is still usable and while some hangars are abandoned, others have been regenerated as a community-based sport and entertainment complex. Floyd Bennett Field also boasts one of the largest surviving collections of early aviation architecture, reflected in the unusually ornate brickwork around the hangars, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. (Another nearby military facility is the abandoned Fort Tilden, which we explored in detail last summer.)
Meigs Field Airport, Chicago
Opened in 1948 on the man-made peninsula Northerly Island, Meigs Field Airport was the country’s busiest single-strip airport by 1955 and served as the default takeoff field in many versions of Microsoft Flight Simulator. Named after Chicago Herald and Examiner publisher Merrill C. Meigs and boasting a downtown lakefront location, Meigs Field served commuter and private aircraft, and was critical to aeromedical transport of patients and transplant organs to downtown hospitals.
Northerly Island, owned by the Chicago Park District, is the only lakefront structure to be built based on Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, which envisioned a leafy public park. But drafted less than six years after the Wright Brothers’ historic flight, Burnham hadn’t factored in any airports. Meigs Field thus occupied the space until its controversial closure in 1996. And in an ironic twist of fate, Burnham’s grand vision for Northerly Island was finally realised.
As wrangling ensued between airport interest groups and those in favour of a park, Mayor Richard Daley ordered the controversial destruction of the runway at Meigs Field in the middle of the night, forcing one incoming flight to divert and stranding 16 aircraft on the tarmac. The city was fined $33,000 for closing the airport without the mandatory 30-day notice, and ordered to repay $1 million in misappropriated funds. Northerly Island finally got its park, at a cost of $57 million a year in economic activity generated by the airport.
Naval Air Station Dallas (Hensley Field), Dallas
Established as Hensley Field in 1929, NAS Dallas grew into one of 15 major naval reserve bases. Originally named after Major William N. Hensley, who made the first trans-Atlantic dirigible crossing in 1919, NAS Dallas was the first airfield to be equipped with the F8 Crusader jet in 1963, and operated one of the most sophisticated Navy fighters, the F-14 Tomcat, until its closure in 1998. Vought Aircraft Industries maintains a plant at the site, but the runways lie silent and the former F-14 hangars and other buildings have fallen into disrepair. (Another impressive recently abandoned base is Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.)
Howard Hughes Airport (Culver City), Los Angeles
It may not look much today, but Hughes Airport in Culver City was once the largest privately owned airport in the world and birthplace of Howard Hughes’ legendary H-4 Hercules “Spruce Goose”. Operating from 1940 until 1985, the 380 acre site boasted an 8,800 foot runway extending west toward Marina Del Rey and the Pacific Ocean. The airfield has been transformed into a planned community called Playa Vista, but the 315,000 square foot hangar where the Spruce Goose was built has been preserved. Scenes from What Women Want, End of Days and Titanic were filmed there, the latter starring Leonardo DiCaprio, who also played Howard Hughes in The Aviator. (Discover more here.)
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