6 Lost Airfields of the United States

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

(Images: Bradley Gordon, cc-2.0; Doc Searls, cc-sa-2.0; Google Earth)

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.

(Images: Robert J. Boser (1, 2), cc-sa-3.0; Google Earth ; Xnatedawgx, cc-sa-3.0)

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

(Images: Don Barrett, cc-nc-nd-2.0; Mark Holloway, cc-2.0; M239, cc-3.0)

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.

(Image: Mark Holloway, cc-2.0)

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.

(Images: Mark Holloway, cc-2.0)

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 (Naval Air Station New York), New York

(Images: Centpacrr, public domain; Missy S. (website), cc-nd-2.0)

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.

(Images: H.L.I.T., cc-2.0; Jim.henderson, public domain)

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

(Images: Yoetsu, cc-nd-3.0; Tobias Rad, cc-sa-3.0; Elsie esq., cc-2.0)

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.

(Images: NASA World Wind Screenshot, public domain; Google Earth)

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.

(Images: clumpinglitter, cc-2.0; Brian Crawford, cc-nc-sa-2.0)

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

(Images: Google Earth; Nicolas Henderson, cc-nc-sa-2.0)

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

(Images: Google Earth; U.S. Federal Government, public domain)

 

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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  • http://www.facebook.com/samueljohnklein Samuel John Klein

    I can think of one you missed. In 1930, in Oregon, Portland Airport first opened on an island in the Willamette River, Swan Island, which is a river island which had been filled and attached to the east bank, creating a peninsula, similar to Chicago’s Northerly Island. 

    It was not destined for a grand future. Advances in aviation and a location which turned out to be inauspicious (the Saint Johns Bridge, a few miles northwest and on the departure path proved a significant obstacle) rendered the original Portland Airport obsolete in only 5 years. The new airport, originally called Portland-Columbia Airport, which was to evolve into today’s Portland International Airport, opened about 1940 and the airport on Swan Island became the Kaiser Shipbuilding yards soon after that. Portland-Columbia Airport became Portland Airport after the Swan Island site closed. Today, it’s an industrial district.

  • Vanals

    I’m surprised that there is no mention of the airfields in the San Francisco Bay Area. With the large number of military fields in the area, I wonder what criteria determined which would make the list. There’s Moffett Field where the army based its zeppelin fleet. One huge hangar is still standing. There’s Crissy Field, another army air base, right on the bay between the Golden Gate Bridge and The Presidio. It is now a park that has been restored to indigenous plant life. Elsewhere, there’s Treasure Island once the base for PanAm Clippers flying to the Far East and Alameda Naval Air Station, with runways still intact, hosts numerous film crews and the USS Hornet. But one, from my childhood in Grand Rapids Michigan, was the Roger B. Chaffee airport. Built to honor the hometown astronaut, it was soon replaced by the Gerald R. Ford Int’l and is now known only as Roger B. Chaffee Memorial Drive.

  • Michael Glenn

     Moffett Field is still in use– it’s an active Federal Airfield run by
    NASA, and also serving as airfield/home base to several major flying
    units of the Air National Guard. Since this is about abandoned/closed
    airfields… that would be why Moffett Field hasn’t made the list.

  • Michael Glenn

     Moffett Field is still in use– it’s an active Federal Airfield run by
    NASA, and also serving as airfield/home base to several major flying
    units of the Air National Guard. Since this is about abandoned/closed
    airfields… that would be why Moffett Field hasn’t made the list.

  • Michael Glenn

     Moffett Field is still in use– it’s an active Federal Airfield run by
    NASA, and also serving as airfield/home base to several major flying
    units of the Air National Guard. Since this is about abandoned/closed
    airfields… that would be why Moffett Field hasn’t made the list.

  • bjdorr

    I totally agree about including Portland’s Swan Island before today’s PDX Airport. It’s also a great thing that the St. Johns Bridge never got the bumble bee black and yellow paint scheme for anti-collision.

  • bjdorr

    I totally agree about including Portland’s Swan Island before today’s PDX Airport. It’s also a great thing that the St. Johns Bridge never got the bumble bee black and yellow paint scheme for anti-collision.

  • bjdorr

    I totally agree about including Portland’s Swan Island before today’s PDX Airport. It’s also a great thing that the St. Johns Bridge never got the bumble bee black and yellow paint scheme for anti-collision.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jason.shepard.39 Jason Shepard

    If you truly want to know about abandoned airfields in the United States, your resource is this: http://www.airfields-freeman.com/

    Covering every state individually – and occasionally breaking states down into manageable chunks, it took even me – a speed reader – nearly a week to read through every single one. The information is comprehensive and he updates it quite often :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/jason.shepard.39 Jason Shepard

    If you truly want to know about abandoned airfields in the United States, your resource is this: http://www.airfields-freeman.com/

    Covering every state individually – and occasionally breaking states down into manageable chunks, it took even me – a speed reader – nearly a week to read through every single one. The information is comprehensive and he updates it quite often :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/jason.shepard.39 Jason Shepard

    If you truly want to know about abandoned airfields in the United States, your resource is this: http://www.airfields-freeman.com/

    Covering every state individually – and occasionally breaking states down into manageable chunks, it took even me – a speed reader – nearly a week to read through every single one. The information is comprehensive and he updates it quite often :)

  • bicyclebill

    I wouldn’t designate Meigs Field in Chicago a “lost” airfield as much as I would consider it to have been “stolen”.

  • SailAway

    Trying to get information to you Jason. Sorry off topic. Last name same as Wade of Boston socks fame.

 
 
 
 
 

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