Memoirs of a Dinosaurus Mechanicus

I have seen airports change from the times I worked at them or visited as a starry-eyed airplane lover.

One thing I possess in some abundance is time on my hands. This comes with retirement, along with a great number of medications to keep the body going. The Internet, of course, is a great help, not only in passing time, but also in keeping in touch, and in keeping up with developments in our industry. Google Earth is one of the things I use, and I have watched my old apartment house in New York City being demolished and have seen a high-rise take its place. I have also seen airports change from the times I worked at them, and visited as a starry-eyed airplane lover. Most have changed beyond all recognition or, in some cases, disappeared under urban sprawl.

Memories of New York
LaGuardia Field was the most accessible when I was a kid. A couple of nickels each way paid for subway and bus, and another got you onto the observation deck where you could see the planes being loaded and taxied. You could see out to the runway, too, and could watch the DC-3s. That terminal is long gone. The hangar where I taught DC-9 systems to mechanics is gone too, obliterated by the need for additional airline terminals. I wonder if the roadway and ramp were finally stabilized. The airport had been built on fill and reputedly garbage, too. The old hangars, built by the WPA back in the 1930s, were built on wider piles, and did not sink. The ramp in front and the roadway at the back were not. They sank, and it was a considerable upslope run to get an aircraft into the hangar. On the street side, what were once street-level entrances were later accessed by a flight of stairs as the street fell away.

The old Marine Air Terminal is still there, but behind it I see no sign of the the rail tracks that led out of Flushing Bay up the seaplane ramp and into the Pan American hangars. Gone, too, are the wheeled cradles where the big Boeing boat perched. Gone is the ability to stand at a hedge and have airliners swoop low overhead as they landed. Boeing stratoliners, Constellations and DC-3s, DC-4s and DC-6s were predominate in the 40s. An occasional North Star would sing a different tune from its in-line Merlins, rather than the throaty roar of the round radials. Imagine standing at the approach end of runway four, accessible to anyone with legs able to walk there, separated from the runway only by a low hedge.

Security was not the same in the late 40s and 50s. We used to walk over and watch the planes land during our lunch break at the Academy of Aeronautics, where I earned my licenses. It is still there but renamed as Vaughn Technical College. The school’s facade has changed from its 1939s look.

Over at Floyd Bennett Field, New York City’s first municipal airport, only the NYC Police Department maintains a live aviation presence with their helicopters. As a CAP cadet, I first flew from here in 1948, aboard no less than a Douglas A-26 bomber — heady stuff for a 14-year-old. I am pleased to note the old municipal terminal building, used later to house the National Guard operations, still stands. Across the field, in what we called “The Navy Side,” there is no trace of the lines of Hellcats, Avengers and PBY Catalinas I saw back in 1948.

At Newark Airport the old terminal from the 1930s still remains, but has been moved from its original location. Looking at Google Earth, I was able to find the Eastern Terminal where I had my office. My son recently flew out of that terminal, and told me that the moving sidewalk going out to the gates is still broken. So some things remain the same, even under new management.

Changes at Kennedy
Kennedy Airport, of course, is where I started work as a lowly stockchaser on midnight shift at Lockheed Air Service. It was Idlewild International then, and Hangar 7 had just recently opened. Its unfinished look, still evident after 57 years, came from the sight of the uncovered and bare steel beams that formed the roof trusses used to suspend the canteliver roof. No longer used for aircraft maintenance, it is instead an air freight depot. I zoomed in close on Google Earth. The auto shop building is gone. The “Iron Bone Yard” that was located behind it is gone, too.

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