The Ground Under the Roosevelt Mall

April 27, 2009

As a former archaeologist I learned that when development threatens ground rich with cultural artifacts, the best scenario can be a paved parking lot which acts as a permanent seal protecting the past.

The history of America’s “cradle of aviation” now lies beneath the subdivisions and shopping malls of Long Island, but between 1909 and 1917 it was the tree-less, flat, sandy Hempstead Plains Aerodrome, and briefly Hazelhurst Field in 1918. It was soon divided into Curtiss Field, Mitchel Field and Roosevelt Field; the latter becoming the most popular general aviation airport in the United States until WWII.

In 1927, Charles Lindbergh landed at Curtiss Field and worked with mechanics in “Hangar 16,” to tune up his engine and replace a carburetor heater and compass on the Spirit of St. Louis. A week later, his ground support crew towed the Spirit on the back of a flatbed truck one mile to Roosevelt Field, where he took off on its muddy runway for his epic cross-Atlantic flight.

Roosevelt Field was frequented by the world’s most famous aviators including Clarence Chamberlin, Commander Richard Byrd, Wiley Post and Amelia Earhart. Because the archival photograph above was unidentified, I asked the “experts” on Ford tractors and Beech 18s to help with details. First sold in 1937, the twin-engine Beech 18 with the distinctive duel tail resembled Earhart’s Lockheed Electra, although it was much smaller. Aircraft maintenance manuals described the recommended method for towing and some, including Beech, manufactured their own tow bars.

Aviation historian Bob Parmerter observed that the photo “seems to show a rope or cable (not the recommended tow device) attached to the inside of each landing gear fork. There were a number of pre-war Beech 18 models in and out of Roosevelt Field ... and it is not possible to ID this one. The landing gear struts do identify it as a pre-war or wartime production plane as opposed to a post-war model.”

International Harvester, John Deere and others manufactured tractors also used for towing aircraft, but in this photo at Roosevelt Field it is clearly a Ford. Linda Skolarus of the Benson Ford Research Center (The Henry Ford museum) found no records of how many tractors were sold specifically to airports during the 1930s and 40s. “We do not have an agricultural curator or tractor expert on staff,” she writes, “[but] Ford tractors weren’t specifically made for use at airports until WWII and then they were called ‘moto-tugs.’”

Randy Leffingwell has authored books on the history of American tractors. He writes, “This tractor was manufactured by Ford but it is not a Fordson ... Ford only manufactured its Fordson tractors in the U.S. between 1917 and 1927. When U.S. sales of the Fordson fell, [Ford] ... began working on an updated and improved model, the 9N ... Airport ‘tugs’ as most of these tractors were known, mostly were farm tractors modified for airport use with the ‘lawn’-type tires you see in that photo. This 9N model also had headlights and electric start. That’s a wonderful photo, by the way.”

Indeed it is.

I’d like to think that preserved under the pavement at the Roosevelt Mall are the discarded nuts and bolts of engine overhauls, broken props, leather goggles, or the remnants of wooden chocks which once braced the wheels of Post’s Vega, Earhart’s Electra or Lindbergh’s Ryan.

And, perhaps, the rusted “Ford” nameplate from a tractor, which was part of Roosevelt Field’s early fleet of ground support.

Editor’s Note: Watch for an article on terminals and hangars in our May issue by our new contributor, Giacinta Bradley Koontz. Koontz is an aviation historian, former museum director and archaeologist. She is the 2008 recipient of the DAR History Medal and nationally recognized expert on the life of Harriet Quimby, America’s first licensed female pilot (1911). Learn more about her various aviation history projects at: