History of Aviation

At the turn of the 20th century, new forms of transportation were taking hold of communities all over the world.  Trains had become a commonplace way to travel to distant locations, with local destinations still being reached by horse and human foot.  Among the newest inventions were the automobile by use of combustion engine (as well as steam), and as they became more advanced, people became interested in procuring these fascinating motor buggies. “Horseless carriages,” as they were called, were gaining momentum at around the same time that two young bicycle shop owners were challenging the laws of gravity with the invention of a device that would provide them with controlled and sustained powered flight.

On December 17th, 1903, the first powered flight was launched from atop a dune in North Carolina.  The early years of aviation would bring men, and a few women, to the front lines of undeveloped and relatively unsafe test flying.  The stability of these crafts was far from reliable. Most of them were built using wood and canvas, and tied together with rope to withstand the forces of nature’s wind and weather.  Many a pioneer’s life succumbed to the challenge of fine tuning this flying device. And yet many more were willing to become a part of history that they felt would be the future of travel.  Fast forward approximately fifteen years, as the United States entered World War I in 1917; the airplane (or aeroplane as it was known by many) was taking form as a versatile machine capable of more than providing transportation in an expeditious manner, but also as a formidable war machine. In Europe, the British and the German Air services had already been using the airplane as a weapon for air-to-air combat and air-to-ground assault.  

 

The United States was late to the party, but eventually got involved flying the aircraft of the French.  Several American Aviators went on to become aces, including the most famous of all, Eddie Rickenbacker.  Aviation had gained the attention of the media, and after the war people became enamored with flight; the romance of flying took hold in the 1920s and 1930s in what would become known as the “Golden Age” of flight.  The most popular training airplane of the day was the Curtiss JN4, commonly known as the “Jenny.”  After the war, the US had a surplus of Jenny’s and most were sold for very cheap, sometime only $500.  Many people jumped at the opportunity to own one and travel around the country, landing in towns (often in a Farmer’s field) and providing rides for $5.  These “barnstormers” as they became known, would set the stage for the American love affair with the airplane.  

All over the country shows were being performed by daring pilots willing to risk their lives to put on a daredevil performance of wing walking and loops; these shows provided jaw-dropping thrills and put smiles on children’s faces.  Several organizations formed and traveled around in what were known as Flying Circuses.  One of the most famous was called the Gates Flying Circus.  Ivan Gates led his legion of fearless pilots all over the country performing all throughout the 1920s. Also during this time were pilots who were interested in breaking records, pilots who loved testing the limits of their machines in speed and distance.  Famous names such as Lindberg, Earhart, Doolittle, and Hughes were among some of the leaders of American pilots whose names will forever be remembered as the bravest pioneers to break the surly bonds of Earth.  By the end of the Depression, the Airplane had become much more reliable, and several airlines were transporting people all over the world. As the United States entered the Second World War, the aircraft that were produced were among the most advanced. The US was a supreme fighting power in the sky.  After victory in the Pacific and Europe, aviators returned home.  The GI Bill was in full effect across the nation and the economy was strong.  The late 40s and early 50s is often said to be the peak of General Aviation in the country, with the most amount of airports/airfields sprouting up countrywide.   

Rockland County

Rockland County, N.Y., a small yet beautiful rural county situated approximately 30 miles north of the center of New York City, is a county with roots dating back to Dutch settlers in the 1600s.  It has seen drastic expansion in the last 50 years (from the time of this writing) since the addition of a bridge that connects it directly to Westchester County.  However, prior to 1955, Rockland was almost all farmland, with wide open fields and lots of space.  It was no wonder that the county became the home to many airfields in the 20th Century.   

Naturally, as this new machine was undergoing repair, it gained the interest of the locals. Atwood eventually got his craft airborne again and continued his journey to break his distance record.  But the county had been bitten by the bug at this point, and many were enamored by flight.  In 1946 and 1947, the GI bill was in full force and many veterans were using their funds to learn to fly

Rockland’s first major brush with aviation came in the form of an accident in 1909 in Valley Cottage when a pilot trying to break records had to land because of mechanical difficulties.  The plane was put down in Valley Cottage.  Two years later, on August 24th, 1911, Aviator Harry Atwood was testing the limits of his Wright Model B aeroplane.  He was flying from St. Louis to Governors Island in New York City. Near Stony Point he experienced engine trouble and decided to set the plane down in an orchard in Upper Nyack near Hook Mountain.  

Back then a few bucks could get you a flight instructor and some time in a Piper Cub.  Aeronca’s and Piper Cubs were the popular aircraft at the time, and their simplicity and low cost of operation made them the perfect machine in which people could learn to fly.  From 1945 to 1949, Rockland County was flourishing with airports.  At its peak, in 1949, there were 5 CAA/Civil Aeronautics Authority (which eventually became the FAA) recognized Airports, each of which was marked on Sectional and Terminal Charts.

 

Government Recognized Airfields

There were 5 government recognized and approved airfields in Rockland County.

Uncharted Rockland Airfields

In addition to these airports, there were many other landing strips which were known about, but not approved by the government.

A 1949 Chart depicting all 5 Rockland Airfields