April 23, 2014
Albany, NY
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Albany Airport History

From the writings of Chauncey D. Hakes
Chairman, Albany Air Board & Albany County Airport 50th Anniversary Report
Capital District Business Review

Albany owns the distinction of establishing the first municipal landing site for airplanes. The first strip was on located at a former polo field on Loudonville Road, three miles north of the city.

After one season it became evident that the field was not suitable and the city's "airport" was transferred to Westerlo Island whose long, level stretches along the Hudson River, south of the city, seemed the ideal location.

For the next eight years, the Westerlo Island field was maintained by a special fund established by the Albany Chamber of Commerce. The requirements were modest, consisting of a small amount of grading to keep the runway level, grass cutting and keeping the runway free of obstructions. The field was named the "Quentin Roosevelt Memorial Field" in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt's son who had been shot down during World War I.

Compared to modern-day airports, the simplicity of the Westerlo Island field had all the elements of pioneering. Yet, practically every famous airman of the day had landed there including participants in the first "cross country air race" to famed aviator Charles Lindbergh.

Albany would play a significant role in the evolution of air transportation. More than 100 miles away, in Hammondsport on Keuka Lake, Glenn H. Curtiss had managed to turn his bicycle shop into a motorcycle factory and then into a small airplane assembly shop. His eyes were on the $10,000 "World" prize for the first aviator to achieve sustained flight between New York and Albany. Curtiss elected to begin his flight in Albany in a biplane he called the "Albany Flyer." To maintain security, he made no advance arrangement for a takeoff field. After checking in unobtrusively at the Ten Eyck Hotel, he began dickering with a German truck-garden farmer to rent a takeoff field. The farmer asked $100 but was talked down to $5. That transaction determined the location of the earliest municipal airport in the United States. On May 29, 1910, Curtiss made the flight successfully, with a refueling stop just south of Poughkeepsie. The previous record was only 24 miles, less than today's marathon foot race. Curtiss flew 143 miles at 54 miles an hour. A tumultuous reception awaited the prize winner when he arrived in Manhattan.

It was still Quentin Roosevelt Field when Col. Charles A. Lindbergh landed his "Spirit of St. Louis" there at 2:06p.m. of July 27, 1927, shortly after his historic flight to Paris. Aviation buffs considered his 22,000-mile tour of America to be a greater feat of precision flying than his solo flight from New York City to Paris, since he was never more than ten minutes late at any stop. Here in Albany, 10,000 people welcomed him, and someone stole his laundry for souvenirs! A railway crossing guard stopped Lindbergh's motorcade (although no train was coming) just to shake his hand.

Other famous aviators who landed in Albany included Amelia Earhart, James Doolittle and Clarence Chamberlain. He paused overnight in Albany after a circle of New England.

As air travel increased, Albany's visionary mayor, John Boyd Thatcher announced plans for a new and modern airport to be located on farmland owned by the Shakers on the Albany-Shaker Road. The Albany Air Board drove Lindbergh to the Shaker farms to look over the new site, and Lindbergh gave it his enthusiastic approval. For a time, Mayor Thatcher proposed to name the new airport Lindbergh Field, but this idea was quietly dropped.

Land was acquired from the Watervliet Shakers in 1928 and construction of the new airport began early that year. The Shakers played an important role in the Airport's early development. During the construction, they loaned tractors and tools to the work crews and often invited the workers to have lunch with them.

The body of Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Shaker community who died in 1784, was interred underneath what became one of the airport's runways. Her body, along with that of her brother, Father William Lee, was later reinterred in the community cemetery located on Watervliet Shaker Road.

The new airport, located on Albany Shaker Road, originally consisted of 249 acres. Two brick hangers were constructed along with a brick administration building. Three runways were also constructed - 2,200 feet, 2,350 feet and 2,500 feet long. Two of the runways were paved with macadam and one was cinders.

On June 1, 1928, the Albany Municipal Airport was opened for mail going west. That first flight also carried cigars from the mayor of Albany to the mayor of Buffalo. On October 1, 1928 mail and passengers began flying from Montreal to Albany and Newark. The official dedication and grand opening of the airport was marked by an air meet and exposition at the field October 3-6, 1928.

Mayor Thatcher had worked hard to create the nation's oldest municipal airport. At one point Thatcher said, "a city without the foresight to build an airport for the new traffic may soon be left behind in the race for competition." By 1930 Albany was known as the "aerial crossroads of the great Northeast."

The first airport administration building also housed the first airport weather bureau and provided space for Colonial Airlines and Eastern Airlines. American and Trans World Airlines operated from the American Airline hangar just north of the administration building.

During the Airport's first year of operation in 1929, Canadian Colonial airways carried 180 passengers from Albany to New York, 125 from New York to Albany and 54 from Albany to Montreal.

Airfare from Albany to New York started at $25 and was later reduced to $14.70. By 1932, there were 16 scheduled air mail and passenger routes daily. They went from Cleveland to Albany and Newark to Boston and back; from Boston to Springfield to Albany and back; and from Newark to Albany to Montreal and back.

In addition to Canadian Colonial Airways, American Airways and Albany Aircraft Corp. were also operating out of the Albany Airport by 1932. Airplanes were rented and sold and flight schools were conducted.

Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt took off from Albany Airport in 1932 with a party of 10 and flew to Chicago to accept the presidential nomination for the Democratic Party. Will Rogers said Roosevelt gave aviation the biggest boost it ever had. Seventy reporters watched Roosevelt take off from Albany but photographers discretely turned away when Roosevelt, already crippled by polio, had to be bent double and lifted aboard the plane.

Wrong Way Corrigan, who took off from New York City for Los Angeles in 1938, but instead landed in Ireland, flew to Albany in 1939 to promote his movie "The Flying Irishman." Albany newspapers honored him by printing with green ink.

Other presidential candidates also landed here including Governor Thomas Dewey, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, William Bradley and Albert Gore.

Air Force One, with President Clinton on board landed at the Albany Airport in October of 1994.

In 1937, Mayor Thatcher announced a plan to extend the three runways to 3,600 feet each in order to protect the city's investment in the airport. That plan, the first of many suggested runway extensions, was not implemented at the time.

By 1937, the total number of passengers had increased by some 2,300 over 1936; the largest increase since the Airport had opened.

In January 1939, the Airport faced a threat to its future. The civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) closed the Airport to transport flight operations as being "unsuitable for use."

The closing of the field followed a long dispute between the city and federal officials over who should be responsible for paying for the needed improvements. Mayor Thatcher believed the city should not have to pay for improvements that would benefit national defense and commerce.

Federal officials took a different viewpoint and finally closed the field to regular air traffic. The city then began a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project to make the necessary improvements at the Airport and the ban was partially lifted to allow daylight operations in December of 1940.

Additional land was acquired to bring the Airport's size to 351 acres. Trees, buildings and other obstructions were removed and a new north-south runway was built to replace the original strip. The new runway was 3,500 feet long. The east-west runway was slightly lengthened at the time.

A new drainage system was installed, two water towers were removed and an 85-foot high control tower was built and equipped with a flashing-revolving beacon.

On January 21, 1942, the CAA acknowledged the city's improvements and agreed to reopen the field for nighttime use. Except for wartime restriction, the airport has had uninterrupted flight service since then.

The post World War II boom affected the nation's air transportation system and in the late 1940s it seemed clear that further improvements were needed for the Albany Airport to accommodate increased needs.

A $1.75 million dollar reconstruction program was initiated. By 1949, the airport's size had increased to 800 acres and the north-south runway was now 5,000 feet long.

The Airport experienced rapid growth during the 1950s. Passenger enplanements rose dramatically and airport employment saw a substantial increase.

In 1956, the CAA stepped in once again, this time threatening to close the air traffic control tower saying the wooden building was a firetrap. A new tower was erected in 1957.

Concern was also raised at that time about the Airport's ability to safely handle new jet aircraft and it was suggested that the main runway once again be extended.

In 1960, the City of Albany determined that it could no longer afford to finance the Airport. Mayor Erastus Corning also cited the high number of tax-exempt properties within the city and financial problems with the Port of Albany when he sold the Airport to Albany County for $4,437,000.

Under Albany County, a new terminal building was completed in 1962 and an Airport Fire Fighting and Rescue building and maintenance building was also constructed. Freight and air cargo buildings were also added during the same period.

In 1966, as both Mohawk and American Airlines added jets, the north-south runway was extended to 6,000 feet to accommodate the faster planes. The new terminal was expanded in 1968 to provide a new gift shop, snack shop, bar, newsstand and barbershop at a cost of $1 million.

Despite the improvements during the early 1960s. Eastern Airlines and Trans World Airlines pulled out of Albany to concentrate on their long-haul service. This left American Airlines and Mohawk Airlines as the scheduled carriers. However, in 1968, Allegheny Airlines began serving Albany Airport. This was an indication that Airport officials had to once again consider the Airport's ability to meet the ever-increasing demands for passenger, freight and mail service.

By 1974, the east-west runway was extended to 6,000 feet and a new air freight building was operating. In 1979, the terminal was extended to include a terminal wing for US Airways.

In 1993, the Albany County Airport Authority was created to oversee the Airport's operation. Plans for a $184 million dollar renovation project that would include a new terminal, parking garage, air traffic control tower and cargo facility were unveiled on January 10, 1996. On May 16, 1996, Albany County granted the Authority a 40-year lease to operate the airport. Ground Break for the new project took place on May 16, 1996.

The terminal was designed to demonstrate the region's rich Dutch and Shaker heritage through its brick exterior walls punctuated with large, round windows and interior walls of maple and cherry. A long glass canopy covers the entrance to the terminal.

As travelers entered the airport, they were greeted by a large sign that ticked off the number of months left until the project was complete. In June of 1998, and three months ahead of schedule, the new terminal officially opened with a three-day celebration that included a black-tie gala and open house for the public.

In February of 1999, the Airport officially opened a new, 1600-car parking garage. An 800-car addition was opened in 2001. The garage is linked directly to the terminal through a heated pedestrian bridge that emerges at the Security Checkpoint.

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