The next time you’re at the Staten Island Mall, imagine planes instead of cars in the parking lot. Or look across Richmond Avenue -- that was the site of Staten Island’s first commercial airport -- which ultimately became part of the Fresh Kills landfill.
Staten Island was home to several airports between 1910 and 1969.
The Staten Island Airport, located at the present-day site of the Mall, was operated by Ed McCormick. It comprised 250-acres and was the largest privately-owned airfield in New York City when it opened in 1941.
A promotional brochure said the airfield consisted of two runways and "five modern steel hangars" that could accommodate small, private planes in "safe, clean, uncrowded conditions."
McCormick lost his lease in 1964 and sold the land. The Staten Island Mall opened at the site on Aug. 9, 1973.
The Donovan-Hughes Airport, located across the street from the Staten Island Airport, was opened by George Schaff in 1926 and was the first commercial airport in New York City. The airport closed in 1949 and had a short-lived stint as a racecar track time until it was condemned by the city for use as part of the Fresh Kills landfill.
Both airports were shuttered during World War II when the Army forbid civilian flying along the Atlantic Coast.
Another interesting note: There was a drive-in movie theater near the two airports: Both had to cease flying before sunset so the noise from the flights didn’t interfere with the experience of movie-goers.
Staten Island’s place as a home to airfields dates back to 1910 when Capt. Thomas Scott Baldwin opened Baldwin's Flying Field in Oakwood. Capt. Baldwin was a U.S. Army major, an aviation pioneer and an early exhibition pilot. He built his Red Devil plane in a workshop at Miller Field: It used steel tubing instead of wood for the airframe.
His namesake flying field hosted air circuses, a popular form of entertainment in the early days of aviation, but it closed in 1923 after it failed to receive the permits to become a certified airport.
The Aero Defense Base at Miller Field opened in 1921. Named for Capt. James E. Miller, the first American aviator killed in action during World War 1, it was the only Air Coast Defense Station on the East Coast, according to the Gateway National Recreation Area of New York and New Jersey, which now operates Miller Field.
Before its days as an airfield, the area encompassing Miller Field was owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt who began purchasing farmland in New Dorp in 1836. The land was transferred to his heirs over the years before they sold it to the federal government in 1919.
The field had a concrete seaplane ramp, two grass runways, two hangers for land planes, two seaplane hangars, troop and family housing and three 85-foot radio masts, according to Gateway.
“Some significant flights at Miller Field occurred in the 1920s,” Gateway notes on its website. “In July 1920, the Army took commercial photographers to the skies to produce aerial photographs and film of the International Cup yacht races. The newspapers were informed and able to obtain images at the field. This demonstrated both a timely way to produce photographs and a practical use of airplanes to the public. In 1928, Admiral Byrd tested his new plane, a Ford Trimotor, the Floyd Bennett, at Miller Field. This plane was used for his first trip to Antarctica in December 1928.”
The airfield remained active during World War II and the Cold War. In the 1960s, the Green Berets used it as a training camp.
Civilian aircraft also used the runways during the same time period.
Miller Field was deactivated by the U.S. Army in 1969. In 1972, it became part of the National Park Service's Gateway National Recreation Area. It was the last grass runway in New York City.
(Photo courtesy of the Staten Island Historical Society: A small airplane being refueled at Miller Field by a truck with hangar in the background, circa 1930)