Happy 70th Birthday LaGuardia Airport!
As legend has it, New York’s first major airport was born out of the unlikely combination of a mayoral tantrum, the drudgery of prohibition, and attempts to cure the Great Depression.
After touching down at Newark Airport aboard a TWA flight from Chicago in November 1934, New York Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia demanded he be flown to New York-proper. After all, the destination printed on his ticket did read “New York.” Newark, however, was the area’s only facility for commercial flights at the time. The flight’s crew acceded to La Guardia’s demands and flew the mayor across New York Harbor to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, while the mayor held an impromptu press conference for reporters traveling with him, proclaiming that the city needed its own commercial airport and that the public should support such an effort.
Planning accelerated extremely quickly, possibly because the whole Newark incident was actually a well orchestrated stunt planned well in advance by the mayor. In any event, soon thereafter, American Airlines began flying to Floyd Bennett Field in a pilot program…a program that failed within a few months. For travelers going to or from Manhattan, Newark was more easily accessible than southwest Brooklyn. Mayor La Guardia would go as far as to dispatch NYPD patrol cars to escort limos carrying Floyd Bennett passengers to the city to eliminate the traffic problems enroute, but it simply wasn’t cut out to be New York’s airport. A more easily accessible alternative was needed.
Gala Amusement Park was once Queens’ own version of Coney Island. Owned by the uber-rich, piano-making, 7-train-building Steinway family, the park along the shore of the East River and Bowery Bay in northern Queens was filled with thrill rides and beer halls. That is, until Prohibition ruined everybody’s fun and the park was shut down. In its place sprung up…planes. By 1930, the land had been converted to a private airport, named after the recently deceased aviation pioneer Glenn H. Curtiss, and later renamed North Beach Airport.
Mayor La Guardia soon realized that, thanks to the newly constructed Queens-Midtown Tunnel, Triborough Bridge and Grand Central Parkway, North Beach Airport would make an ideal location for the city’s new aviation headquarters. However, even at a couple hundred acres in size, it was not large enough for a substantial commercial operation. Expansion would be needed and there was only one direction to build: Into the bay. In 1937, construction began involving a steel foundation anchored beneath the water, then filled and covered with landfill moved from nearby Rikers Island and from city garbage dumps. To this day, pilots are warned about compass anomalies that result from the underground metal structure, and it is said that the landfilled portions of the field sink a few inches over the course of every year.
On October 15th, 1939, New York Municipal Airport was formally dedicated. Financed extensively by FDR’s stimulus program known as the WPA, it was the most expensive air facility ever built on the planet, ringing up to $45 million. To the chagrin of Newark Airport officials, within a couple of years it would become the world’s busiest.
In what might have been the the height of New York’s aviation enthusiasm, city officials allowed spectators to climb an observation deck to watch the planes for a dime per person, an effort that brought in $285,000 within two years.
Today, the airport is the smallest of New York City’s three major airfields, with only two short runways (compared to four at Kennedy and three at Newark). Despite its size constraints, in 2008 LaGuardia handled 23.1 million passengers, enough to rank 21st in the country.