The secret life of 7 former airports

Feb 22, 2020

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They’re the ghosts of former airports, often with few signs that commercial aircraft once landed there. Today, they’ve been transformed into cruise-ship terminals, public parks and shopping malls. And you can find them in many cities, from New York to Hong Kong.

Here are a few long-lost airports that AvGeeks will love to know about.

Floyd Bennett Field, New York City

Departing or arriving from JFK, you may see, depending on the wind and which side of the airplane you are seated, something that looks a lot like an airport — but is not the one you just left or are arriving at. It looks like a series of intersecting runways, with the runway numbers faded and almost imperceptible.

Meet Floyd Bennett Field, New York City’s first municipal airport. It no longer has regular flights; it’s not even an airport, in fact. But it’s still the home of the NYPD’s air operations, with police helicopters taking off and landing here.

Floyd Bennett Field seen from an airplane landing at JFK (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)
Floyd Bennett Field
Floyd Bennett Field’s control tower and passenger terminal (Image courtesy of National Park Service)

The airport never had much success with airlines, though. Distant from Manhattan, it saw commercial service only sporadically in the 1930s and was far more popular with the armed forces, which used it extensively during World War II and after.

Mayor John Lindsay, who led New York from 1966 to 1973, called for the field to be turned into another commercial airport for the city, but instead the runways were shut down in 1970. The former airport is now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, managed by the National Park Service. Today, there are still Art Deco hangars and the main terminal building, along with soccer pitches and the Aviator Sports Complex. One of the runways is also used to fly radio-controlled model airplanes.

Ciudad Real Central, Spain

Opened in 2009, closed in 2012. It’s Ciudad Real Central, a $1.2 billion boondoggle. What happened? The airport was built 125 miles from central Madrid, an error in planning. By car, that’s a two-hour trip, much too far for even the likes of Ryanair. Dubbed in the local media the aeromuerto, a pun on “aeropuerto” and “muerto” or “dead,” it’s now reportedly for sale. Reports say that some investors have offered 10,000 euros for the property — you read that right — with promises to invest 100 million more. There’s nothing concrete, though, except for the terminal buildings and runways themselves. Said Madrid resident Ricardo Keuttel in an email: “1.1 billion euros spent and I had no idea it was there. Hopefully they’ll turn it into a park or football fields.”

CIUDAD REAL, SPAIN - JULY 06: The terminal building of Cuidad Real International Airport stands dormant after closing in April 2012, when all scheduled flights ceased to operate to or from it, on July 6, 2012 in Ciudad Real, Spain. The large international airport, which was completed in 2009 at a cost of 1.1 billion euros, was intended to serve both Madrid and the Andalucían coast, accessible in 50 minutes via a high speed rail link, however lack of demand driven by Spain’s economic crisis has seen closure after just three years. Despite having the fourth largest economy in the Eurozone, the economic situation in Spain remains troubled with their unemployment rate the highest of any Eurozone country. Spain is currently administering billions of euros of spending cuts and tax increases in a bid to manage its national debt. Spain also has access to loans of up to 100 billion euros from the European Financial Stability Facility which will be used to rescue the country
The terminal building of Cuidad Real International Airport stands dormant after closing in April 2012 (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Roosevelt Field, Long Island

Charles Lindbergh departing Roosevelt Field, where 1,000 people gathered to watch. Image via Smithsonian.
Charles Lindbergh departing Roosevelt Field, where 1,000 people gathered to watch. (Image courtesy of Smithsonian)

When you look up Roosevelt Field on Google Maps,  you’ll see it described as a “mall with many stores, dining and cinema.” But this was the location where Charles Lindbergh departed in 1927 from the U.S. destined for Europe, non-stop, on the first solo transatlantic flight. Lindbergh was lucky to even have gotten off the ground. His heavy-with-fuel Ryan Aircraft Spirit of St. Louis barely cleared telephone wires on one end of the muddy, rain-soaked field.

The airfield was closed in 1951 and eventually turned into a mall; a plaque in the mall used to mark the spot where Roosevelt took off, before it was removed in a renovation. Now even the mall’s website omits the history.

At least there’s a Zara.

Croydon Airport, London

Croydon Airport, as seen from Google Maps. Spot the last pieces of runway or taxiway. Image via Google Maps.
Croydon Airport, as seen in Google Maps. Spot the last pieces of runway or taxiway. (Image from Google Maps)

Croydon Airport in London operated from 1920 to 1959. The former airfield holds a special place in history. Sir Winston Churchill took flying lessons here in 1919; it was the first international airport in the U.K., and the site of the first air traffic control tower and passenger terminal. The former terminal building still stands — called Airport House — and a de Havilland Heron airplane stands guard. Portions of the taxiway are visible on Google Maps, about 400 feet long. There’s now a Costco nearby, but the area is used by locals for green space and for outdoor sports. The best part? The local elementary school is called The Aerodrome School.

Kai Tak, Hong Kong

AvGeeks will have seen the amazing videos of 747s swerving into Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong. The approach was sporty, and a crosswind landing required some serious stick-and-rudder skills. It was required to be flown by hand by the pilots all the way down.

Kai Tak was the home of Cathay Pacific, and a Cathay flight was the last to depart when the runway closed in 1998.

“Landing in Kai Tak was one of the most exhilarating and riveting travel experiences of all time,” said Philippe Lacam, SVP Americas for Cathay Pacific, in an email. “A right-side window seat was a coveted position. As the aircraft approached Hong Kong’s iconic Lion Rock, it felt like you were barely brushing over the rooftops below. The aircraft would head straight towards the red checkerboard painted on a low hill and then bank hard right at what seemed like an impossible angle. It felt as though we were threading our way between the buildings and you could see right into the high-rise apartment buildings, people eating meals, watching TV, playing Mahjong as the plane thundered over the Regal Airport Hotel and then leveled up before landing perfectly on the one runway.”

Nowadays, the runway itself has been turned into a massive cruise-ship terminal. And the new Hong Kong International Airport, known as Chek Lap Kok, is far to the west. It’s beautiful, but the views on landing aren’t nearly as spectacular as Kai Tak.

Tempelhof, Berlin

The airport formerly known as THF has a lot of history, and only closed in 2008. Berlin Tempelhof was the field used for the Berlin Airlift just after World War II. Like other old airports before it, the field has now been turned into a giant city park; Berliners voted in a 2014 referendum to keep it as such. It’s still got plenty of features that make it recognizable as an airport, including runways. The terminal building is intact; it has a giant roof extending over the ramp whose purpose was to shield aircraft and passengers from the elements.

Berlin photographer Sina Giencke is a fan of the wide-open space. “I like the airport. It has three small dog areas and is so big that even if it’s crowded you can find quiet areas,” she said in an email. “It would be great if they would invest more in landscape architecture. The field needs more trees, as it is really hot and sunny in the summer. What I like most is, that you have a wide view and you can watch a beautiful sunset.”

Berlin Templehof Airport, as seen from Google Maps. The airport is a park. Image via Google Maps.
Image from Google Maps

Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, Austin, Texas

Mueller Tower—in the middle of a residential neighborhood of Austin, Texas. Image via Google Maps.
Mueller Tower—in the middle of a residential neighborhood of Austin, Texas. Image via Google Maps.

The first airport to have the AUS three-letter code now sits smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Austin, Texas. The former control tower sticks out like a sore thumb, still standing in an area of Austin appropriately called Mueller Tower. This was Austin’s airport from the 1930s until 1999, when it was replaced by the current airfield outside of town. “I used to fly out of the airport as a kid,” said Jessica Pearson, an Austin local. “Now Mueller is a cool neighborhood. Like Williamsburg!” (If you are wondering, the Robert Mueller it was named for was a city councilman.)

Mike Arnot is the founder of Boarding Pass NYC, a New York-based travel brand, and a marketing consultant to airlines, none of which appear in this article.

Featured photo by Sina Giencke

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