As we approach the end of 2013, OIB will revisit some of the major stories of the year. One of the high-flying stories revealed first by the Connecticut Post was the $400,000 land deal between the city and developer Manny Moutinho that cost Airport Manager John Ricci his job, cast a cloud over the City Council’s role in the matter, the dubious counsel provided by the City Attorney’s Office and had a whole bunch of folks wondering why the city would allow a radioactive developer to boost his property in connection with an airport safety project for the municipally owned Sikorsky Memorial Airport. The issue is still in court.
Ricci, issuing a statement to OIB following his termination, believes he was scapegoated by the city. “By revealing that I had a long history and close friendship with Manny (Moutinho) to everyone involved, in effect, I recused myself at all levels of my participation and acted only as directed by the City Attorney’s Office and did nothing including making any expenditures without its approval.”
City decision makers, at the very least, appeared to be asleep at the switch, especially after Superior Court Judge Dale Radcliffe ruled that city taxpayers had no obligation to cover the cost of the Moutinho deal.
The airport continues to be an enigma, never living up to its original promise as an economic driver for the region. The city has been handcuffed through the decades because any expansion must be approved by land use regulations in Stratford. The city’s history with the airport goes back to the Jasper McLevy mayoral years in the 1930s. City historian Charles Brilvitch has researched the genesis of the airport in conjunction with a planned book on the history of Lordship where it is located in Stratford. Brilvitch shares this insightful airport history:
In 1927 Bridgeport was one of the most progressive cities on earth. It had housing, parks, and social services that were a model for the nation, and a diversified concentration of industries that made its name known throughout the world. Its business community was ever alert for ideas that would move the city forward and keep it in the top echelon of American manufacturing centers.
And so characteristically the city was ready when Lindbergh flew the Atlantic and demonstrated for all to see that passenger aviation was the wave of the future. A ‘Class A’ commercial airport–now viewed as a “business necessity”–was projected for the Lordship meadows that could handle passenger planes as well as the increasingly important Air Mail. The progenitors of this project were Sumner Simpson, president of Raybestos-Manhattan, who correctly foresaw the growth of Stratford as a major industrial center; DeVer H. Warner, president of the Warner Brothers Company as well as the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company; and Samuel P. Senior, the Hydraulic Company’s chief engineer.
Senior’s genius was in evidence with the audacious plan: an avid outdoorsman and gentleman farmer by avocation, he could walk through a rural valley and at once grasp the possibilities inherent in its geology and hydrology. He was responsible for the layout of all the company’s reservoirs beginning with Trap Falls in 1904 and concluding with Saugatuck in 1946. He alone understood the workings of a tidal salt marsh and the engineering that would be required to create an airport that would not be subject to flooding in any hurricane or nor’easter. After more than eight decades the soundness of his plan is still very much in evidence.
Bridgeport Airport, Inc., leased 200 acres of marsh from the Stratford Land and Improvement Company and 75 acres of vegetable fields (known in their day for celery and onion production) extending along Main Street and over to Frash Pond in the summer of 1927. They announced their plans to the business community on September 15 of that year:
We feel that aviation today in the United States is in the same relative position that shipping and marine commerce occupied years ago when there were no harbors protected by breakwaters, and no lighthouses to guide mariners to refuge in time of storm and trouble. There were natural harbors which compare favorably with some natural landing fields, and the communities with sufficient foresight dredged channels and built docks and warehouses, and these progressive communities soon became the shipping centers and home ports for most profitable trading with the West Indies and foreign ports. Until these various ports were established ships at sea depended on the lead line to inform them of shallow water, and on dead reckoning to inform them of their location, and when a storm came up their only chance was to put out to deep water and take a chance of riding out a storm. So it is with aviation today, ships of the air which are constantly flying between Boston and New York, they give Bridgeport a wide berth because if trouble should suddenly come in the air, they have a better chance of landing somewhere in the outskirts of the city. As a matter of National Defense your committee again urges the necessity of an airport for Bridgeport to properly protect the city from any attacks from the air in time of war for it would be very probable that an enemy fleet would attempt to launch an attack from aeroplane carriers off the Long Island shore, and a munitions city like Bridgeport would be one of the probable points of attack, and these air raids of the future must be met by defense in the air and thwarted before the enemy reaches his objective, the best way to prevent such an occurrence is to prepare in advance and not wait for some ineffective defense when it is too late. Experts in aviation have said that the Lordship Meadows affords one of the best natural airport locations along the Atlantic seaboard, both for the use of land planes and seaplanes, its approaches are ideal. It has the advantage of auxiliary landing fields on all sides.
Lieutenant Colonel Rex B. DeLacour, ranking member of the State Aviation Commission, was named president of the new venture. Work commenced in October, 1927, dredging out a 400 by 2000 foot seaplane basin to a depth of seven feet (it was thought then that, within five to ten years, seaplanes would be the preferred means of transportation between the United States and Europe), with 480,000 cubic yards of material removed projected to fill the marsh and create two 300-foot wide grass landing strips, one 2500 and the other 3000 feet in length (at the time of the airport’s opening, however, they extended only to 1200 feet). The William E. Arthur Company of New York received the contract for the work at a cost of $169,000.
Colonel DeLacour crowed about “improvements” being made to the environment: “Mosquitoes have been a particular worry of Stratford for many years and after a careful survey with government officials it was decided that all old motor oil taken from the planes will be spread on all stagnant creeks and streams on the meadow. The government officials agreed that if this is continued the mosquito will be eliminated from the meadows.”
The new flying field was augmented by a quadrangle of buildings: a Colonial style restaurant, known as the “Happy Landings Inn” (the name spelled out in white shingles on the roof for the benefit of those aloft), a pair of brick hangars (the smaller and more northerly of the two, constructed in the Fall of 1927 to accommodate eight planes, is now thought to be the oldest extant civilian hangar in America), and an administration building, containing airport offices, radio and first aid rooms, waiting room and ticket office, and the United States Government Weather Bureau. All four remain in place to the present day, a singular intact survival from the earliest days of commercial aviation.
The airport opened for flying on November 11, 1928 and indeed put Bridgeport “on the map.” The Curtiss Flying Service was charged with managing the facility on a profit-sharing basis. Founded by aviation pioneer Glenn H. Curtiss (a one-time motorcycle racer dubbed the ‘fastest man alive’ and holder of U.S. Pilot’s License #1), the company managed a chain of 33 other airports across the country. They brought in 12 planes for charter service and flight instruction and also provided facilities for repairing and garaging of privately owned aircraft. Scheduled air service began to Albany (via Hartford and Springfield ) in 1930 and to Islip in 1933.
Noted aviation celebrities like Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart (dubbed ‘Lady Lindy’ in the local press), and Howard Hughes added a touch of glamour to Bridgeport Airport. And then there were the “Flying Mollisons,” a noted flying couple of the times, who took off from Wales en route to Baghdad in July of 1933, attempting to set a new long-distance record. Jimmy and Amy Mollison crashed as they attempted a nighttime landing at the airport and for a brief moment the world spotlight shone on the Lordship facility. Cared for (and given good whiskey by) Dr. Luther Heidger of Bridgeport, the Mollisons survived and were soon being received by President Roosevelt.
The place was renamed Mollison Airport to capitalize on the event, but already events were conspiring to put an end to the magnificent dream of the Lindbergh era. The Great Depression took a great toll on the facility; income was insufficient to pay off the debt that was incurred with its construction, and Curtiss abandoned Bridgeport to its fate. By 1935 the runways had deteriorated to the point that the airport was forced to close.
IV. BRIDGEPORT MUNICIPAL AIRPORT
Beset by corruption and hard-hit by the Depression, the voters of Bridgeport “threw the rascals out” in the municipal elections of 1933 and voted in the Socialist Jasper McLevy.
McLevy, bold, decisive, and scrupulously honest, set about to revamp city government and balance the books, even managing to reduce property taxes. He instituted Civil Service and other reforms that were sorely needed. He also undertook tremendous capital improvement projects designed to pull the municipal infrastructure into the 20th century.
By 1937, with dozens of miles of streets graded and paved, sewer lines installed and connected to new treatment facilities, parks and a golf course laid out, and police and fire stations upgraded, McLevy was ready to take on the decertified airport. Grown up with weeds and strewn with boulders to keep planes from landing, the erstwhile airfield was nothing less than a major embarrassment to the city. Accordingly, with no other takers on the horizon, McLevy’s hardball negotiators were able to secure the 275-acre site with all improvements for the fire sale price of $115,000.
Aviation had changed a great deal in the scant decade of the airport’s existence. The tiny hangars and administration building were already obsolete relics, and the grass runways–which had never quite progressed beyond their initial 1200-foot limit–were more suited to the outskirts of some obscure rural backwater than to the backyard of one of America’s most progressive cities. And the seaplane anchorage, once projected to put Bridgeport in the forefront of cutting-edge technology, had been a glaring miscalculation that had never even been used. Major changes were sorely needed.
Ever the frugal Scotsman, McLevy purchased a bargain 28½-acre piece of land off Stratford’s East Main Street just north of the railroad tracks and opened it as a gravel pit. Using 47 city dump trucks to haul the fill at considerable savings (estimated at the time to be over $200,000, ‘without taking into consideration the sale value of the land after excavation is complete’), dikes were constructed, the entire grade was raised, and the runways were extended to a full 4700 feet. A new drainage system was installed and the runways were finally paved. The 1938 Municipal Register showed an aerial photograph of the site with a caption that read, “That this is difficult land on which to construct an airport may be judged from the amount of water appearing in this picture.”
Two new hangars were constructed that dwarfed their decade-old neighbors and the administration building was doubled in size with the addition of a second story. Altogether, improvements to the facility cost over $1,000,000 and once again gave Bridgeport an airport it could be proud of. As McLevy noted, “No city with any pretension to consideration as a first class city can afford to be without one.”
The “march of progress” the Mayor often cited was apparent the moment the airport reopened on October 21, 1941: Scheduled flights regularly connected Bridgeport with neighboring cities at speeds undreamed-of by earlier generations. The flying time to Newark, to give one example, was 31 minutes.