2013 Look Back: Airport Land Deal Grounds Manager, Raises Questions–Plus, Airport History

Sikorsky airport
Aerial of city-owned airport in Stratford.

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.


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.



    1. BOBBBY,
      I’m BAAACK …
      I did appreciate the story.
      Where are the industrial leaders today?
      Where is the municipal leader upgrading the infrastructure with a plan in mind that is shared with the taxpaying public?
      Money is dear once again, but how does one gain a secure basic understanding of what we own, what we owe and where that trend is headed locally?
      Bob, why not take a look at the three questions raised and write a “brief essay” OIB readers can appreciate and learn from? Time will tell.

  1. “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.”

    Bob, in a way it’s good Lennie went way back.
    According to Manny, the old driveway was constantly flooding and this was one of the reasons for moving the driveway in addition to the alleged mandate by the government (he could produce the letter) to move the driveway in preparation for expansion of the runway. Knowing these facts, it’s safe for me to say the “soundness” of the old plan was put into question; the Town of Stratford and the City of Bridgeport didn’t think the old plan was as sound as the author of the above statement thinks.

  2. 1. From the start, Charles Brilvitch writes a heartfelt essay about pertinent Bridgeport history. I did not know there was a faint connection between Amelia Earhart and Bridgeport Airport.
    2. Have readers of this blog been placed under a collective spell by a vagabond gypsy? Does this blog have anything to do with politics in Bridgeport?
    The biggest story of 2013 was the shift in Bridgeport politics. A new voice appeared; meetings were held and primary candidates were chosen; primaries occurred and winners declared. Elections were held and winners declared there, too. When the smoke cleared, the BOE was transformed; Republicans had a new member on the City Council plus others sympathetic to his cause. Not too long ago, Rick Torres had soured on the political process and seemed disinterested in future campaigns. Now he has a perfect platform to share his views and would be a logical candidate for higher office. The biggest story of 2014 might be what started in 2013.
    Now back to that gypsy spell …

    1. Local Eyes, what are you talking about when you said, “A new voice appeared; meetings were held and primary candidates were chosen; primaries occurred and winners declared?” There has been NO movement with Republicans, there was one Republican on the City Council a few years ago and the Republicans had Sauda on the BOE. Let’s be clear, we are ONLY talking about Black Rock because the other sections of Bridgeport are of no concern.

      1. Ron, I understand what you’re saying about Republicans not appealing to the entire electorate but the Republican school board candidates performed even or ahead of the Working Families Party candidates in several precincts outside of Black Rock School including Aquaculture and Batalla precincts covering the West End and South End, Central precinct on the West Side/Brooklawn areas as well as Winthrop and Blackham in the North End. Black Rock is certainly the GOP voter base where Joe Larcheveque received one third of his overall citywide vote for school board, the beneficiary of a high-profile City Council race. Still, the GOP missed an opportunity by running as individuals rather than as a team appealing to their core constituency and unaffiliated voters and disaffected Dems.

        1. Lennie, you said, “the Republican school board candidates performed even or ahead of the Working Families Party candidates in several precincts outside of Black Rock School,” the key word here is “several precincts” not a majority and the main reason was a pushback against Mayor Finch for his takeover of the BOE, Finch’s attempt to take the voting rights away from voters for the BOE, the poor job of snow removal, these are just a few of the items the public was pissed off with mayor and Democrats on the City Council besides the airport. Republicans had a perfect storm working for them to make huge gains in the City but no, they were only concerned about Black Rock.

          1. I saw signage all over town for the Republican School Board candidates. There were literature drops and mailings in my neighborhood and in others as well. One general rule of literature and sign placement is you don’t waste paper on a lost cause. Campaigning is too time-consuming and costly to not be strategic. If I were managing operations for the Republicans, I would not have left you or any of the folks that you are associated with literature either. There is no way I would have knocked on your door. When folks already have their minds made up and are vocal about it, it is not the best use of time and resources to try to sway them. Resources are better expended other ways. Just a thought.

          2. Bond Girl, if you and the Republican Party keep that mindset, you will NEVER be in power. Tell me what the core is for Republicans beside vote for them, what do they stand for? Who have you told, because signage, literature drops and mailings will not get them elected. You have to knock on voters’ doors and tell them what you are for and listen to what they want, then ask them for their vote. Keep doing it your way and the numbers will be the same as they are now.

          3. Ron: Who said I wanted to be in power? Just for the record, I am not a Republican. I was merely stating campaigns with limited resources need to weigh options and be strategic. As for lawn signs, literature and mailings, okay, you have the right to state your opinion.

            Nonetheless, there are two Republicans in place now. WFP did not sweep the BOE, those are the facts. You don’t have to like them, but those are the facts. No amount of lamenting is going to change that.

            I think we should all move forward and start trying to do the very best we can together, with the reality we currently face.

          4. Bond Girl, my point is the Republicans have only gone back to where they were before, with one City Council Member and one person in the BOE. Let me ask you this, who has more influence and power on the BOE, the Republicans or the WFP? Think about this, they are NEW and very few members yet they have more power than the Republicans.

          5. Thinking in terms of gaining political power helps the kids, how? From what I understand at the WFP campaign post Mortimer meeting last week, the talk was largely centered around how all members can start to work together. That in my mind is encouraging. Let’s make the best of the strengths of each individual and start to build consensus centered around progress in the schools and in the City, not political power gains.

          6. Bond Girl, I see you are being selective in using my words. I also said, “influence.” That is what one does when they have power, they influence others on their position instead of running over others. WFP has “influenced” enough voters in Bridgeport to get members on the BOE in a very short time, there is a lesson to be learned from that.

  3. It is time to close the airport. The airport has not lived up to all the PR it will draw development to the area. It will allow business executives to fly in and out of the area and the list goes on and on. NONE of this has come true. The airport has become a drain on city resources and last year operated at a $300K deficit. The city has no right in being in the airport business.
    It’s time to sell the airport and move on.

    1. It’s time to expand the airport. Experience at failing produces success at winning. It’s an untapped asset whose potential is still unrealized. I think it’s a fantastic way for Bridgeport to expand its city limits. The same way the USA extends its global power through aircraft carriers, Bridgeport can extend its revenue base to include incoming flights to its airport.
      From where?
      Answer: anywhere in the world!

  4. To follow up on Phil’s point, we have a City Council President who is also a highly compensated city employee, who is also a member of the Airport Commission, who is also a member of the Democratic Town Committee, who is also a district leader of the 133rd DTC, who acts as if he reports to the City Attorney and the Mayor on all things City Council.
    The City Attorney and Mayor have refused to make a full disclosure of the facts and the City Council President sits back and hopes this whole mess will disappear.
    And yet the City Council sits poised to reelect this conflicted individual because …
    Come to think of it, I have no idea as to why the council would do so.

  5. Talk about a story that keeps on giving even from a look back to a look forward perspective.
    The lawyer representing the adjacent condo complex said the residents are close to signing a deal with the city that could make the appeal moot. The City Council is set to hear the terms of the agreement in executive session on Monday.

    “We have an agreement in principle with the City Attorney’s Office,” Richard Saxl, the lawyer for the condo, said Wednesday.

    “The city has been engaged in good faith discussions in an effort to achieve a resolution that is in the best interests of all parties concerned,” said City Attorney Mark Anastasi. “The City Attorney’s Office and airport management will brief the Airport Commission and the City Council at the appropriate time, in order to obtain any necessary settlement authorizations/approvals.”

    I guess when Mark Anastasi says “in the best interest of all parties concerned” he is excluding the taxpayers of the city of Bridgeport.

    If I were back on the council I would refuse to vote in favor of this settlement until the city produces its report on all facts relevant to this matter to the satisfaction of the City Council including placing blame where blame belongs within the City Attorney’s office and the office of the Purchasing Agent.

    No report, no approval. Plain and simple. Are you reading this, Rick, Bob H, Trish S and all of the other new council members who were elected because the public decided that enough is enough?

    To quote my good friend John Marshall Lee, “Time will tell” but if the council wants respect the clock is ticking.

    1. Amazing! They reached a deal on the road and it happened right AFTER the election. What a surprise.

      Whatever the terms of the agreement, the City of Bridgeport should not spend another dime of taxpayers’ money on this mismanaged project. If there are any additional costs as a result of this agreement they should be borne by the private parties who benefit from the road, not Bridgeport’s taxpayers.

      1. Phil Smith, you are nothing but a cynic. How dare you suggest the city deliberately put off making public this inside deal? I believe if city employees weren’t so busy working on the SOB election (Save Our Board), this would have come before the council much sooner. Maybe a special meeting where members leaving the council would not be as concerned with approving this as new members might be.
        That loud noise you just heard was Mark Anastasi slamming his office door as he ran out of his office looking for an attorney to research this possibility.

  6. So the mayor thinks it is better to tell the Bridgeport Taxpayers we are paying to build roads in Stratford and not driveways???
    I think the mayor and Elaine F got it wrong again. We shouldn’t be building either for Stratford taxpayers!!!


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