For many Los Angeles residents, Los Angeles International Airport is a towering monument of steel and concrete. A white, modernist structure rising out of the ground, its four lengthy runways and iconic landmarks are visible even in the hazy, orange streetlights that pierce the metropolis’s darkness every night. Those lucky to be grabbing a quick lunch or dinner at the nearby In-and-Out fast food joint in Westchester- one of the few local spots directly underneath the airport’s flight path- may have the distinct pleasure of catching sight of one of its many commercial airliners in flight.
Despite this, just as many Angelenos take the airport for granted. LAX just as easily could be an empty shell of a facility, its runways cracked and bare as they lay unused for days, weeks…
Such is the fate of at least 1300 confirmed old and abandoned airfields in the United States, stretching from Cocoa Beach to Bakersfield, Bethany, Connecticut to Dover, Delaware. Some are former military, civil aviation, general airports or just simply a plowed landing strip. All of them forgotten by history.
Hughes Airport is one such example. Located in nearby Culver City, the former civil-military airport was the brainchild of industrialist Howard Hughes, who envisioned the plot of land as a spot to build and test experimental aircraft. Over a span of 40 years, the airport grew into a veritable weapons factory. It was at Culver City that Hughes built his iconic HK-1 flying boat, where the prototype for the Apache helicopter was born, where his H-1 Racer would make history.
The airport would later be made famous by Martin Scorsese’s 2004 film The Aviator. Hughes Airport is a national historic site now, having escaped the scrap-heap. But others aren’t as lucky—or famous.
Now, thanks to the Internet and the efforts of one determined man, airports like Hughes are getting a second chance at life—via the World Wide Web.
“I receive hundreds of emails per week with contributed information of which there is a dedicated core of a half dozen readers who are longtime contributors,” Paul Freedman, the webmaster of the The Abandoned and Little Known Airfields site said in an email interview.
The key to Freedman’s success is his army of “field correspondents,” men and women from all walks of life who work day and night to supply the site with accurate, often voluminous information. Armed with little more than an internet connection, Google Maps, and first hand sources, they comb through aviation charts, websites, and question witnesses in an effort to corroborate often decades old rumors.
One of them is David W. Brooks. Brooks- who has since branched out and started a website of his own- is no stranger to spending his nights pouring over aeronautical charts and staring at computer screens. As a result, he has accumulated over 2,200 maps, images and other aeronautical paraphernalia, many of which are posted online. The majority chronicle info from decommissioned military airfields and landing strips from the WW2 and Cold War era.
“I have been interested in aerospace for most of my life, until I retired six years ago,” he said. “I started by contributing to Mr. Paul Freeman’s website. I asked a question. ‘Just how many airfields were there, both outdated and operational?’ That has started me off developing a catalog rather than providing historical information on airfields.”
It’s a task he relishes, but it is not easy. Historical documentation is hard to come by. Maps fade or disappear, memories become hazy. Most information arrives from word of mouth.
Clayton Airport is a typical case. Nestled in the outskirts of Burlington, North Carolina, it is a run-down drag, its concrete runways overrun with wild oats and grass. Yet it once was one of the most in-demand general aviation airports in the region, a place where enthusiasts and professionals mingled during the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.
Yet there is more to its legacy than meets the eye. Though industrialists and generals never set foot in its hangars, Clayton Airport- and the small town of Whitsett, NC which served as its home- has its own, unique history.
In 1955, a then unknown by the name of Elvis Presley pulled into the Brightwood Inn, just across the street from the airport. According to local legend, he ordered a hamburger before heading on his way to perform at the Williams High School in Burlington. Posterity doesn’t make a note of the event, but the town sure did, enough that Abandoned and Little Known Airfields correspondent Jonathon Payne was able to record a recollection of the event by an anonymous citizen.
1955 also saw the airport become notorious for something other than a close encounter with The King. That year, the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, better known as NICAP paid a visit to Clayton. The UFO group, one of the most respected and well known mainstream organizations of its kind, conducted extensive tests, looking into allegations that an unknown visitor touched down on one of its runways- and left a Halloween present to boot.
Although NICAP was unable to make a definitive conclusion about a residue found at the scene, the organization did note that ‘analysts disagreed on whether the substance was of animal or synthetic origin.’
The airport closed down in 2002.
“The difficulty is finding good information about old airfields, especially from 1920 to 1940,” Brooks says. “What charts that were made during those days are extremely hard to find and those who do have them hang to them closely.”
The confusion mounts when one considers the glut of partial and incomplete information dating from that period. Airports that were listed as being active during the 1920s and 30s have either been demolished, renamed, absorbed into other, larger airports, or have been reclaimed by mold and grass.
The only ones who really know the truth are the Greatest Generation, those airmen, women, and factory workers who often took off or worked in the many air fields that dotted the country during WWII. These are the people who could say definitively whether this or that airfield was military or civil, what aircraft were serviced or built there, who owned the land, and as they die off day after day, that knowledge disappears forever.
That makes Brook’s task even more urgent, but he’s up for the fight.
“This way, their [the airfield’s] history is kept and available for future generations with history in this subject.”
Thanks to the abundance of official records kept on government and academic databases, all easily accessible with a broadband connection, that task has gotten easier. Yet there are still unanswered questions. For example, little is known about the social utility that such airports played in the early years of the 20th Century, or how they were financed. The full story may never be known.
In the final analysis, the history of civil airports such as Clayton is the history of the country. From New York to California, to the Rockies and the Great Lakes, they have quietly delivered mail and precious cargo to soldiers and civilians alike. They have ferried passengers to far flung cities, and opened doors to new opportunities previously thought impossible.
Clayton is nothing but ruins now, a wilderness of overgrown weeds. Barring unforeseen circumstances, that is exactly what is on track to happen to others like it, as a slice of humanity’s secret history fades into dust.