Over A Century Old and Still Flying High

On April 17th, 1910, the then-soon-to-be-famous yacht designer William Starling Burgess and his partner, Augustus M. Herring, brought their second airplane prototype, the Flying Fish, out of their hangar and onto the marshes between Plum Island and the mainland, thirty miles north of Boston. According to accounts from the American Aviation Historical Society Journal, printed in the summer of 1965, it was around 5:30 a.m. on the cold, calm morning and the sun was just beginning to rise. At 6:30 a.m., just after sunrise, Herring took the controls of the Flying Fish. With Burgess and their friends and family standing by, he accelerated down the wooden track over the marsh. Slowly, the Flying Fish rose off the track and flew about 100 yards, not even 15 feet off the ground, in a moment akin to the Wright Brothers’ first flight only seven years earlier on the sandy dunes of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. This was the first flight at Plum Island, which would later become the first airport in New England.

Today, the airport is vastly different. It is no longer in the marsh, instead located about one mile away from the original site on the mainland. When you drive by Plum Island Airport, the first thing you notice is a long grassy field paralleling the Plum Island Turnpike. Once you get closer to the airport, you notice red traffic cones marking the field and it becomes apparent that it is a grass runway. The turnpike makes a slight bend and it is off this bend that you can park at the airport in a large gravel lot. On one side of the lot sits a tin-roofed hangar. On the other side sits an old wood-plank covered building. In between the two buildings is a large, cracked, jagged, asphalt runway. There are some small, older airplanes dotting the edges of the tarmac. Meanwhile, the airport is completely quiet, except for the sounds of cars passing along the turnpike and the creaking of the old blue sign that shows the name of the airport as it swings in the breeze. The small, one-story, wood-plank covered building doubles as a museum and the airport’s FBO (fixed-base operator, which is a type of terminal). The airport’s only paved runway is part of a decade-old legal battle with a neighboring landholder who decided to erect a fence across the runway, claiming that part of the runway was built on his land and is therefore his property. The airport does not seem special, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Despite its current state of affairs, this airport has a very prestigious history.

Burgess first set up his testing facility on the marshes in April 1910. He built a hangar, with a small apartment for himself and his wife, and a wooden track for the airplane (early aircraft used skids instead of wheels).

“It had nice wide-open flat area because they did not know much about flying back then,” said Charlie Eaton, a local aviation history expert and a curator of the Burgess Museum. Burgess also selected the marsh since it was wet around high tide, which would lubricate the skids of the airplane for take-off and landing. The field was used by Burgess and his partners through August of that year. By September, as the AAHS Journal reports, Burgess and his company had left Plum Island, never to return.

For about the next decade, the airport’s history is relatively unknown. According to written accounts from Ted Russell, another curator of the Burgess Museum, the earliest accounts of airplane activity are from 1926, when the U.S. Army Air Service created an emergency landing field at the airport’s current location. Yet what occurred in terms of flying at Plum Island from the summer of 1910 to 1926 remains a mystery.

The airport finally opened for public use a decade later in 1933 when Joseph Basso and W.F. Bartlett became the leaseholders of the airport from the Little family, which owned the land upon which the airport was built for over a century. In 1937, the lease was sold to Warren Frothingham and his partner, John “Johnnie” Polando, holder of a nonstop long-distance flight record from New York to Istanbul, who both ran the airport and greatly increased its popularity. At this time, Newburyport began offering airmail service from the town into Logan Airport in Boston.  Postmen brought the mail via stagecoach from the Newburyport Post Office to Plum Island Airport. In addition to flying the mail to Boston, Polando offered passenger service and flight training. Meanwhile, Frothingham paved the runway and added hangars, an office building, and a small eatery to the airport, the Cockpit Café.

“They had a contest in Newburyport and a young lady picked Cockpit Café,” said Eaton. “She won the contest and I think she got an airplane ride out of that.”

Today, the building that housed the Cockpit Café houses the Burgess Museum.

Polando stayed at the airport until 1942, when he left to do testing at MIT and eventually joined the Army Air Force. During World War II, the Coast Guard used the airport and kept a small fleet of planes there. Civilians were not allowed to use the airport during the war as the government closed all civilian airports within 25 miles of the coast. After the war, Frothingham continued to operate the airport until 1966. During that time, he added another hangar and the grass runway to the airport.

The airport was very prosperous until 1977, when a hangar fire burnt down five buildings at the airport. One of the destroyed, but historic, hangars was built from the packing crates of an assault glider of the same model used in the Invasion of Normandy. The building that would later house the Burgess Museum was one of only two buildings left standing. A year later, the Great Blizzard of 1978 damaged the runway and additional small hangars, not to mention multiple airplanes. As the airport began to decline, it hit another setback in 2001 as the neighboring landowner erected a fence across the paved runway. Since erecting the fence, the landowner has parked various vehicles on his piece of the runway. A small, seemingly abandoned and dilapidated house guards the cut off strip of asphalt and no-trespassing signs further prevent anyone from going near the annexed strip. The eight-foot fence shortened the airstrip from about 2,455 feet to 2,105 feet and created a hazard for landing aircraft, which must approach at a higher altitude to safely clear the fence. The airport’s grass runway is 2,300 feet long, but only smaller aircraft can land on grass as it can be damaging to the landing gears of larger aircraft. However, due to the shortened asphalt runway, larger aircraft could no longer land at Plum Island, further hurting business opportunities for the once prosperous airport.

In 2001, Ted Russell led a non-profit organization called Plum Island Community Airfield, Inc. (PICA), in purchasing the lease from the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (today known as Historic New England), which was given the land by the last surviving member of the Little family upon her passing away. Under Russell’s leadership, the airport saw the creation in 2002 of the Burgess Museum, which contains many photos and historical artifacts from the airport’s history, as well as a large collection of models of the types of aircraft that flew into the airport over the last century.

“These are all hard to find, long out of production kits,” said Eaton of the models, all of which he built himself. He also acquired a number of antique airplane gauges and instruments, including a machine gun camera that was used to make war films.

Today the airport is operated by Plum Island Aerodrome, Inc. (PIA), a new non-profit organization that formed in 2006 as PICA stepped down. PIA acquired a new lease for the airport from Historic New England that same year. The organization’s president, Steve Noyes, also manages the airport’s operations along with its two museums, the Burgess Museum and the Working Museum. Noyes began taking serious steps to improve the airport. He acquired a state grant to repair the paved runway and he convinced the state mosquito control to use Plum Island as a base for one of its aircraft. He also built the airport’s current hangar five years ago and created the Working Museum, whose volunteers actively restore antique aircraft.

Aircraft restoration is a very serious hobby. These volunteers take old airplanes, salvage their parts, repair damage and corrosion on their airframes, build new skins, and recover missing components to completely restore aircraft and return them to the skies. Noyes has restored many aircraft at the museum, turning it into a small business for himself. Other volunteers mainly use the museum for their own personal projects. Unfortunately, aircraft restoration does not yield great profits.

Dick Copithorne, the airport’s new assistant manager, admits that he and Noyes have to take a lot of money out of their own pockets to keep the airport running month after month. In fact, Noyes paid for the construction of the hangar and a new fuel tank. However, Copithorne has not given up hope for making the airport prosperous once more. In fact, he has a plan to turn the airport around.

“We really would like to get the airport operating so we can take on wonderful projects” at the Working Museum, said Copithorne. After five years of planning and setbacks, Copithorne is happy to announce that the airport started selling fuel this April. He hopes it will draw more business to the airport, especially during the busier summer months.

“Hopefully this summer, we are going to have flight training, airplane rides, fuel, and ice cream,” said Copithorne. “That’s my ambition and I want to advertise and market, market, market so everybody knows we have fuel and so forth.”

Copithorne is optimistic for the airport’s future. In five years, he hopes to have a coffee shop at the airport and possibly a second hangar constructed. He also would like to expand the Burgess Museum with more historical artifacts.

“We have a group of solid individuals now. We are all mentally attached to the airport,” said Copithorne.

From its historic beginnings to its humble rebirth over a century later, Plum Island Airport has stood the test of time and managed to remain relevant in the aviation world. Its relevance and importance shrunk to only those who live near it and care deeply for it. For Charlie Eaton, he can remember coming down to the airport as a young boy and buying a Coke from an old Coke machine. He only had to pay a nickel. Both of his parents were part of the Civil Air Patrol stationed at Plum Island. For Charlie, who used to fly both airplanes and helicopters, flying is in his blood. Likewise, flying is in the blood of the airport. Its future may be uncertain, but Copithorne, Eaton, Noyes, and Russell will stop at nothing to preserve the airport.

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