Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Making aviation history in Boonton

Stir crazy after Hurricane Irene and curious which roads were open, we took a drive last week to find a reasonable place to hike. Pyramid Mountain's trails were closed, and roads to other options were blocked and detoured, so we ended up at Johanson Memorial Fields off Powerville Road in Boonton. The fields offered more of a level stroll than real exercise, but Ivan figured there's always the chance some interesting birds would be around, possibly disrupted by the storm.

We parked near a grove of trees that was still wet from the storm, then walked out to a nearby field. Flat and manicured, there were plenty of ballfields and plenty of young boys were walking around with football gear on. From the level of activity, it was clear there was going to be either a scrimmage or a practice.

We soon came upon a great little playground area marked by a sign that looked like a metal windsock. Hmm... that's odd. Even more interesting, it's labeled "Doolittle's Landing." Could this be the sign of something notable yet obscure? Was there a reason why this area was so flat and bereft of trees?

A nearby commemorative plaque told the story. In the early decades of the 20th century, small airfields dotted New Jersey and other states, even as larger airports like Newark gained prominence as major hubs. Johanson Fields is a remnant of those days, and, in fact, several buildings on the property have the low-slung look of hangars and related airport structures. Starting in 1927, the field became the location and testing center of the Aircraft Radio Corporation (ARC), which was part of the burgeoning instrument flying industry. Up until then, pilots generally used ground landmarks to assess their route, which limited their ability to fly at night or in adverse weather conditions.

That all changed in 1929. Army Air Corps pilot Jimmy Doolittle made history at Boonton by taking off and landing from the ARC field purely by use of radio beacon and transmitter, without looking out of the cockpit.  The work he and the ARC engineers did on that field revolutionized aviation, making it possible for pilots to fly just about any kind of plane in virtually any conditions. Already, airplanes had gotten more advanced than some pilots' abilities to take in how quickly they were moving and in what conditions, and without some kind of assistance, it was likely they'd be unable to fly safely. It would be downright impossible for today's complex global airline industry to exist without the use of onboard instruments. Some might even say that Doolitte's work laid the foundation for eventual space flight.

Beyond Boonton, Doolittle built a formidable reputation as an ace pilot and Medal of Honor recipient in World War II, eventually rising to the rank of general. He also stayed in the forefront of aviation and space technology as a test pilot and, following his retirement, in private industry.

Who'd have thought that the small town of Boonton could have had such an impact on air travel? From what I can gather from research, the field may have been active as recently as the 1990's, but for now, the only regular takeoffs and landings are small radio-controlled aircraft and the birds passing through or inhabiting the trees surrounding the park. The evening we were there, Ivan observed a group of nighthawks apparently on a leg of their southward fall migration. Not quite Jimmy Doolittle, but one has to wonder at the internal instruments that guide birds to their winter locations.

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