Sunday, December 23, 2012

Airmail and basketball shoes: the story of Hadley Field

If you're doing any last minute holiday shopping in South Plainfield this weekend, stop and listen for the very faint sounds of old airplane engines. Today's Hadley Plaza is built atop aviation history: Hadley Field, the departure site of the first night airmail flight.

Back in the early days of flight, government pilots hop-scotched around the United States relaying sacks of mail at speeds that often exceeded those of the usual train routes. Early attempts often ended in plane crashes and delays, but the 1920s saw the introduction of transcontinental airmail service. Before Lindbergh's historic New York to Paris flight, "coast to coast" routes were actually flown in segments, with takeoffs and landings in between to refuel or change planes. Even with delays we'd find unreasonable now, pilots were getting the mail to its destination far more quickly than people had experienced before.

The New York area's air mail was handled on government flights through Long Island's Hazlehurst Airport, later known as Roosevelt Field. The island location, however, proved troublesome: the field was often fogged in, preventing safe take-offs and landings. A safer, more reliable location had to be found within the greater New York metropolitan area, especially if the Post Office were to start offering night service.

John Hadley's South Plainfield farm proved to be an ideal location, with 77 acres of level ground just six miles from New Brunswick's train station. The Post Office leased the land from Hadley on November 1, 1924 and had the field cleared, runways built and radio towers completed by December 15. The following day, all daytime transcontinental mail flights were transferred from Hazlehurst, and James D. Hill successfully piloted the first "New York" to Chicago postal run from Hadley. New Jersey had earned its entry into airmail history.

Preparations for overnight flights took a bit longer. With the addition of powerful floodlights and search beams to the field, Hadley was ready to strike another first. More than 15,000 people flocked to the field on July 1, 1925 to witness the departure of two airmail flights, one piloted by Hill and the other by Dean C. Smith, their first stops slated for Cleveland. Hill made it through without incident, but Smith had troubles from the start. Barely rising 100 feet on takeoff, his plane's engine seized, forcing him to turn back for repairs. Further engine troubles precipitated another emergency landing in Pennsylvania, and an apparent miscalculation in a new plane caused him to run out of gas and crash in a farm field just fifteen minutes outside of Cleveland. Smith survived all three mishaps, but you have to wonder about his luck, to say the least.

Hadley Field's dominance was brief, as Newark Airport opened in 1928 and became the new East Coast airmail hub. Nonetheless, the small airport did valuable service as a Civil Air Patrol station during World War II and later as a test field for experimental planes and helicopters for the Bendix Corporation. Like many small airports today, Hadley also offered a flight school and aircraft rentals to local private pilots for recreational flying.

Those private pilots may or may not have known that they were potentially sharing air space with nuclear missiles. In 1961, Hadley also became the site of one of the Nike batteries that encircled the New York area as the last defense against Soviet attack. Its nuclear-capable Hercules missiles were housed in two magazines staffed first by the Army and then by the New Jersey National Guard until the base closed sometime around 1970.

I'm always curious why some small airports have stayed in business (i.e. Caldwell, Solberg) while others didn't survive. Take away the romance of flight and history, and the classic business reasons apply: investment and local sentiment. According to a 1967 aeronautical chart, Hadley's three runways were still turf, which would have prevented the field from attracting lucrative business from corporate jet operators. Other much-needed upgrades were cost-prohibitive and opposed by local residents, which pretty much sealed the deal.

Hadley closed on November 1, 1968, 44 years after the Post Office originally leased the land. The valuable real estate was sold to a developer who built a shopping mall and office park on the site. I'm not entirely sure of the geography, but it's quite possible that you can buy a leather bomber jacket not far from where Dean Smith unceremoniously concluded his first attempt at nocturnal airmail delivery. Or maybe you can buy Air Jordans from a store built over the old Nike base. A stone memorial commemorates the first overnight mail flight, but that's about all that's left to indicate the airport was ever there.

(If you'd like to read more about New Jersey's aviation history, be sure to check out our stories on Boonton and Jimmy Doolittle's instrument flying, airmail at Greenwood Lake, Millville Army Air Field  and Newark Airport's past. Check out more about the Nike base at Sandy Hook, too.)

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