Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Newark Airport: the scarcely remembered shutdown

A recent visit to the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Morris and Somerset Counties led me to think again about how close we came to losing this marvelous natural resource to development. As you might remember from our earlier story, the Refuge is the hard won project of environmentalists who stopped the marshland from becoming a massive regional jetport. Thing is, for as much as people will marvel over the folly of replacing this pristine wilderness with an airport, nobody talks about WHY exactly we needed one there… and why Newark International Airport wasn’t deemed sufficient for the flying public.

When I researched the issue, I discovered a fair amount of discussion about the need for longer runways to accommodate massive jets – seemingly more that Newark might be able to accommodate. I also came upon a seemingly forgotten aspect of the history of EWR, an unfortunate series of events that virtually cried out for a new airfield in the region.

Three fatal accidents over the course of 10 weeks in the early 1950s forced the public and government officials to consider whether large airports and heavily populated areas were good neighbors or a recipe for disaster. A total of 119 people, including several Elizabeth residents in their homes, were killed in unexpected crashes near the airport. (Judy Blume's 2015 novel In the Unlikely Event is set on the backdrop of the tragedies.)

Locating an airport in a congested area wasn’t the planners’ original intent. Today’s Newark Liberty International Airport stands in heavily developed industrial sections of Newark and Elizabeth, bordered by the New Jersey Turnpike and Route 1, but it wasn’t always that way. Most New Jerseyans don’t recognize the area for what it once was: some of the southernmost portion of the Meadowlands. When sited in the late 1920s, the airport was built on damp marshlands in the outskirts of Newark. More than 1.5 million cubic feet of dry fill went into the soggy wetness to prepare it for paving and building, including 7000 Christmas trees and 200 metal safes. Airport operations proceeded without complaint or danger to local residents because, well, few if any people lived there.

With the passage of time, that changed. Normal industrial development, fueled by population shifts during World War II and the Port Authority takeover of Port Newark, brought more businesses into the area. Being close to the airport meant goods could be shipped rapidly, efficiently and more cheaply, so if your business wanted to grow beyond New Jersey, you wanted to be in what was once the swamp. Workers naturally wanted to live closer to their jobs, spurring residential development. Before you knew it, the “out of the way” airport had more neighbors than its architects probably ever imagined, and Newark was the second busiest commercial airfield among many competitors in the area.

The airport’s operations people, however, apparently didn’t recognize the potential dangers of routing aircraft over congested areas. That changed on December 16, 1951, when Newark and Elizabeth fell victim to what was then the second deadliest commercial air disaster in the United States. Fifty-six people died when a C-46 aircraft crashed into the Elizabeth River shortly after takeoff from Newark.

Just a few weeks later, on January 22, 1952, a twin-propeller airplane was attempting to land when it crashed into a house at the intersection of South and Williamson Streets in Elizabeth, after nearly hitting Battin High School. Three crew members, 20 passengers and seven people on the ground were killed.

A third accident, on February 11, was the final straw. After losing a propeller on takeoff, a DC-6 crashed, reportedly near an orphanage. Four on the ground died, along with 26 of the 59 passengers and three of the four crew. The Port Authority closed Newark Airport, raising questions as to whether it should ever reopen for commercial traffic. Airlines moved their EWR-based operations to LaGuardia and New York International (now JFK), leading some to wonder whether those carriers would return to Newark… if the airport ever reopened.

Ultimately, the airport was closed to commercial traffic for nine months, with the military using it only for defense-critical operations during daylight hours and good weather. Local mayors called on New Jersey Governor Alfred Driscoll and the state legislature to keep the airport closed and push the Port Authority to seek alternative locations in less populated areas for a new major airport.

Port Authority Executive Director Austin Tobin, however, had other plans. The agency continued its work on a new runway and issued a contract for the construction of an additional passenger terminal, clearly signaling that EWR would be back in business. Meanwhile, aviation ace Eddie Rickenbacker led the National Air Transport Coordinating Committee in developing new flight procedures for the airport. When announced in November 1952, the rules eliminated all takeoffs and landings over the densely populated sections of Elizabeth where the tragic crashes had taken place. Instead, aircraft would be routed over the Kearny Meadows.

Newark Airport reopened on November 15. 1952 and slowly came back to life as operators moved flights back from the other two major regional airfields. However, the concept of an farther-flung airport was still in the minds of some. Land owners in Lakewood, 60 miles south of Newark, offered acreage for a new, modern facility, proposing that a Pinelands-based airport could easily be connected to the Turnpike for easy access to both New York and Philadelphia. The airlines, however, rejected the concept. Much of the appeal of Newark was what had made it so congested in the first place: proximity to industry, people and New York City.

Perhaps the most fitting statement was made by the New York Times in an editorial supporting the reopening of EWR: "It is not possible to remove landing fields to entirely uninhabited areas. To do so would destroy the very value of air transport; it is not possible. The airplane is here to stay…”

Newark continued to grow even as the Port Authority fought for the proposed jetport in the Great Swamp. New terminals were built, airlines added new flights and routes, more people than ever saw the convenience of flying out of EWR instead of JFK or LGA. Thankfully, no additional fatal crashes have occurred in the neighborhoods surrounding the airport, a trend we hope will continue indefinitely.

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