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NYC needs runways, but ’ghost airport’ stays quiet

NEW YORK (AP) — Two airports sit less than five miles from each other, their wide-open runways tracing big Xs along the same stretch of Atlantic shoreline.

At John F. Kennedy International Airport, air traffic controllers herd a procession of airliners in what has become a chronic choke point in the nation’s air transport system.

At nearby Floyd Bennett Field, things are more laid back. Recently, the one-man control tower, John Daskalakis, leaned against a pickup truck with a portable radio as an ancient C-54 cargo plane lumbered toward Runway 24 for takeoff. Cyclists and joggers hung out on the taxiway to watch.

As planners lament the lack of space for new runways in a region plagued by air delays, Floyd Bennett’s wide, inviting runways sit just across Jamaica Bay within a federally protected park. The old airfield opens a few times a year for special flights, but most of the time it sits idle — its hangars, runway and control tower intact but off-limits to air traffic.

The perfectly preserved former Navy base was once frequented by Howard Hughes and Amelia Earhart. Today, in the cavernous Hangar B, aviation buffs gather to restore old airplanes and swap stories. Some of them wonder whether turning Floyd Bennett into a commercial airport is a realistic, achievable way of easing congestion in New York.

“That would be a dream — that would really be something,” said Dante Dimille, a volunteer. “This would make a great civil aviation field again.”

Some experts say it’s not unthinkable: a new traffic-control system being installed by the FAA could enable planes to fly into Floyd Bennett without conflicting with those headed to JFK. But others say it would be too costly to realign and lengthen its runways. And getting the airport back from the National Park Service, which now controls it, would be near impossible.

“Physically, it would work, with limitations,” said Thomas Chastain, an airport planning consultant. “Practically and politically, I don’t see them ever using Floyd Bennett Field again.”

Still, he said, it’s a tantalizing prospect.

New York desperately needs more runway space. JFK and LaGuardia airports in New York, plus Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, together handle about 3,500 flights per day, and passenger demand is projected to increase from 104 million to 150 million by 2030.

In bad weather, the number of flights that air traffic controllers can put on each runway drops. As a result, nearly one-third of flights in New York were delayed or cancelled in 2009, according to a November report released by U.S. Department of Transportation.

The three main New York airports have nine runways between them but haven’t built a new one since the early 1970s. Meanwhile, 17 other major airports have added runways just in the last decade, including Chicago O’Hare, Atlanta Hartsfield, Boston Logan and Washington Dulles.

In January, a report commissioned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the region’s airports, said any expansion would be difficult. Three of the five options it recommended would require filling in parts of Jamaica Bay to build runways at JFK.

Floyd Bennett has four existing runways, the longest of them 6,000 feet. But it has space for an 8,500-foot runway, longer than any at LaGuardia.

But experts with the Regional Plan Association, which wrote the study for the Port Authority, decided that the distance between such a runway and JFK would cause airspace conflicts.

“We dropped that early on,” said Jeffrey Zupan, one of the authors. “It’s just too close to Kennedy.”

But not everyone believes that’s an obstacle.

A new satellite-based air traffic control system, known as NextGen, will soon allow airplanes to make better use of tight airspace, said Paul Freeman, head of flight testing for ITT Corp., which is building the system.

“That’s not really a valid excuse anymore,” said Freeman, who in his free time runs a website about defunct airports. “We’re working on technology that will really free up a lot of the traditional limits of air traffic control. It definitely would allow something like a Floyd Bennett Field to be active again.”

Floyd Bennett wouldn’t be the first New York-area airport to close and reopen. Newark airport closed in 1939 after LaGuardia was built, only to reopen in World War II. Flushing Airport in Queens closed in the 1970s, later reopened and then closed for good in 1984.

Floyd Bennett Field was built between 1928 and 1931 and quickly became the preferred launching site for record-setting flights by Hughes, Earhart, Wiley Post and other aviation pioneers. The airport sported unusual innovations, like a turntable for rotating aircraft and tunnels under the tarmac that passengers used to reach their planes.

The Navy took it over in 1941. Most of the airport closed in 1971, though the New York Police Department still uses a corner of it as its helicopter base.

Unlike other airports that have been ripped up to make way for housing developments and shopping malls, Floyd Bennett remains frozen in time.

The hangars are rusting and missing some windows but still standing. The old terminal is being restored and will reopen as a museum later this year. Runway 33 is now a road, but the others are mostly untouched. The Park Service even mows the grass between the runways, part of an effort to accommodate migrating geese.

“We keep it looking pretty much like an airport,” said Daskalakis, a supervisory park ranger. “There’s a lot of history here, so we want to preserve that.”

In 2007, the Park Service opened the old runways for a fly-in of World War II fighter planes, biplanes and a modern Air Force C-130 cargo plane.

In Hangar B, Dimille and other volunteers with the Historical Aircraft Restoration Project show off their collection of old planes to school groups and aviation buffs. A hulking Boeing Stratofreighter, one of only two such airplanes still flying, looms over the other planes like a condor in a nest of sparrows.

The Stratofreighter and a former Navy C-54 cargo plane dubbed “The Spirit of Freedom” are owned by the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation, which keeps them at Floyd Bennett under an agreement with the Park Service.

One March afternoon, the C-54 took off, beginning a summer of visiting airshows around the country. A dozen aviation enthusiasts turned out to take pictures of the takeoff.

Daskalakis listened on his radio as the old cargo plane rumbled to the end of the runway and called for takeoff clearance from controllers at JFK. He had filed a special flight permit with the FAA a few days before.

The huge, piston-powered engines roared. The Spirit of Freedom surged forward, past the joggers and the cyclists and the geese. Then it raised its nose skyward.

For a moment at least, Floyd Bennett Field was an airport again.

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