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At Its Height: The 1930s and '40s

Inside the Cockpit Café, Plum Island Airport, late 1930s
A Newburyport Daily News headline in June 1939 declared “Local Airport a Busy Place.” Just how busy can be seen in this photograph taken inside the Cockpit Café. Sitting at the counter in the center of the photo looking at the camera is Everett Frothingham, son of the airport’s manager, Warren Frothingham.

In September 1910, after the Harvard-Boston Aero meet, Burgess left Plum Island to move his tests to Ipswich. Although the historical record remains silent on any aviation activity at Plum Island during the intervening years, by the late 1920s activity at the site of the current airport began to pick up. In 1926, the U.S. Army Air Service designated the spot an Emergency Landing Field. By 1933 the airfield had begun commercial operations under the direction of Joseph Basso and W. F. Bartlett.

The heyday of Plum Island Airport really began in the mid 1930s when Warren Frothingham took over operations. In 1937, Frothingham was joined by John “Johnnie” Polando, a nationally known aviator who, along with Russell Boardman, held the long-distance flight record for their 1931 non-stop flight from New York to Istanbul. Together, Polando and Frothingham turned the airport into a beehive of activity. It featured a pilot training school, passenger flights, airmail service, and a restaurant known as the Cockpit Café, which now houses the airport office. In addition, three hangars, an office building, and the asphalt runway were all built before World War II. Another runway (the current grass strip) and hangar were added in 1946. Business was booming.    

As the airport grew, it began to play a larger role in the New England aviation and local communities. In 1938, an elaborate ceremony was staged for “Air Mail Week,” a nationwide celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the first air mail flight. In 1941, there was extensive discussion about the possibility of establishing a larger municipal airport on the site, resulting in the biggest turnout of voters in Newbury’s history who registered a “No” vote. The town liked the airport the way it was. The Cockpit Café (pictured) was a popular local hangout and a regular stop for the Sunday Morning Breakfast Club, a group of local pilots who flew to different airports in New England every Sunday for breakfast. The airport was a hotspot for many local activities.

During World War II, the airport also served the United States military. The Civil Pilot Training Program, open to both men and women, began operating at Plum Island by 1940. Regular operations were interrupted in 1942, when all civilian airports within 25 miles of the coast were closed to public use. For the remainder of the war, the airport was used as a hangar for Coast Guard planes and as a base for the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). In the post-war years it resumed commercial operations, but also continued as a base for the CAP and offered flight lessons to veterans under the G.I. Bill.

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Coasting: Post-World War II to the 1960s

At Its Height: The 1930s and '40s