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Ironically, neither it nor any of the other planes at the show had yet completed a successful flight. Charles W. Parker, a wealthy carousel supplier from Kansas, promised Burgess $5,000 if he proved it could fly. Burgess had already planned a test run on the family estate of Norman Prince, a young Harvard law student who was also fascinated with flight. Burgess’s partner, Augustus Moore Herring, had helped design and was to pilot the plane.
A little over six years after the Wright Brothers’ initial flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, at a time when still precious few had managed to get a heavier-than-air craft off the ground, Burgess and Herring would attempt to bring aviation to New England.
Bring it they did. On February 28, Herring made the first successful flight in New England, mounting to an altitude of six to thirty feet and covering a distance of forty to 120 yards (depending on the witness) before slamming back down on the ice. After this single flight, Burgess sold the plane to Parker, moved operations to the marshes of Plum Island in Newbury, Massachusetts (about two miles east-southeast of the current site of the airport), and began building a new and improved biplane at his factory in Marblehead. Over the next few months, Burgess performed flight tests at Plum Island, with some successes and just as many failures, and always to the delight of spectators who came in increasing numbers to see the airplanes – or “aeroplanes” as they were called in those early days.
Following these first efforts, Plum Island Airport grew and transformed over the course of the twentieth century. Beginning operations on the current site by the late 1920s, it served as a flight school, an emergency landing base for the Army, a training site for the Civil Air Patrol during World War II, grounds for circuses, fairs, and air shows, a tourist spot, and a transportation hub for many local pilots and businessmen. Through these many incarnations the airport remained an active part of the communities of Newbury and Newburyport, as well as that of New England aviation.
The airport resides on a parcel of land leased from Historic New England’s Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm. As part of the centennial celebrations of both Historic New England and Plum Island aviation, this collaborative exhibition documents the history of the airport and its role in pioneering flight in New England, its development throughout the twentieth century, and its continuous impact on local communities.
W. Starling Burgess had been interested in flight since he was a schoolboy, but it was not until 1908 that he got his first real taste of aviation. Until then, the Wright Brothers had tried to keep their tests quiet and secluded. When Orville Wright came to Fort Myer in Virginia in 1908 to make a public demonstration to the United States Army, however, Burgess made sure he was there. Although the Wrights still held patents that made it very difficult for anyone else to build “aeroplanes,” Burgess took up the challenge nonetheless.
After the initial flight at Chebacco Lake, while the Herring-Burgess #2 (pictured) was being built at Marblehead, Burgess looked for a more permanent place to hold his tests. He settled on Plum Island, because its long expanse of flat land and distance from settlement made it a prime location for flying. The new plane, called the Flying Fish for the fin-like structures on top of its wings, made three short flights on Sunday, April 17, the first two piloted by Herring and the last by Burgess himself. Four more flights, at increasing heights and of longer duration, followed on Thursday, April 21.
By the beginning of May, Burgess and Herring’s partnership had fallen apart. Greely S. Curtis, a wealthy man with an aeronautical and engineering background, had approached Burgess at the Boston Aero Show and offered to act as a financial partner. He arrived at Plum Island on April 22, and in June they organized Burgess Co. & Curtis. The company was off and running, and the tests were in full swing.
Over the course of the spring and summer, Burgess continued testing at Plum Island with varying success, constantly repairing and remodeling his planes. A. L. Pfitzner and William Hilliard, the most successful Plum Island aviator, took over as pilots after Herring’s departure. After every crash or accident the planes were returned to the Marblehead factory for repairs. Debates raged all summer over the advantages of skids versus wheels, different control systems, and the use of ailerons. The Newburyport Daily News and increasing numbers of spectators at the airfield followed these developments with intense interest. The Boston Globe, which had covered American and international innovations in flight throughout the year, also kept tabs on the events at Plum Island.
These test flights however, were leading up to something bigger than just putting on a show for friends and local residents. The Harvard-Boston Aero Meet, set for September 1910, would be the largest aero meet in the country up to that time. Its list of competitors, featuring many of the most famous and daring pilots in the world, drew international interest. Local excitement was even greater. For most attendees, this would be the first time they had ever seen an airplane in flight. Not only was it a wondrous thing to witness, but it also stoked imaginations over the future possibilities of flight.
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.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, the airport began to see its first signs of commercial struggle. Since the Army had used it for various purposes during World War II, the airfield had been receiving government subsidies during and after the war. When these funds were pulled in 1951, the community began to worry about the airport’s future, as flying was a popular pursuit but failed to be a money-making business. One article in the Newburyport Daily News noted these difficulties but left its readers with a call to arms: “Our Plum Island field is advantageously situated. It has been well run by Warren S. Frothingham, and is an asset to such a place as Newburyport….all Newburyporters should wish it well; keep its presence in mind, and be on the look-out to help in its further development.”
Although these were relatively quiet years in comparison to the 1930s and ‘40s, the airport did remain an asset to the community. One way it did so was through its participation in citywide celebrations. Throughout the 1960s it contributed activities to Yankee Homecoming, a summer festival begun in 1957 in Newburyport and twenty-nine other towns as a way to rekindle interest in East Coast downtown communities. Santa Claus, who had arrived for the town holiday parade by air as early as 1947, continued his grand entrances via plane or parachute – which had used the grounds periodically since the 1920s – horse shows, and air shows also continued to draw spectators to the airfield. Plum Island also continued its connection to the military by remaining a base for the Civil Air Patrol and serving as a testing site in 1955 for the Raytheon Manufacturing Company’s new military radar equipment.
By the late 1960s, however, change was once again in the air. In 1966, Richard Hordon purchased the airport operation from Frothingham, who had run the airport for over thirty years. In 1968, the manor house at Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm, part of the estate from which the airport leased its land, became a National Historic Landmark. In 1971, Agnes and Amelia Little deeded the entire estate to Historic New England (then the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities) with life rights. A new era for the airport had begun.
Pictured: United States Airforce Reserve Major Carlyle Taylor With Aeronca Sedan, 1948. Courtesy of Charles Eaton III.
In 1971, when the Little sisters deeded their estate to Historic New England, they also renewed Hordon’s lease for twenty years with two options for five-year extensions. With the long-term picture in mind, Hordon extended the asphalt runway and added “T” hangars at the east end of the airport. Commercial activity also continued. One report estimated that the airport saw 25,000 flights a year, with twenty-four planes permanently based there. It offered flight services for scenic and business purposes, aircraft maintenance, pilot training, and banner towing, as well as serving as a base for crop-dusting, aerial photography, parcel delivery, and occasional medflights.
During the 1970s, a vintage plane restoration business also came to Plum Island. Airline pilot Geert Frank, operating under the name Kensington Aircraft Ltd., restored a large number of World War II era planes and several antique planes. Private customers of his services included Hugh Downs, a television personality famous for his stints as an anchor on 20/20, The Today Show, and an announcer for The Tonight Show, and Richard Bach, the author of the 1970 bestselling novel popular among private pilots because of its strong aviation theme, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Bach was not only a customer, but also part owner of Kensington Aircraft Ltd. He and Downs used the vintage planes in a movie about barnstorming based on his novel Nothing by Chance.
In October 1977, the airport faced perhaps its biggest hardship to date when a fire (pictured, courtesy of Charles Eaton III) destroyed the earlier hangars, the office building, and several antique aircraft parts and classic cars housed in the hangars. Before the remains could be completely cleared away and rebuilding started, the blizzard of February 1978 caused extensive flooding, damaging the remaining hangars and destroying several planes. Throughout the clearing process, the Newburyport Daily News continually noted the way the community rallied around Hordon to offer help and support to get the airport back up and running.
After the facilities reopened, commercial activity continued much as it had before, though somewhat reduced. Throughout the rest of the century, the airfield also remained a popular spot for both aviation and non-aviation events. Air shows and fly-ins continued to be popular affairs, as well as circuses, horse shows, fairs, craft shows, and war reenactments.
Upon Amelia Little’s death in 1986, the Little property, along with the private lease to the airport which was set to expire in 2001, passed into the ownership of Historic New England. As the airport approached the end of its lease, debate began over its fate.
In recent years the airport had run into problems over upkeep and its usage as fair grounds. Historic New England planned to forgo renewing the lease. When plans for closing the airport were made public in December 1999, the local community rallied around Plum Island airfield. Through letter writing, meetings with Historic New England, and articles in local newspapers, the New England aviation and local communities voiced their appreciation of the airport. They cited not only its recreational and economic benefits but also the historical role of Plum Island as the site of some of the earliest flights in New England.
By the end of 2000, Historic New England had decided that keeping the airport open would be in the best interests of the public, as well as in keeping with the organization’s mission to document twentieth-century history.
The new leaseholder was to be a non-profit organization under the name of Plum Island Community Airfield, Inc. (PICA), which developed from the grassroots group that had taken a very active part in trying to keep the airport open. PICA worked to develop a plan that would keep the airport in operation while simultaneously promoting local aviation history.
PICA signed a new five-year lease in July 2001, and with Victor Capozzi as airfield manager, Plum Island Airport was reopened on August 25, 2001. In 2002, PICA also opened the Burgess Aviation Museum – located in the former Cockpit Café – which documents Plum Island’s part in New England aviation. Capozzi managed the airfield until September 2002, followed by Eagle East Aviation, which managed it until 2005. PICA managed the airfield itself for the final year of its lease.
In 2006, Steve Noyes of Newbury took over the lease with Historic New England and now manages it as a non-profit organization under the name Plum Island Aerodrome. He immediately built a new hangar (pictured, courtesy of Alex Hasapis), where he houses a working aircraft restoration museum to complement the Burgess Aviation Museum. The airport also continues to give airplane rides, house private planes, give flight lessons, perform aircraft maintenance work, and remain an active member of the community.