Wednesday, May 16, 2012
The Golden Age of Aviation returned to Gateway National Recreation Area’s Floyd Bennett Field on Saturday, May 5 when the William Fitts Ryan Visitor Center reopened to the public. The visitor center is housed in the former air terminal for New York City’s first municipal airport. Over two days, approximately 750 visitors enjoyed festivities including live music, swing dancing and tours of Gateway's collection of historic aircraft at Hangar B.
“It has taken three years of restoration to get this place to its 1930’s glory,” said Superintendent Linda Canzanelli at the opening ceremony. She also noted that, long before workers picked up their shovels and paintbrushes, NPS employees at Gateway and the Denver Service Center spent years planning the restoration.
The visitor center, named after Rep. William Fitts Ryan, will orient newcomers to Floyd Bennett Field. Paintings and panels depicting modes of transportation from the steam engine to the dirigible have been restored to their 1939 appearance. Exhibits show photos and newsreels from the airfield’s heyday, when aviators such as Amelia Earhardt and Wiley Post took off and landed at the airfield. Children can simulate flying in a mini-airplane or test paper airplanes in the new Discovery Room. Electrical, fire suppression, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems have been upgraded, while a new elevator has been added for increased accessibility.
Distinguished guests included Rep. Bob Turner, New York City Department of Parks and Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe and Northeast Regional Director Dennis Reidenbach. Polly Ryan and Leonard Ryan, the daughter and brother of the late congressman, also witnessed the ceremony.
“This famed airfield was not only a place where airplanes took flight,” said Reidenbach, “but where dreams caught wings and became reality.” Just Floyd Bennett Field was once the destination for pioneers in flight, today’s adventurers can go birding, biking, hiking and kayaking while they learn about aviation’s Golden Age.
The restoration project, contracted and managed by the National Park Service’s Denver Service Center, was funded by a $4.8 million grant from the Department of Defense. Recreation fee money provided an extra $1.2 million to complete the restoration. Several members of the Denver staff flew out to see the reopening.
The following day, the adventures of aviator Wiley Post were honored with the christening of a full-scale replica of the “Winnie Mae,” the Lockheed 5C Vega used by Post when he flew solo around the world. For seven years, HARP volunteers Dante DeMille and Hank Iken led the effort to build the replica from scratch based on a scale model. No plans for the plane are known to exist for the original craft. A second aircraft was christened as well: the N2S2 Steadman, a biplane used to train pilots.
The reopening also allowed the public to see HARP’s next major project, the C-47 Skytrain. This former Army cargo plane, which saw service in Italy at the end of World War II, is one of 40 New York City history projects competing in the National Trust’s Partners in Preservation contest. The top three organizations receiving the most votes will be awarded full funding for their projects. HARP would use the funds to remove corrosion to the metalwork, re-skin degraded flight surfaces and prepare the craft to be painted in an historically accurate manner. Voters can register through the PiP website at http://partnersinpreservation.com/ or vote via Facebook.