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What Goes Up Must Come Down: The Evolution of Airports

Jeffrey Syken

"What Goes Up Must Come Down"
Sir Isaac Newton

Newton may have been thinking apples falling from trees onto his cranium, but this simple expression of the laws of gravity applies to even bigger objects. When heavier-than-air flight was being proven-out over the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C., by brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright at the dawn of the 20th century, little did they – or anyone else - realize the far-reaching impact it would have, not only on a fledgling aviation industry, but also on the vast infrastructure that would be necessary to support it. The First World War introduced a new dimension to warfare and, by necessity, hastened the advancement of aviation technology many fold. With war’s end, the Barnstorming-era began in earnest whereby the public was introduced to and given demonstrations of the potentialities of flight. However, nothing would kick-start the aviation industry more than the “Lindbergh Effect.”

Charles Lindbergh’s May 1927 transatlantic flight captured the public’s imagination like nothing else before and provided the impetus for communities around the nation to improve landing fields or build anew proper airports. In many ways, it was akin to the railway boom of the previous century whereby any self-respecting town or city had to have a “New Gateway” – an airport, without which its prospects were lessened. Not only did a community have to have an airport, it had to be located on an easily accessible site that would be large and flat enough to accommodate the airport’s runways and auxiliary facilities – not an easy task, especially in crowded urban areas. This “Prime Convenience” spawned many schemes for “mid-city" airports that would be located atop skyscrapers or over other urban infrastructure (i.e. piers) and even on man-made islands in adjoining bodies of water.

One way air travel was successfully brought close to urban areas would be STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing) and VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) aircraft such as autogiros and helicopters, respectively. In the pre-WWII years, it was possible, in many instances, to locate a modern airport in close proximity to a large urban center. However, with the postwar boom in air travel and the ever-increasing volume of passengers and new technologies (i.e. jet aircraft), the majority of postwar airports would be located on the outer extremities of urban centers. A good example of this trend can be found in New York City. LaGuardia (originally “New York Municipal”) Airport started as a private airfield in the 1920s and evolved into a commercial airport in close proximity to Manhattan by the early 1940s. However, it could not meet the demands for air travel NYC was experiencing thus, the marshes of Jamaica Bay would become the location of one of the first “Superairports” – Idlewild (renamed "John F. Kennedy International") Airport.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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