Noisy Neighbors Upstairs

part one of three

In the 1950s, there were three sources of low-flying aircraft over Hicksville: Mitchel Air Force Base (spelled with only one L) at Uniondale, Republic in Farmingdale, and Grumman in Bethpage .  Their air traffic flew mostly at the behest of Uncle Sam, and it often was noisy – the military rarely stipulated that its airplanes had to be quiet.  Sometimes, depending on where in Hicksville you happened to be, for several seconds the noise overhead might rattle brains and windows alike.

As a child, I was too busy gawking to think much about exactly why those airplanes criss-crossed the sky over my house.  This article – the first of three – looks back, and talks about just what was in those skies because of Mitchel AFB, and why it was there.  There will be two later articles, covering respectively the air traffic we saw because of Republic Aviation and Grumman Aircraft.

Please note that these three articles will not appear in consecutive months.  In between, Hixtory articles will cover other topics related to Hicksville , giving you readers a break from all these airplanes. J

Mitchel Air Force Base

When aviation was new, the flat grasslands near Mineola and Garden City attracted a great deal of interest.  Multiple airfields were built there; by 1917, the area was even called the Hempstead Plains Aerodrome.   As America ’s entry into World War I neared, one of the airfields was expanded, and it went on to train hundreds of aviators for the U.S. Army (there was no separate Air Force yet).

After the war’s end, that airfield – its name changed from Hazelhurst to Mitchel Field – continued on as an Army facility.

Mitchel Field was NOT named after Gen. Billy Mitchell, the “father of the Air Force.”

 

It was named after John Purroy Mitchel, a former Mayor of New York City .  Almost immediately after he completed flight training for service in World War I, he was killed in an airplane accident.

 

Between the World Wars, it was used both for the military and for other purposes, such as air races, competitive parachute jumping, air speed record attempts, etc.

The airfield was busy during World War II for many reasons.  It was home to the national Air Defense Command.  When new North Atlantic air defenses were being built, aircraft from Mitchel flew supplies and equipment as far east as Greenland .  The field was used to stage flights of Europe-bound bombers and crews.  And for a time, it also was the operational base for patrols of the 4th Antisubmarine Squadron, which used specially modified B-24Ds like this one:

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When the United States Air Force became a separate service in 1947, Mitchel Field was renamed Mitchel AFB.  Below left is an aerial view that shows how Mitchel and the area to its north looked at this time.  The two ovals to the upper right are Roosevelt Raceway, a track for harness racing, built on the grounds of a 1930s automobile race course.  In the open area to its left, the crossing lines are old runways – this was Roosevelt Field, from which Charles Lindbergh departed on his famous 1927 Transatlantic flight.  The land it occupied is now the site of the shopping complex of the same name.

In the mid-1950s, the base hosted an unusual unit: the 2nd Tow Target Squadron, which existed so that anti-aircraft installations in the eastern U.S. could practice their skills.  Its planes would fly over coastal waters on the Atlantic seaboard (including Montauk), along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, and along those of the Great Lakes .  Local anti-aircraft batteries would practice, targeting large red cloth targets towed by the squadron’s airplanes, using cables 2,000 ft long.

To tow the targets, the squadron used a variety of aircraft.  Some were C-47 Skytrains, the type of airplane shown next to the Hixtory title block at the start of this article.  For faster towing, there were T-33 Shooting Star trainers, like the aircraft shown above right.  The Lockheed T-33 was a two-seat subsonic jet trainer, developed from the F-80, the first American jet aircraft to see wartime service.  I recall seeing Mitchel-bound T-33s scooting over my backyard in the years that the 2nd Tow unit was based there.

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America ’s civilian air traffic mushroomed after WW II, spurred in part by the abundance of ex-military pilots and surplus air transports (e.g., the first all-freight airlines were started in these years, using war-surplus cargo planes).  Mitchel AFB had long been home to squadrons of interceptor aircraft, but now, scrambling interceptors into such crowded skies would be too risky.  Though Mitchel had been seen as vital to New York City ’s air defenses, things had to change.  The interceptor squadrons were relocated to New Jersey .  Their departure was followed by the relocation of Air Defense Command to Colorado , and then the departures of other units.  The writing was on the wall (or in the sky) – Mitchel would eventually be closed.

By the late 1950s, only two units remained:

§        the 514th Troop Carrier Wing (an Air Force Reserve transport unit)

§        the First Air Force (a command group which coordinated Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units in the northeastern states)

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    Left photo by the author, taken at Mitchel AFB

The 514th’s Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcars began flying over Hicksville in 1954.  The transports were operated by Reservists, but they performed many duties for the regular Air Force.  When you heard one droning overhead – which happened often – it might have been carrying new aircraft engines to a USAF supply depot, heading south to supply new Navy outposts in Puerto Rico or San Salvador, delivering crucial humanitarian relief supplies to people in need, or doing almost any other moving job imaginable.

Vietnam veterans may recall seeing these transports during the early years of the conflict.  Some C-119s were converted into gunships and saw combat in the same war.

Among the less routine visitors to Mitchel were aircraft of many different types: interceptors, electronics surveillance aircraft, ground-attack aircraft, personnel transports, even tiny Piper Cubs.  Three examples follow.

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Like the T-33, the F-94 Starfire was derived from the F-80.  It served as an interceptor / fighter in Korea .  After returning home, Starfires played a key role in domestic air defense.  Air National Guard F-94s from the northeastern states were sometimes visitors to Mitchel, presumably due to the First Air Force’s regional coordination role for the ANG.  Note that the left photo above shows an F-94B of the Massachusetts Guard, one of the units which reported to the First AF.

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                                                         Right photo by the author, taken at Mitchel AFB

The Lockheed RC-121 Warning Star was an airborne surveillance center, evolved from the design of the Super Constellation.  Visualize a dark airliner cabin with few windows, the aisle flanked by rows of technicians in cubicles, monitoring radar screens and radios.  Bulges on the top and bottom of the airplane’s fuselage contained long-distance antennas and radar units.  Note that the left photo above also shows two F-94s.

Like the Flying Boxcar, the Warning Star went on to serve in the war in Vietnam .

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        Left photo by Anthony Wencer at Mitchel AFB

To the left is a Maine Air Guard F-89J Scorpion at Mitchel in 1959.  Northrop Scorpions were interceptors/fighters, sometimes armed with air-to-air missiles slung under their wings, as in the photograph on the right.  Because the missiles’ primitive guidance systems worked too slowly to track fast, nimble enemies (e.g., Soviet fighters), early air-to-air missiles were meant to target steady-flying long-range bombers.

Note: One type of missile that F-89Js might carry was the Genie, which had a 1.5 kiloton nuclear tactical warhead, supposedly capable of downing an entire flight of bombers with its explosion.

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By 1961, the last units at Mitchel had been reassigned to McGuire AFB in New Jersey .  No longer needed by the military, the base’s land had a new future.  As time went by, it became the site of (among other things) the Nassau Coliseum, the expanded campuses of Nassau Community and Hofstra, and the Cradle of Aviation Museum.

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Post Script

This is not Mitchel AFB, but…

Photo by Anthony Wencer

In 1958, while plans to wind down Mitchel AFB were being made, my father and I attended the annual Mineola Fair (what the Long Island Fair used to be called) at Roosevelt Raceway, practically next door to Mitchel on the old Hempstead Plains Aerodrome grounds.  On the way into the ticket gates, attendees could see on display a tactical guided missile on its mobile launcher. The TM-61 Matador was a surface-to-surface weapon with a flight range of over 600 miles; it typically was armed with a 20 kiloton nuclear warhead.

Looking back now as an adult, I see this display as a reminder of how real the Cold War sometimes felt, and I think how ironic it was to place such a thing at a traditional end-of-summer fair.  The underlying message, I guess, is that even when we didn’t think about it, the Cold War never really went away.

The Matador also was a symbol of how the world was changing – the USAF was moving into new realms, leaving Mitchel and many other traditional bases behind.

End of Part One