Inside a dilapidated airport hanger and behind an unmarked door, I recently discovered one of them most unique museums in New York City. Floyd Bennett Field, set within the Jamaica Bay unit of Gateway National Recreation Area, was New York City's first municipal airport in 1931. The open runways and grassy fields are a dramatic change from the congested streets of Brooklyn, yet are located a mere half-hour from the northern reaches of the borough.
With the exception of one (an athletic facility), most of the original airport hangars are abandoned and sectioned off. The departures building has been restored to its original aesthetic and turned into a visitor center. After taking a walk through the center's small museum room, I grabbed a map and set out to explore the rest of the park.
Famous aviators such as Howard Hughes, Amelia Earhart, and Jacqueline Cochran all passed through these halls. I was particularly surprised to learn about record-breaking aviator Roscoe Turner and his strange choice of co-pilot: a pet lion named Gilmore (after one of his sponsors, of course). The lion had his own custom parachute and flew with Turner until he was too big to fit in the cabin.
My next stop was Hangar B, home to the Historic Aircraft Restoration Project (HARP). Run entirely by volunteers, the group's mission is to research and restore old aircrafts as accurately as possible. After nearly giving up before trying an unmarked side door, I was happily greeted by one of the HARP volunteers and shown around the facility.
Through a small passageway is the true highlight of the facility - the hanger. It was cold and the roof was dripping. Small puddles formed and lit up in the sunlight. The familiar melody of Glenn Miller's Moonlight Serenade reverberated through the facility made me feel like I'd stepped into the past. I wandered around, admiring the details of a variety of airplanes. I could tell HARP's work is a true labor of love.
The easiest way to reach Gateway National Recreation Area is by car (Belt Pky. or Flatbush Ave. south to the entrance) especially if you're going to explore the park. The flat, paved runways make for excellent bike riding or rollerblading. Hangar B is open Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.