Inside the History of Regional Airports in the Hudson Valley

Travel back to an era when independent, regional airports thrived. Though the tarmacs and air traffic control towers are long gone—their history remains.

There was a time when the flatlands of the Hudson Valley were sprinkled with small airports, a profusion nearly matching the number of shopping malls that exist in their wake today. A few of these fields date back to the dawn of aviation. Many bloomed in the wake of Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 solo transatlantic flight. And some flourished during the brief post-World War II private-flying boom, when pilots came back from battle determined to turn their wartime skills into careers.

A typical example was Poughkeepsie’s Red Oaks Mill Airport, once a bootleggers’ hangout conveniently sited for rum-running airplanes shuttling spirits from Canada to the New York City market. It was opened in 1927 by Poughkeepsie Mayor John Sague, who installed his barnstormer son-in-law John Miller to operate the field.

Miller eventually became an Eastern Air Lines captain and ultimately logged 22,000 flight hours, continuing to fly his own two Beech aircraft until he was 101, an FAA record. One of Miller’s earliest achievements was the first coast-to-coast flight in an autogyro, an unsuccessful invention that sought to combine the best traits of helicopters and airplanes. Amelia Earhart had boasted that she was about to set the record, but Miller beat her to the punch.

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On the western edge of the Hudson Valley, Grossinger’s Resort established its own airport, in Liberty, sometime between 1945 and 1947. It was a pioneering move for a resort of any kind, more than likely the first resort-owned airport in the country. Though the field was open to all pilots, Grossinger’s operated its own mini-airline to fly in guests, who were met by a “Grossinger’s Airport Service” car.

While boxer Rocky Marciano probably drove to the classic Borscht Belt spa, he sparred and worked out in one of the airport’s hangars; all that’s left of it today is a concrete floor and foundation. Its airstrip experienced one more glorious weekend of activity in August 1969, before ultimately closing in the early ‘70s. The famed Woodstock Music and Art Fair attracted many of the world’s greatest rockers to its stage, and some of them were transported to the festival via helicopter from the Grossinger strip. The festival had its own temporary helipad and also transported sick concert goers to the airport. Grossinger’s closed in 1986.

The Hudson Valley’s most historic landing strip served a single airplane just once and never became an airport. It was a patch of ground at the old Middletown Pleasure Grounds racetrack, where a record-setting pilot, Cal Rodgers, landed Vin Fiz, a Wright Model EX biplane with which he would go on to make the first-ever transcontinental flight, though it took him several months and many crashes. Orville Wright himself had predicted that Rodger’s airplane wouldn’t even make it to Chicago.

Regional Airports
Photo by David Frost/ Courtesy of The Old Rhinebeck Aerodome

Rodgers had started in Brooklyn, at the Sheepshead Bay racetrack, and Middletown was his first stop, after a meandering flight up the Hudson and over the then-challenging little Ramapo Mountains. It was also his first crash, when he tried to take off the next morning and couldn’t clear some electric wires. Rodgers rebuilt his airplane and moved it to what is now the Orange County fairgrounds for takeoff. Today, he could have used Randall Airport, a 2,800-foot paved runway just two miles southeast of Middletown, favored by ultralight pilots flying tiny airplanes just a bit more sophisticated than Vin Fiz.

The weedy, overgrown Stormville Airport, in the town of East Fishkill, was once the busiest lightplane field in the Hudson Valley. Although World War II regulations severely limited civilian flying within 50 miles of the East Coast, Stormville was far enough inland to be unrestricted yet still within range of Westchester and New York City pilots. In the 1950s, they were joined by local airplane restorer Cole Palen, an entrepreneurial pilot who would go on to establish the nearby Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome. Old Rhinebeck’s weekly summer air shows and vintage-aircraft displays became one of the major tourist destinations in the Valley.

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During the 1960s and ‘70s, it was said that more private pilots soloed and were ultimately granted private pilot ratings at Stormville than at any other private field in the Hudson Valley. At one point, the airport was home base for The French Connection, a famous husband-and-wife air-show team who ultimately died while practicing their impossibly close aerobatic routine. The French Connection had run an aerobatic-training school, and students would tumble, dive, and loop near the Green Haven Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison that held some of New York’s most famous mafia mobsters just half a mile east of the field. In the early 1990s, the field’s operator began hosting occasional flea markets. Today, the Stormville Airport Flea Market has overrun the runways, and the airport no longer exists.

On the western edge of the Hudson Valley, Grossinger’s established its own airport, in Liberty, sometime between 1945 and 1947. It was a pioneering move and more than likely the first resort-owned airport in the country.

In the broad, flat valley southeast of the Shawangunk Mountains, there existed for decades a ghost airport: two gleaming white runways and nearly a dozen taxiways but no terminal, no hangars, no parking ramps, no fuel pumps, and no airplanes. It was visible for miles to anyone flying over Orange County, but no pilot ever reported seeing anyone taking off or landing.

Unless they had been flying during World War II, for the spare-no-expense concrete runways had been built in the early 1940s by the Army Air Force as the Wallkill Auxiliary Army Airfield Number Two, more commonly known as Galeville Army Airfield. It was created specifically for the West Point aviation cadets flying out of Stewart Field (today known as New York Stewart International Airport), 16 miles to the southeast. At Galeville, they practiced and developed landing skills.

After the war, the Army used Galeville to test experimental parachutes and as a drop zone for the West Point jump team. Since there were no flight operations, the Galeville runways became the site of competitions known as autocrosses—cars racing against the clock around serpentine courses marked by traffic cones. Radio-control airplane modelers discovered the field, and for nearly 30 years, the Army allowed them access, though at times the modelers had to make way for the FBI, which used the field to train its agents in pursuit driving.

Today, the area is controlled by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and has been designated the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge, a bird sanctuary. Every trace of those expensive runways and taxiways has been removed or plowed under, to allow better drainage. From birdmen to birds in 80 years.

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Good Plane Fun

Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome
Photo by Phil (Ghost) Makanna/ Courtesy of Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome

Looking for a joyride? Throughout the summer, the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is offering 15-minute open cockpit biplane rides for up to four passengers to enjoy a thrilling aerial view of the Hudson Valley. You can also reserve a flight for a half-hour lighthouse tour along the river. If you’d rather stay on solid ground, there are air shows featuring WWI-era planes every weekend from June 17–October 15. Be sure to stop by the museum to view the hang gliders that inspired the Wright Brothers. For more information including tickets and event schedules, visit oldrhinebeck.org.

Related: Every Flight out of Newburgh’s Stewart International Airport

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