Weeks before the first “airport” in the nation would open at Atlantic City’s Bader Field, there was a business competition going on in the air.
In the months before the municipal airport’s debut on May 10, 1919, several carriers vied to be the first passenger service in the country. While flight was still an expensive proposition — and one still largely seen as a novelty — Atlantic City offered these up-start companies a pool of wealthy, leisured clientele.
“I imagine a lot of people were trying it just for the novelty,” said local historian Donald Nyce, 79, of Egg Harbor Township. “Those that could afford it were mostly day-trippers from the cities.”
While the innovations developed by the Federal Aviation Administration decades later in Egg Harbor Township would have global implications, Atlantic City and its first municipal airport, Bader Field, played an important role in the birth of commercial aviation.
The resort’s passenger service has had a rocky history since then, but the excitement was palpable in 1919.
Posters showed up in all the resort hotels announcing Stehlin Transportation Service, run by a U.S. Army aviator and stunt pilot who had just flown the Easter parade. His three planes, operating out of Bader Field, would carry tourists back to New York, Philadelphia and even San Francisco.
Given the limitations of flight at the time — cross-country flights still made headlines as late as 1933 — Lt. Stehlin’s San Francisco flights were probably an exaggeration.
Meanwhile, Glenn Curtiss — one of the stars of the 1910 Aero Meet held at Bader Field — was building four seaplanes at his “experimental airplane factory” on Long Island. An expansion to his sightseeing business, the new planes would ferry four to six passengers each between Atlantic City and New York.
Information about how successful these ventures were is scarce, but there was enough demand for a half-dozen passenger services to develop. Many built hangars along Maine Avenue, where sea planes could take off directly over Absecon Inlet.
Local historian Boo Pergament, 80, of Margate, said the airplane gave vacationers a new way to get to the popular beach resort in an era of unreliable roads and long train rides.
“They were all trying to hone in on Curtiss’ business venture,” he said. “And they lauded their safety record to make people feel comfortable and safe.”
E.K. Jacquith, a rival aviator who ran a similar service to Curtiss’ off Madison Avenue, charged patrons $15 for sightseeing trips down the Boardwalk and $75 to New York. Jacquith also advertised routes to as far away as Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and Charleston, S.C.
In 1929, the Curtiss Flying Service debuted a new route using a two-engine Sikorsky that could transport seven passengers to North Beach — a resort community in Queens that’s now part of LaGuardia Airport — in just 61 minutes. From there, a half-hour car ride would take passengers to the Hotel Biltmore on 42nd Street.
Bader Field had started out as a private enterprise owned by a group of aviators affiliated with the Atlantic City Aero Club, but the city purchased the property for $376,000 in 1922. Additional runways were added in 1929, but little else was done with the land. Most of the seaplane passenger services remained near the inlet, while private planes and smaller, land-based commuter flights flew from Bader Field.
By the 1930s, Bader Field’s limitations had become apparent to city officials. Larger tracts of land were considered in the hopes of attracting transatlantic flights.
“There is no use fooling ourselves ... as its location prevents Atlantic City from being a regular route stop,” one city official told the Atlantic City Press.
The locations included Great Island on the opposite side of Albany Avenue and 932 acres of wetlands in Egg Harbor Township, which would eventually become the site of today’s William J. Hughest Technical Center and the Atlantic City International Airport.
Pergament said many of Curtiss’ competitors bowed out in the late 1920s. While Curtiss himself died in 1930, his Atlantic City business continued on for a short time before it, too, was shuttered. In 1944, as the center of the city’s aviation industry had moved onshore, a hurricane destroyed Curtiss’ long-vacant hangar off Maine Avenue.
Atlantic City had held on to 84 acres of land in the Pomona section of Galloway Township for civil aviation and, in 1946, entered into a lease with Eastern Air Lines, which had previously operated some flights from Bader Field. It was one of the first major airlines to operate scheduled flights from what would become the Atlantic City International Airport.
But commercial flights have had a rocky history in Pomona, due largely to the growing popularity of air travel, said Richard Porcelli, the Barnegat Township author of a recent book on the history of Naval Air Station Atlantic City.
Starting in the mid-1950s, jet engines allowed airplanes to carry more passengers greater distances.
Despite the construction of a new civilian terminal in 1960 adjacent to what was then called the National Aviation Facilities Experimental Center, airline service was suspended for much of the 1970s while the airport was occupied by the Federal Aviation Administration. Aside from a few small passenger services and charter planes, most aviation remained at Bader Field until the mid-1980s.
Although officials had called for operations at Bader Field — with its short runways and flight paths over populated areas — to be scaled back as early as the 1930s, that didn’t begin in earnest until 1986. That May, a Cessna 414 crashed in the nearby neighborhood of Chelsea Heights immediately after takeoff, killing a passenger and an off-duty Atlantic City police officer. A piece of the Cessna’s propeller landed in the yard of then-City Councilman James Whelan.
The task of moving the center of commercial service from Bader Field to Atlantic City International Airport, or ACY, fell in large part to Stephen Williams, airport manager for Pan Am Management Systems from 1986 through 1990.
It was around that time that the Egg Harbor Township airport received its “international” designation, Williams said. The moniker wasn’t exactly disingenuous, he said, since there were regular flights between Atlantic City and Canada.
“We felt as though calling it ‘international’ gave it some panache,” he said.
The efforts of the city and its airport management contractor, Pan Am, were rewarded in 1988, when U.S. Air launched a service between ACY and Pittsburgh. That service continued until 1994, according to the South Jersey Transportation Authority.
The quasi-private SJTA took over airport operations in 1991. Currently, Miramar, Fla.-based Spirit Airlines — which started flying from ACY as Charter One in January 1991 — is the only year-round airline operating at the airport.
The SJTA’s takeover marked the final transition of commercial aviation from Bader Field, which remained open another 15 years for single-engine and small twin-engine private planes. It was finally closed in September 2006, after more than 87 years of service.
Last year, 1.4 million passengers flew from ACY on an average of 30 flights per day, according to SJTA spokeswoman Sharon Gordon.
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