There was a time before Sept. 11, 2001, a time before hijackings to Cuba, before security checkpoints and passenger screening. There was a time at Rochester’s airport when people met their visitors at the arrival gate or walked to the gate with them for last goodbyes.
Hometown residents enjoyed watching airplanes, travelers and the variety of activities in the lobby and the concourses. Couples could enjoy a fine dinner at the Café Avion and watch the airplanes come and go. Back then, infrequent travelers often bought a special life insurance policy at a small counter in the main lobby and business travelers could conduct a last-minute transaction at the airport branch of Central Trust Bank. Seat assignments for departing passengers took place, if at all, at the gate 20 minutes before departure.
Today, standing in our 21st century passenger terminal, it is easy to forget the path that led us to the present. More than 2 million passengers arrive and depart from Rochester through our airport each year, quite a change from the 1,040 passengers of 1930, shortly after Colonial-Western Airways began scheduled air service in 1928. Some may pine for that old, simpler structure; the one with a clock tower rising above the entrance. A few might recall a series of murals depicting the history of transportation, a backdrop for ticket counters and the main lobby.
One of the first municipal airports
On Feb. 21, 1921, the Rochester Common Council approved the purchase of 110 acres of open field along Scottsville Road from the Britton Stone and Supply Corp. Four miles west of downtown, it was already in use by individual pilots who took off and landed without benefit of runways. With Britton Field, Rochester became one of the first cities in the nation to own an airport.
One wonders why a city would spend $48,000 for a patch of land used for a few experimental military operations and for the antics of adventurous “flyboys.” Enthusiasts had plenty of ideas for the use of the aero plane, but little aviation industry actually existed. The mostly bi-winged, fabric-covered vehicles, each with a single small engine, looked neither safe nor practical. It would seem there was no reason for a city to spend its resources on this type of aviation.
It had been nearly 20 years since the Wright brothers recorded their first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Nearby, in New York’s Hammondsport, Glen Curtiss had competed for that honor and nearly won it. He was also building a variety of “aero drones,” had won the Scientific American trophy and held U.S pilot’s license #1. Through his ventures and others’ interest in the aero plane, the community became aware and excited about aviation.
World War I spurred interest
An early productive use of the new flying machine had been for reconnaissance flights over German-held territory during World War I. Many who learned to fly over France came home filled with enthusiasm for a new career. They knew the drone of an airplane engine from somewhere out of sight would turn heads and draw attention. They were aware that, dressed in flight suits and goggles, and sitting fully exposed to the open air, they would entertain. Air shows and barnstorming brought interested crowds who watched from the ground and craved for more.
However, it wasn’t these aerial exhibitions that attracted city government. It is likely that, back in 1911, the actions of a visiting pilot, Lincoln Beachey, brought the first local attention to a possible use for the aero plane. On a sunny, Sunday afternoon in October, Beachey demonstrated the delivery of mail by air. In front of an estimated 35,000 people, he climbed aboard his airplane with a sack of mail on his lap, took off from Crittenden Park, flew over the river, and dropped the mail bag to an associate in Genesee Valley Park.
This demonstration, also being conducted in other cities, raised a nationwide interest in the potential for long-range delivery of mail by air. As the federal government grew serious about this process, businesses began putting pressure on local governments to arrange for safe and adequate landing facilities. It is likely that Beachey’s demonstration created a significant impact on the city’s interest in airport ownership.
It took seven years of aviation growth and reports of successes elsewhere before the city would build a worthy infrastructure at Britton Field.
Scheduled air service begins
On June 1, 1928, a plane owned by Colonial Western Airways, predecessor of American Airlines, landed in Rochester on a freshly built runway and taxied up to the airline terminal.
Time and technology from that small beginning to the present have brought our community the modern transportation facility we now see and use for both business and pleasure. The results of that first year of operation are not recorded, but a comparison of statistics from 1930 and 2018 show the remarkable achievements of our local airport.
|Total flight operations||1,463||82,878|
|Total value of facility||$385,000||$24,999,000|
Frederick (Rick) Iekel enjoyed a long and satisfying career from 1965 to 1993, first as airline agent, then as assistant airport manager and airport manager (1989–1993) of the Greater Rochester International Airport.
Fascinating story of time and progress. I’m interested in taking the future flights. Nice writing.
RICK IEKEL: Send me a note and I will tell you the reason the City purchased Britton’s Field. A field that had been used for aviation since 1910!