New York's first airport is being brought back from its ruins — and we checked it out

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About as far southeast as one can go in Brooklyn, at the very end of Flatbush Avenue, the site of New York City's first municipal airport bakes in the sun — its original purpose now just history.

These days, Floyd Bennett Field is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, a place where locals come to fish or camp, schoolchildren take tours, and disused hangars are transformed into sports complexes or public kayak storage space.

Far across the field from the terminal building, the colossal Hangar B houses the Historic Aircraft Restoration Project, a largely volunteer organization working to restore a significant collection of vintage aircraft to museum condition.

Floyd Bennett Field Airport 10

When it opened in 1931, the airport was a state-of-the-art facility designed to accommodate a rapidly expanding aviation industry.

It would host some of the best-known aviators of the period, people like Howard Hughes, Amelia Earhart, Wiley Post, and Roscoe Turner.

The field is named after Floyd Bennett, who earned the congressional Medal of Honor after he and partner Richard E. Byrd became the first men to fly to the North Pole. While their claim is now disputed, at the time it was a highlight of the "Golden Age of Aviation."

Eventually, the airport lost business to Newark Airport, which was much more convenient for traveling New Yorkers. The field would be turned into a naval air station just a decade after it opened, serving as a base for training and patrol and antisubmarine aircraft for much of the Cold War, Lincoln Hallowell, a park ranger who has served as a de facto historian of the field for 16 years, told Business Insider.

Hallowell led us on a tour of the field. Here's what we saw.

This is the terminal building. Through the Great Depression, it greeted the very few people who could afford to fly.

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But Newark Airport proved much more convenient, and Floyd Bennett lost business.

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When the military took over, the beautiful art deco interior was ignored. The National Park Service restored it to match old photographs.

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Artists recreated scenes from the history of transportation around the ceiling ...

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... and even the floor is a thing of beauty.

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The stained-glass skylight contains only one original panel; the rest had to be recreated.

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Here's a portrait of Floyd Bennett. He and his partner, Richard Byrd, took credit for being the first to fly to the North Pole, though their claim has since been disputed. After returning, the two men were awarded the Medal of Honor and became national heroes.

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The original control tower will be restored next, which will involve removing quite a bit of lead paint.

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The helicopters flying overhead are part of the world's first police aviation unit. The unit has been based at Floyd Bennett since 1929, when it was founded to combat high-speed boats smuggling alcohol during Prohibition.

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All of that glass means that in the summer, the "cab" gets very hot. So hot, in fact, that during World War II male and female air traffic controllers would work only in short shifts — and usually wearing only their underwear, Hallowell said.

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A tunnel leads under the tarmac to keep passengers away from moving propellers. It's a sort of precursor to the modern jetway. The National Park Service hopes to restore the tunnel one day.

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After commercial operations left, the Air National Guard used one of the tunnels as a pistol range.

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As the paint chips and fades away, the markings of past air services, airlines, and Navy squadrons on the hangars reveal layers of history.

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It's enjoyable to try to decode them.

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The terminal building is also loaded with artifacts from the field's past.

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Using the engraved serial number and some help from Hamilton Standard, a propeller manufacturer still in business today, Hallowell traced this wooden propeller, found on a nearby island, to an aircraft that crashed shortly after takeoff from Floyd Bennett Field.

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It's hard to believe that just 40 years after this propeller was used, men would walk on the moon.

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The taxiways are now used as public roads, which makes for an odd sight. Today, all of this wonderful concrete is often used for cycling and RC-car races. Much of the field has "returned to nature," Hallowell said.

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The doors of Hangar B. The Navy intended the World War II-era structure to be temporary. That was the case with hangars built to the same designs at naval air stations around the world.

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It's big. In fact, it makes the aircraft inside look like toys.

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Inside is a paradise of old aircraft. Like this Beechcraft C-45, most are from the legacy of Navy and Marine aviation.

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A Douglas A-4, an attack aircraft once used by the Navy and the Marines.

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Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Navy veteran, flew one.

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This PBY Catalina has an interesting history. The US Navy lent the aircraft to Brazil's air force, which used it to patrol the Amazon River until eventually leaving it to rot.

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It was later flown back to the US in (questionable) condition, Hallowell said. HARP plans to return it to WWII spec.

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A Lockheed P-2 Neptune, another patrol and antisubmarine aircraft from the Cold War era.

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A replica of "Winnie Mae" created by HARP volunteers. The real aircraft, piloted by aviator Wiley Post, once flew around the world in a record eight days. Some of the best-known pilots of the golden age of flight — including Post, Howard Hughes, Amelia Earhart, and Roscoe Turner — landed at the field.

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Engines like this 18-cylinder Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp powered a huge variety of aircraft, from fighter-attack planes such as the Vought F4U Corsair and Republic P-47 to civilian airliners such as the Lockheed Constellation.

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A Grumman S-2E, a carrier-based submarine hunter, baking in the sun outside.

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The aircraft was a given to HARP free— provided its workers could transport it home themselves.

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This Boeing C-97, the military version of the Boeing 377, is under restoration by the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation.

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The four massive 28-cylinder radial engines were started this year, and a return to the air is likely in the near future. It will then tour the country.

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Over time, the National Park Service will find ways to use more and more of the field's facilities ...

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... and, it hopes, attract more visitors to this incredible place of history.

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