The Airports of Future Past- STOLports part one

Part one of this two-part post considers the history of the STOLport concept, using New York Times articles from the 1960’s and 70’s to reconstruct the largely untold story of the Manhattan STOLport, and examining what came next.

Tiny airports within cities; aircraft shuttling commuters between international airports and urban centres; downtown to downtown flights. You’d be forgiven for thinking you are starting to read about the future of aviation conceptualised by Uber Elevate, Lilium, or other Urban Air Mobility advocates. In reality this is a historical tale, as long before Uber or ‘flying cars’ existed, everything listed at the start of this paragraph did.

A STOLport is, according to the ICAO, “a unique airport designed to serve airplanes with exceptional short-field performance capabilities.” STOL (standing for Short Take-Off and Landing) aircraft can use runways shorter than 1,500m while still being able to cruise at speeds of 200-300km/h and carry a reasonable passenger load. The production of STOL aircraft, like the DHC-6 ‘Twin Otter’ from 1965 onwards, opened up the possibility of small STOLports being located close to city centres. These STOLports could then offer downtown-downtown air connections to other nearby cities, or shuttle flights between the city centre and an international airport further out of town. By the late 1960’s the STOLport concept seemed incredibly enticing.

A 1974 Houston Metro Airlines timetable showing flights from the Clear Lake STOLport to Houston Intercontinental Airport. From the collection of Björn Larsson and available at Airline Timetable Images (http://www.timetableimages.com/index.htm)

Houston Metro Airlines’ flights between Clear Lake City STOLport and Houston Intercontinental Airport were an archetypal portrayal of the types of operations STOLports were designed for.1 The 15-minute flight was primarily meant to serve NASA’s Johnston Space Centre, and in the early 1970’s was operated up to 24 times daily on a DHC-6. Similarly, Walt Disney World’s STOLport – which hosted Shawnee Airlines’ short hops to Orlando – is now the subject of numerous YouTube videos. However, one key aspect of the STOLport’s history is still seemingly overlooked. Arguably the make-or-break project for the STOLport concept took place in Manhattan.

In January 1968, transportation officials in New York claimed that a “network of STOLports may well be developed in the city within five years.”New York, with its large population of wealthy businesspeople and commuters, was seen as the key location for unlocking the STOLport concept. Many in the industry believed that if the STOLport didn’t work in New York, then it couldn’t work anywhere. Consequently, by August 1968 a STOL runway had been constructed at La Guardia Airport, and Eastern Airlines were operating flights to Washington and Boston using 64-seat Breuget 941 (aka McDonnell Douglas 188) aircraft. Simultaneously, the city’s commissioner of Marine and Aviation, Charles Leedham, announced he was expecting plans for a $30million STOLport in downtown Manhattan by the end of the year. Leedham’s announcement was met by opposition from residents, one of whom wrote to the New York Times saying a STOLport would be an “encroachment on decent residential life.

Nevertheless, in February 1969 the City announced plans for a STOLport in the Hudson Yards neighbourhood of Manhattan. Located on the riverfront, the STOLport would consist of a 2000ft long runway atop a 10-storey building. Officials claimed that the height of the building would keep approaching aircraft clear of the masts of ships sailing down the Hudson, as well as reducing noise on the ground. The building would contain office space to be leased to the US Postal Service and other concerns servicing airlines. The proposal was described rather plainly as “Very good” by MTA chairman William Ronan and enthusiastically supported by Leedham, though it continued to amass growing opposition from the general public and environmental groups. The Port Authority estimated the project would cost $150million- a significant increase from the $30million suggested by Leedham the previous year. Even so, just one week after the proposal was published, Eastern Airlines chairman Floyd D. Hall publicly praised the plans and confirmed that Eastern were ready to invest in STOL aircraft as soon as construction was assured.

An Artists impression of a Manhattan STOLport. Retrieved from NYC Department of Records & Information Services: http://nycma.lunaimaging.com/luna/servlet/detail/RECORDSPHOTOUNITARC~21~21~613377~126653:dma_21180?qvq=q:proposed&mi=69&trs=652

Despite eager initial support, the project stalled. In November of 1969 TWA chairman Charles C. Tillinghast Jr. asserted that the STOLport “would create impossible highway congestion and be unpalatable to the community on grounds of aesthetics, noise and air pollution.” Tillinghast’s comments effectively killed the proposed Manhattan STOLport design. Nevertheless, this setback did nothing to quell the determination of Federal Aviation Administrator John H. Shaffer, who was still convinced that a STOLport should be built. In July 1970 he awarded American Airlines $36,000 to explore the idea of building a smaller, cheaper STOLport in the same location. The report, published by American in September 1970, claimed a ‘floating’ STOLport on the Hudson river was technically feasible at a cost of only $14.5million. By this time however, community opposition had grown so strong that even Shaffer himself was wary of publicly endorsing the plan.

By March of 1971, any further consideration of the STOLport project was officially terminated due to increasingly heated community opposition. A study conducted in 1972 went on to conclude that even if either STOLport had been built, operations would not have been profitable for airlines.

The failure of the Manhattan STOLport project did indeed mean that there would be few efforts to replicate the STOLport concept elsewhere. Nevertheless, the concept still had its headstrong supporters.

Having designed their 50-seat DHC-7 aircraft specifically for STOL operations, De Havilland Canada were especially keen to prove that STOLports could still work. With support from De Havilland Canada, Victoria STOLport in Montreal was built on land previously used as a car park for the 1967 World’s Fair. Regular flights to Ottawa began in 1974. The flights were operated using a fleet of six DHC-6’s by Air Canada subsidiary Airtransit. Flights continued for two years before the project was defunded and discontinued. As the Manhattan study had predicted, it was concluded that the operations would not be economically feasible without a Government subsidy.2

De Havilland Canada promotional material advertising one benefit of the DHC-7 and a STOLport.

Even into the 1980’s De Havilland Canada continued to propose ever-crazier schemes for STOLports. One such proposal, reported on by the Guardian newspaper in February 1980, suggested a floating STOLport be positioned in the North Sea to serve the UK’s Oil and Gas industry.3 This ‘floating airport’ would take the form of a 2000ft long barge (approximately twice the length of the USS Ronald Reagan), and would host standard airport amenities including aircraft hangars, as well as a fleet of helicopters to transfer workers arriving at the STOLport onto Oil platforms. Despite promising “socking great savings” in fuel costs for Oil companies, this floating STOLport understandably never got further than a concept.

All was not lost for the STOLport though. Good news came when a STOLport proposal in London began to gain popularity. Championed by Brymon Airways, a company part owned by De Havilland Canada, plans for a STOLport in the London Docklands were resonating with politicians. In 1983 a public enquiry into the Docklands Airport was undertaken, one of the final steps before the project could officially be given the go-ahead. As part of this enquiry, Brymon brought one of their DHC-7’s to the disused quays in the Docklands. The flights (as seen in this YouTube clip which is well worth a watch) showcased the DHC-7’s STOL capabilities and quietness, and were a part of the reason the airport’s construction was permitted. London STOLport went on to become London City Airport, and since then has successfully maintained service to both domestic and international destinations.

Overwhelmingly though, it seems that the STOLport’s history is marred with failure. However, it is still possible to prove that STOLports are vital in the current day, and perhaps there is yet more hope for their future. All this is explored in the second instalment of this post, which you can read here.

References:

All the New York Times articles and other academic papers I used to create this post were accessed via my University’s online library and may not be publicly available without subscription. Nevertheless, in the interest of completeness I have still listed them all here.

1 http://www.airfields-freeman.com/TX/Airfields_TX_Houston_SE.htm#clearlake

2 http://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/2944514

3 Floating airport planned for oil fields; The Guardian (1959-2003); Feb 9, 1980

Manhattan STOLport archive:

  • SECOND STOLPORT IS PROPOSED HERE; New York Times; Jan 7, 1968
  • City Expects Sponsors and Site For Hudson STOLport in 1968; New York Times (1923-Current file); Aug 7, 1968
  • Against STOLport Grimm, Edward New York Times; Aug 15, 1968
  • City Plans to Build Hudson STOLport; New York Times (1923-Current file); Feb 5, 1969
  • City STOLport Proposal Draws Official Praise and Skepticism; New York Times; Feb 6, 1969
  • AIRLINE OFFICIAL URGES STOLPORT: Eastern Chairman Praises Plan for Facility Here; New York Times; Feb 16, 1969
  • T.W.A. Chief Says STOLport Here Is Unlikely; New York Times; Nov 7, 1969
  • Transport Notes: STOLport Is Urged; New York Times; Dec 18, 1969
  • F.A.A. Backs $36,000 Study Of a Floating STOLport Here; New York Times; Jul 3, 1970
  • Technical Feasibility of Floating Interim Manhattan STOLport: https://apps.dtic.mil/docs/citations/AD0715223
  • STOLPORT CALLED DEAD ISSUE HERE; New York Times; Mar 21, 1971
  • A study of the Feasibility of a Commuter STOL Aircraft Transportation System for the Long Island – New York Area; Goldblatt, Reuben B; Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn; 1972
  • Chelsea STOLport—The Airline View; Ransone, Robin K; SAE Transactions, 85; 1974

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