A recent visit to Brookhaven Calabro Airport, hidden behind a forest of trees and private homes and accessed by local Dawn Drive,, on a raw, late-March day whose steel wool sky was so low that it almost scratched you, revealed what was, but not necessarily what could be.
The ramp near Mid-Island Air Service was littered with mostly single-engine airplane types, punctuated by an occasional twin, and the almost unexpected sputter of an isolated propeller from a Cirrus SR-20 on this marginally visual flight rules (VFR) day cracked the silence like a hammer hitting a sheet of glass.
The blond brick structure at the field’s north end, the once-proud classroom and training monolith of Dowling College’s Aviation Education Center, stood frozen in time, promise of the past that failed to deliver the airport’s future.
The lone, low-level, cement block terminal, staffed by a single monitorer of the facility’s common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF), housed the equally shuttered luncheonette, nucleus, to a degree, of any general aviation airport, since it gave local and cross country pilots a destination and a purpose, and bore witness to numerous student pilot-instructor duos discussing airplane handling techniques over the years atop paper New York sectional charts doubling as tablecloths.
A glimpse into the rectangular room, which displayed a “Maintenance Shop” sign, revealed its former raison d’être, sporting circular stools, a lunch counter, a cold cut slicer, and a rusting coffee maker. A recent inquiry indicated interest and its resurrection as an eatery. Perhaps it also indicated its repurposed future.
The non-towered, dual-runway, 795-acre, public use general aviation airport, one mile north of the business district of Shirley in eastern Long Island, Suffolk County, was owned by the Town of Brookhaven.
Originally designated Mastic Flight Strip, it was constructed at the end of World War II, in 1944, on 325 acres to provide logistical support for the US Army Air Corps, after which its title was transferred to New York State and ultimately Brookhaven Town’s Division of General Aviation in 1961, current owner. Given its present “Calabro” moniker, it was named after Dr. Frank Calabro, who was instrumental in its development, but who, along with his wife, Ruth, met their untimely demises in an aircraft accident three decades later.
Construction and expansion yielded a rising crop of hangars, shops, fixed base operators (FBOs), the present terminal, and a second concrete runway to supplement the first in 1963.
Those, including 4,200-foot Runway 6-24 and 4,255-foot Runway 15-33, are both paved and lighted, but the latter features an instrument landing system (ILS), equipped and maintained by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
$1.5 million of the collective $5 million in federal Department of Transportation (DOT) grants, most of which were earmarked for nearby Long Island MacArthur Airport in Islip, facilitated the recent beacon and taxiway lighting system replacements.
“We need to maintain runways, lights, structures, and navigational aids,” according to Marten W. Haley, Brookhaven Town’s Commissioner of General Services, which includes the airport itself. “Everything has a finite lifetime.”
The airport’s several fixed base operators and other tenants include Brookfield Aviation, Mid-Island Air Service, Northeast Air Park, Ed’s Aircraft Refinishing, the Long Island Soaring Association, Island Aerial Air (for banner towing), NAASCO Northeast Corporation (which performs airplane and helicopter repair and overhaul), and Sky Dive South Shore.
Dowling College’s School of Aviation, once the airport’s cornerstone, but closed when the Oakdale-based university itself declared bankruptcy and ceased operations in 2016, had offered bachelor’s degrees in Aerospace Systems Technology and Aviation Management, and had participated in the FAA Air Traffic Control Collegiate Training Initiative. A fleet of private pilot aircraft and Fiasca flight simulators had enabled its students to earn private, instrument, multi-engine, instructor (CFI), and commercial ratings.
Although the field has principally entailed general aviation flight activity, there have been a handful of other events throughout its history.
As the new base for the former, 44-passenger Swissair Convair CV-440 Metropolitans operated by Cosmopolitan Airlines from Farmingdale’s Republic Airport and its self-named Cosmopolitan Sky Center after they had been transferred here, for example, they, along with a smattering of other types, offered junkets to Atlantic City’s Bader Field.
The Grand Old Airshow, held in 2006 and 2007, was created to transport spectators to earlier, biplane and World War II eras and showcase Long Island aviation.
Having enticed visitors through flyers and its website, it had urged them to “join us this year as we go back in time to celebrate Long Island’s Golden Age of Aviation,” a time when “biplanes graced the skies decades ago.” It continued its pitch by offering the experience of “bygone days of aviation, as World War I dogfights, open-cockpit biplanes, World War II fighters, and, of course, the famous Geico Skytypers, soar through Long Island’s blue skies.”
The shows themselves had featured antique vehicles and static aircraft displays, the latter encompassing TBM Avengers, Fokker Dr-1s, Nieuports, and Messerschmitt Me-109s, while aerial stunts had included comedy maneuvers performed in Piper J-3 Cubs by “randomly chosen” audience member Carl Spackle; Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome-borrowed Delsey Dives and balloon bursts targeted by Great Lakes Speedsters, Fleet 16Bs, and PT-17 Stearmans; speed races between runway-bound motorcycles and airborne, low-passing PT-17s; aerobatics by SF-260s; and skywriting by Sukhoi 29s.
A Sikorsky UH-34D Sea Horse Marine helicopter, used for combat rescue in Vietnam, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and by NASA during the Project Mercury astronaut recovery program, had demonstrated search-and-rescue procedures.
Both Long Island aviation and formation flying had also been well represented. Shows had featured Byrd, N3N, Fleet Model 16B, and N2S Stearman aircraft from the Bayport Aerodrome Society; P-40 Warhawks and P-51 Mustangs from Warbirds over Long Island; F4U Corsairs from the American Airpower Museum; and North American SNJ-2s from the Republic Airport-based Geico Skytypers.
Vintage vehicle and aircraft rides were available. Spectators brought their own lawn chairs and lined them up next to the active runway amid period dress and speeches given by Tuskegee Airmen. Concession trucks sold everything from hot dogs to ice cream and souvenirs and numerous aviation-related schools and associations established booths.
The Grand Old Airshow, held during two consecutive falls, was a single-day, single-visit, outdoor glimpse toward the sky where Long Island’s multi-faceted aviation history was written and where it was recreated.
A 2008 a non-flying tribute to Vinny Nasta was also offered. A Riverhead High School art teacher who hailed from Wading River, he lost his life at 47 years of age when the reproduction Nieuport 24 he was flying at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome nose-dove into the woods after its mock dogfight with another replica, of a Fokker Dr.1 Triplane, on August 17 of that year.
Dr. Tom Daley, a former Dowling College Dean of Aviation, Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome Air Show Director, and creator of the Brookhaven Grand Old Airshow, was forced to discontinue what had become an increasingly popular autumn event.
“There was some local opposition to the show,” he said, “and everyone had their hand out. I was required to give x-number of dollars for security, x-number for emergency medical presence. I couldn’t do it anymore. There was no way I could run an air show and meet expenses with expectations like that.”
Today, Brookhaven Calabro Airport’s 217 based aircraft, 92 percent of which are single-engine types, five percent of which are multi-engine, and three percent of which are gliders, provide most of its activity. For the 12-month period ending on March 25, 2005, there had been 135,100 annual airplane movements, or an average of 370 per day, and 99 percent of them belonged to the general aviation category, enabling student pilots to pursue licenses and practice weekday touch-and-go’s at a non-towered airfield.
Hinging on this segment of aviation is its future.