Fitzmaurice Flying Field: Pt. 1

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Pictured from left: Kohl, Fitzmaurice and Von Huenfeld.

This is the first of two articles on Fitzmaurice Flying Field and how James Fitzmaurice became famous enough to have a street and an airfield named after him.
Colonel James Fitzmaurice died 50 years ago this September, a fact that may be of little interest to readers other than those who live on Fitzmaurice Street in the middle of Massapequa Park. Readers on two adjacent streets (Kohl and Von Huenfeld) may also wonder about the origins of these names. The link among these three men is that they flew the first plane that traveled east to west across the Atlantic, from Ireland to Labrador in 1928. Hermann Kohl was a German aviator who had achieved fame in World War I and Baron Gottfried Von Huenfeld was a German nobleman who purchased the plane they flew. Named the Bremen, it was a Junkers product, designed by a German company that produced several hundred variants: lightweight, made of corrugated aluminum, streamlined and with excellent visibility from the cockpit. Many Junkers planes set speed and altitude records and were used worldwide as mail planes.

Fitzmaurice and Kohl were experienced aviators, the former being Commandant of the Irish National Army Air Service created by the new (1922) Irish Free State. Von Huenfeld was a wealthy aviation enthusiast. All three were aware of the challenges associated with flying east to west, and were eager to do so, as were many others after Charles Lindbergh flew from Roosevelt Field to Paris in April 1927. Several aviators followed his direction in succeeding months, but nobody was able to go the other direction. The main problem was the prevailing wind condition. Wind blows west to east across the Atlantic, and never in a predictable pattern, so the small planes that existed in the 1920s would need sufficient power and fuel, as well as a reliable navigation system, to fly westward successfully.

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A historical marker for Fitzmaurice Flying Field

Kohl and Von Huenfeld knew about Fitzmaurice and wanted to partner with him because of his skill and location. The Irish Air Force was quartered at Baldonnel Airfield, southwest of Dublin, and therefore, closer to the North American continent that any other airfield. Fitzmaurice had tried to fly across the Atlantic in September 1927 with two other Irish pilots, but they abandoned their flight after flying into turbulent weather.

Kohl and Von Huenfeld contacted Fitzmaurice and the three agreed to attempt the crossing in the spring of 1928. They waited until April 12—almost one year after Lindbergh’s flight—and took off from Baldonnel at 5:38 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time, heading for Roosevelt Field. They remained on course throughout the day, but flew through clouds that obscured the North Star after the sun set and had to estimate their location. As the sun rose on the 13th, they realized they were several hundred miles north of New York and immediately turned southwest. They saw land about 10 a.m. Atlantic Time and flew along what turned out to be the Canadian northeast coast. Almost out of fuel, they sighted a small island (Greenly Island) with a lighthouse and landed on a frozen reservoir shortly after 2 p.m. Atlantic Time. Unfortunately, their plane broke through the ice, leaving them wet, but unharmed. Communications were rudimentary in such a remote area, but telegraph messages were soon sent to stations in Labrador and Newfoundland, and then via land lines to Massachusetts and New Y ork City.

Although they landed far north of their intended target, the news of their landing was greeted with great fanfare in Canadian and American newspapers and their flight was considered an unqualified success. They were proclaimed as heroes, awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by President Calvin Coolidge and given a ticker tape parade in New York City.

In addition, the Irish government bestowed on Fitzmaurice and his companions the Freedom of the City of Dublin. Shortly after, streets were named for them in Massapequa Park as well as an airfield for Fitzmaurice. Sadly, Von Huenfeld, who had suffered from stomach cancer, died one year later at the age of 37. Kohl returned to Germany and fought unsuccessfully to keep Adolf Hitler’s newly-created Air Force (The Luftwaffe) free from political interference. He died in 1938. Fitzmaurice lived much longer, until 1965. In the immediate aftermath of his flight, his name was used unabashedly to attract both aviation enthusiasts and Irish residents from New York City to the soon-to-be created Village of Massapequa Park, which featured its own airport—Fitzmaurice Flying Field.

George Kirchmann is a trustee of the Historical Society of the Massapequas. His email address is gvkirch@optonline.net.

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