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Bader Field: The First Municipal Airport in the United States Now Forlorn

Atlantic City’s Once Bustling Airport Looks Back on 108 Years of Aviation History

Glenn Curtiss Flying one of his biplanes in 1910. Image in public domain

Bader Field was not the first airstrip, airfield, or aerodrome. But the term “air-port” was first used in a newspaper article written by Robert Woodhouse in 1919 describing the airfield adjacent to Atlantic City as that city’s destination for the famous Traymore Hotel’s Flying Limousine seaplane service between Atlantic City and New York City. The facility first opened in 1910 and aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss began passenger service from the field in 1911. The airfield was also the first municipal airfield with facilities for both land-based aircraft and seaplanes. Arctic explorer Admiral Robert E. Peary was a founding member of the committee sponsoring the airfield.

Curtiss Model F. Image in public domain

Even before the field was called an airport, Atlantic City was quite the aviation hotspot. In October of 1910 explorer Walter Wellman made the first attempt to fly cross the Atlantic from the resort in a dirigible named America. He and his crew were rescued more than 71 hours into an unsuccessful first attempt. Wellman’s crew member Melvin Vaniman was killed along with his entire crew during another attempt to cross the Atlantic in the dirigible Akron during 1912. Another Akron airship, the 733 foot long helium filled rigid airship USS Akron (XRS-4) crashed in the Atlantic City area the night of April 3rd/4th 1933.

Walter Wellman’s America dirigible. Image in public domain

Atlantic City sponsored one of the first Air Carnivals in 1910. Lasting ten days, the event spawned several aviation records including Walter Brookins’ altitude record (6,175 feet) and Glenn Curtiss’ speed record covering 50 miles in 74 minutes- a blistering 39 miles per hour! Glenn Curtiss also dropped oranges from his airplane for accuracy, demonstrating his “bombing” prowess. These Air Carnivals were regular occurrences during the early 1900s on the Jersey shore. The first news bulletin dropped from the air was made over Atlantic City in September of 1919 to announce the arrival of a Navy Curtiss NC-4 seaplane after a transoceanic trip.

Glenn Curtiss and one of his amphibians. Image in public domain

Atlantic City Municipal airport was purchased by the city and named Bader Field in 1922 after Edward L. Bader, Atlantic City’s mayor from 1920 to 1927. The airport hosted some of the nation’s first privately owned aircraft- many of them flown by local businessmen. On July 17th 1933 Dr. Albert Forsythe and C. Alfred Anderson became the first black men to make a round trip transcontinental flight. They took off from Bader Field and navigated to Los Angeles and back using only by an altimeter and a map and without lighting or a radio in their aircraft. When they returned to Bader Field in their aircraft named Pride of Atlantic City they were honored with a parade. The popularity of Atlantic City and Bader Field’s close proximity to the resort town kept the airport busy.

Ryan NYP. Image in public domain

Even Charles Lindbergh landed his famous Ryan model NYP Spirit of St. Louis at Bader Field after his historic solo flight across the Atlantic. In 1931 Eddie Rickenbacker, Charles Lindbergh, and Amelia Earhart all celebrated the formation of Eastern Airlines at Bader Field. Also in 1931, stunt pilot William Swann used a rocket to launch his glider and flew over 1,000 feet at 100 feet altitude from Bader Field. His flight was a publicity stunt for Atlantic City’s famed Steel Pier, but jet assisted takeoff (JATO) and rocket assisted takeoff (RATO) were used for many years to augment thrust for aircraft trying to slip those surly bonds and get into the blue.

William Swann and his rocket-powered glider. Image in public domain.

Just a week before Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, Bader Field became the first location in the nation to host a Civil Air Patrol (CAP) flight. Many of the local pilots joined the CAP. Like many airports at the time, Bader Field was essentially a large smooth landing pan as opposed to a network of runways. Naval Aircraft Factory N3N Yellow Peril biplane trainers, built in nearby Philadelphia, were seen at the field for several years. The US Navy had a large wartime presence at Bader Field until Naval Air Station (NAS) Atlantic City, located on the mainland in nearby Egg Harbor, began training carrier air groups in 1943.

NAS Atlantic City in 1945. Official US Navy photograph

After the activation of NAS Atlantic City, Bader Field was utilized as an outlying practice field by naval aviators in training. Like most stateside Air Stations, both NAS Atlantic City and Bader Field experienced student aviator attrition and plenty of crackups. The tidal marshes between NAS Atlantic City and Bader Field also saw their share of mishaps. The student aviators were flying relatively hot Vought F4U Corsairs, Grumman F6F Hellcats, Grumman/Eastern TBF/TBM Avengers, and Curtiss SB2C Helldivers in the area at first, but later in the war the Air Station switched to fighter pilot training only.

F6F-5s based at NAS Atlantic City flying over a target range on the Jersey coast 1945. Official US Navy photograph

A minor league baseball stadium was built on the airfield grounds, opening in 1944. The New York Yankees held spring training at Bader Field that year, playing several games there. The Bronx Bombers used the Senator Hotel for their spring training headquarters and practiced indoors at the Atlantic City Armory. The Boston Red Sox also used Bader Field for spring training in 1945. The last spring training game played at Bader Field was played between the Red Sox and the Yankees on April 8th 1945.

President Kennedy arriving at Bader Field in 1962. Image courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum

After the war ended, Bader Field was used primarily for private aviation. A municipal football stadium (John Boyd Stadium) was opened at Bader Field in 1949 and stood there until 1994. The airport was modernized, adding field lights, a control tower, updated communications, paved runways and taxiways, and additional hangars. Because of the draw of Atlantic City, every United States President from Theodore Roosevelt to Gerald Ford flew into Bader Field during their terms in Office. Allegheny Commuter Airlines flew de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otters on short-haul routes out of Bader Field during the 1960s and 1970s- several of them carrying the author and/or his family.

Bader Field during the late 1960s with Atlantic City landmarks in the background. Image courtesy Paul Thorn via Abandoned & Little Known Airfields

When commercial traffic shifted to Atlantic City International Airport, formerly NAS Atlantic City in Egg Harbor in 1978, Bader Field went into decline. A brief surge in activity coincided with the arrival of the casinos in town, but eventually the control tower, fuel trucks, and onsite aircraft maintenance went away during the late 1980s. Today the site is home to Bernie Robbins Stadium, another minor league baseball stadium built in 1998. By 2006 the airport was in disrepair and closed at the end of September 2006. Some of the airport facilities were moved to the NAS Wildwood Museum in Cape May.

Bader Field hanging on in 2002. Image courtesy Google Earth

Over the years since Bader Field ceased being an airport, the site has hosted the Atlantic City Surf, an unaffiliated minor league baseball team who played there between 1998 and 2008, along with Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) autocross racing, and multiple day concert appearances by bands such as Dave Matthews Band, Metallica, and Phish. Today the city hopes to attract a new minor league baseball team to play in the unused Robbins Stadium. Even though the land is in a good location, development plans for the former Bader Field are mired in the mud of politics.

Bader Field closed down in 2016. Image courtesy Google Earth

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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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