Hello, Idlewild Airport; Goodbye, United Nations

By Greater Astoria Historical

In conjunction with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, the TimesLedger Newspapers presents noteworthy events in the borough’s history

Suppose you could afford your own plane and might decide to bypass the daily commute? In June 1948 Queens residents were watching with interest preparations for the official opening of the New York International Airport at Idlewild (now known as JFK Airport). On June 28 practice flights and landings began. Capt. Douglas Larsen piloted the first commercial plane to land at the new airport, a Peruvian International Airways DC-4.

Eager to make the news as well as simply recording it, the Star-Journal chartered its own plane in order to set a record—landing the first private plane at Idlewild. On June 20, Aviation Editor Roy Carlton gave a full report:

“This is seven-nine-king, Stinson 150, out of Rockaway Airport. Landing instructions, please. ‘Hello, Long Island Star-Journal plane, you are cleared to land at runway two-five left. Wind south soutwest, 15 mph.’ ‘Roger … coming in.’

“Joseph Alta, Rockaway Airport manager and momentarily my co-pilot, chuckled as the Jamaica Bay Sahara they call an airport loomed closer. ‘You’d never recognize the place,’ he said. “In 1941, it was called Queens County Airport. I used to operate a flying service right there out where those two hangers are. And boat used to sail there, where that 9,500-foot runway is.’

“‘Guess you could still land a Cub on that spot—right inside that 300-foot tower.’ The control tower operator flashed the green light at us. ‘Clear the land,’ snapped Alta, getting down to business.

“The airport seemed to stretch all over Queens. We turned into the runway. A small one—6,000 feet long. The concrete stretched like a ribbon toward the horizon, and the Stinson looked like a green pea on a billiard table. The plan settled. Wheels screeched as rubber rubbed runway – and stuck. Riding out to meet us were a jeep, a sedan, a crash truck and an ambulance. The drivers waved and shouted, ‘Follow us.’ The procession rolled down three miles of runway, taxi-strips, and apron.

“‘What a reception,’ Alta remarked. ‘First seagulls, now a parade. Either we rate – or these crash truck men like to practice.’ A flight attendant on the ramp waved his arms. We taxied up, parked in front of the tower, and stepped out. A tall, slender man stuck out his hand and said, ‘I’m George McSharry, the superintendent. Welcome to New York International Airport.’”

Another vision of alternative history is conjured up by the Star-Journal’s story of June 26, under the headline “UN May Stay in Queens, Chamber Tells Mayor.” It is now largely forgotten today that the first home of the United Nations was not in Manhattan but in Flushing Meadows. While waiting to move into its permanent home in Manhattan, the new organization met from 1946 to 1950 in the New York City Building in Flushing Meadows Park, a relic of the 1939 World’s Fair, which had brought such enormous crowds to Queens. Now it was UN delegates such as Dag Hammerskjold, Golda Meir and Eleanor Roosevelt who were coming to our borough. Just the previous year, in 1947, the United Nations had voted to create the state of Israel in the building in Flushing.

According to the Star-Journal, the borough was reluctant to say goodbye to its illustrious resident. “The temporary home of the United Nations in Flushing Meadows Park may yet become its permanent home, the Queens Chamber of Commerce suggested today. Because of the failure of Congress to approve a loan of $65,000,000 for the development of the UN headquarters in Manhattan, there is a ‘grave danger’ that the permanent world capital may be established outside the United States, Frank O’Hara said today in a letter to Mayor O’Dwyer. O’Hara proposed that the city offer Flushing Meadows Park as an alternate to the Manhattan site. Today’s proposal stressed the convenience of the location and the belief that a permanent headquarters could be erected at substantially lower cost.”

But it was not to be. In 1951, the United Nations moved to its present location on 1st Avenue in Manhattan. It is tempting to speculate how the history of Queens might have been changed had it remained.

For further information, contact the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit their website at www.astorialic.org.

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