If you were driving around the small town of Basking Ridge, New Jersey and you were looking for an airport the only thing you’d find is a sign. But for residents who’ve lived here since the 1930s, the area contained a small grass runway airport called the Somerset Hills Airport.
Before there was an airport, there was a 70 acre tract that had a long history in Basking Ridge. The original owner goes back to the early 1700s when James Alexander, the father to Lord Stirling aka William Alexander bought large tracts of land in the area. The land was part of a farming community in the 1800s and was owned by the Fenner family with an abundance of corn fields before it was sold to Standard Flying Services to develop the airport that officially opened in 1932 and lasted for 50 years.
Flying was taking hold in American in the 1930’s. While the military and commercial aviation lead the way, private aviation and local airports were spreading across the country. On Sunday, October 23, 1932 the vision met reality when Somerset County’s first airport opened with an air meet organized by Standard Flying Services, the owner of the new Somerset Hills Airport facility in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. The event included competitive flying, aerobatic exhibits, parachute jumps, and a bomb dropping contest with cash prizes.
Under the watchful eye of Project Manager George Viehmann and Waldron Schanz, manager, the two dedicated an airfield in the quiet Basking Ridge community.
Three grass runways served the public facility initially. Later, the facility became an Army Air Corps flight training facility from 1941 through 1945.
Providing support to private pilots was one of the key activities at the Somerset Hills Airport. Most of the managers at the Somerset Hills Airport over the years were also certified in airplane mechanics and flying instructors. Many were also former military pilots.
On Thursday, June 10, 1947, Mrs. Alice Spencer of W. Oak Street in Basking Ride was the first woman veteran to receive a private pilots license under the GI training program. Alice was the daughter of Mrs. Truman Spencer, who served three years in WAVES as an aviation machinist mate. Her father was the Bernards Township Tax Collector.
Flying School and Local Enjoyment
Many area residents have fond memories of attending flying school at the Somerset Hills Airport that existed since its inception in 1932. The Great Depression virtually decimated the private aircraft industry, and aircraft manufacturers scrambled to develop a low-cost light airplane that could be bought by anyone with an average income and a desire to fly. In response to this need, Clarence Taylor of Taylor Brothers Aircraft in Bradford, Pennsylvania, designed the E-2 Cub in 1930. It was a small fabric-covered highwing airplane with a steel tube framed fuselage, wooden wing spar and aluminum wing ribs. This led to the resurgence of private leisure flying and let to many of the stories our local friends sent in.
I took flying lessons there for about four years like ‘68 to ‘72. My flying buddies included Sid Sussman, George Mennon and Al Needleman who owned Basking Ridge Pharmacy. Probably have some pictures. My husband grew up on Riverside Drive behind the airport and he had plenty of his own stories.Deborah Lewis – Basking Ridge Resident
I remember growing up in Basking Ridge, the airport was in my backyard. We used to ride our bikes up there and get orange sodas and watch the planesJim DiQuattro – Basking Ridge
I remember sitting at the dinner table on Gerard Ave. watching one of the planes hit nose to tail across our back yard until it landed at the farm behind us. We moved a few years later to Homestead Village only to have one nose dive into neighbors trees. Everyone walked away. Just a broken arm in the 2nd crash.Wendy Wahl
We used to go to the Henry St bakery after church on Sunday and then to the airport to watch the planes.Erika Leigh – Basking Ridge
1966 Memorable Flight of Rinker Buck
In the winter of 1965/1966, Rinker Buck, a 15 year old, and his 17 year old brother Kernahan, got his pilot license, devised a plan to rebuild their father’s 1948 Piper PA-11 and fly it from Somerset Hills Airport to Capistrano Airport in San Juan Capistrano, CA. Then they flew back!
Their journey took six days and was completed in July 1966. The flight is the subject of Buck’s 1997 memoir Flight of Passage.
The Jetport That Almost Was
It was 1959 and what many people never knew was the time when not only would the area lose the Somerset Hills Airport, but we almost lost the entire community. Saving The Great Swamp: Battle to Defeat the Jetport is a one-hour documentary about the events, people and politics behind the struggle to preserve a rural area of New Jersey between 1959 and 1968 including the Great Swamp and Basking Ridge.
The fight began when the powerful Port of New York Authority announced plans to construct a huge 10,000 acre “jetport” 26 miles west of New York City in a little-known place called the Great Swamp. In the name of progress, entire towns would be obliterated, the aquifer and wildlife destroyed, and a way-of-life threatened for thousands of people.
Public Pressure to Shut Down
Pressure had been growing for years at Somerset County’s oldest airport as the population grew in the Basking Ridge community. A new high school had been constructed in 1960 just to the west of the Airport. In addition, a number of
Pilots who knew the airport had a term for the corner just to the west of the runway approach. They nicknamed the area of South Maple and Lord Stirling Road “Crash Corner” as they approached 2,300 foot runway. That location was the scene of a number of near fatal crashes in the 60’s and 70’s. Local resident George Fricke of Peachtree Road said “It’s like Russian roulette around here.”
On October 17, 1975 a private plane crashed into an above ground swimming pool after tearing apart an apple tree at 67 Woodstone Drive. Vincent Smith of 67 Woodstone Drive who had lived there for 28 years stated that he had witnessed five crashes on his property.
It was in 1975 when ordinaces were formed permitting the airport property to allow for low income housing as reported in local newspapers. There were a number of high profile crashes in the area in 1975 and increased pressure was being mounted by the Bernards Township Board of Education’s Superentindent Dr. Philip Tieman.
After a severe fire in 1981 and investigations into a number of severe crashes by the FAA the Municipal Board, local school boards, and the community that lived around the airfield put enough pressure on the Airport owner to close the facility.
The Somerset Hills Airport officially closed on October 15, 1982 almost 50 years to the day!
(Dedicated) Sunday, October 23, 1932.
The Airport that Became Lord Stirling Village
Prelim approval was granted by the Bernards Township Planning Board on July 14, 1981 to the Lanid (Lanidex) Corporation of Parsippany to develop the 77 acres where the airport stood.
The approved plan called for for 150 townhouses to be built on the first 25 acre tract that were priced from $130-150k. The other 50 acre tract was carved out for single family homes ranging from $110- $135k. Lanid also constructed the Country Side complex off Mount Airy Road next to the Somerset Hills Cemetery.
Status Confirmed “Inactive”
Finally, in 1986 a report by the New Jersey General Aviation Study Commission’s Subcommittee on Airport Closings showed the airport’s taxes had risen 500 percent in its last 16 years of operation. By 1983, the airport was not listed as “active” by national flight guides, and the 1986 USGS map listed it as “inactive.”
Below is a partial list of what we found. If you know more, please let us know.
- 1932 – George Viehmann, Manager
- 1932, Waldron Schanz, Manager
- George E. Lewis – Airport Manager former Navy pilot
- 1946-1948 – Paul H. Housel – Airport Manager (United Aviation Corp. owner)
- 1961 – 1963 – Owned by Basking Ridge Aviation Company
- 1964- Webster Todd – Manager
- 1968 – Jim Calvin – Owner and operator, 40 planes were permanently based at the airport, where there were two runways across 70 acres.
- Jim Calvin and Robert Hartlaub
The Tuskegee Airman from Basking Ridge, New Jersey
Have a story to share about the airport?
Share your stories below in the comments section.
- Learn more about the infamous Jetport Battle
- Miss Janet Marilyn Shauger, a Bernardsville High School student died in a plane crash in Basking Ridge. Sept 1948.
- The Nov 1977 DOT approval for a AT&T helipad was upheld in June 1979 court rules AT&T can have a helipad. Until then, the Somerset Hills Airport served as AT&T’s helipad.
- American Aviation Historical Society
- Airfields of New Jersey and New England by Paul Freeman