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QueensLine: Helicopter service from JFK to midtown proved a failure

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For those of us of a certain age, childhood memories of the world of the future had promises fulfilled (computers, miniature television and cameras), promises yet unfulfilled (space tourism to other planets) and promises best unfulfilled (indiscriminate use of nuclear energy).

One fantasy that belongs in the last category was the dream of air flight from the roofs of buildings in midtown Manhattan.

Books from 100 years ago depicted the world of the future with the skies over Manhattan filled with blimps and biplanes. In the 1920s, the Empire State Building was even built with a dirigible mast. After one nearly disastrous attempt at docking, the idea was wisely abandoned.

But in the 1960s, the “Decade of Sunny Promise,” anything was on the table. So when the Pan Am — today MetLife — Building, at the time the largest office tower in the world, opened in 1963, its 4-acre roof at 59-stories above midtown, was considered perfect as a heliport. Run by New York Airways, the “Airport in the Sky” was scheduled to handle up to 360 helicopter flights between midtown and John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Bitter public outcry delayed the first few flights until Dec. 21, 1965. We have an account of that first flight by a reporter from the old Long Island Star Journal who gave us his impressions on the first passenger helicopter as it headed out to Queens:

“A little wiggle, a little backwards jerk and the copter was aloft %u2026 turning west towards Broadway and Times Square, then spinning %u2026 east over Central Park to the Queensboro Bridge, rotors slapping, engines thudding,” his vivid account began as he sketched the service’s unique maiden voyage.

In a trip that lasted only seven minutes, passengers experienced vistas that took their breaths away, including a close-up view of the Chrysler Building, looking down into Con Edison’s riverside smokestacks and sitting motionless above the entrance of the Lincoln Tunnel “watching cars like an all-seeing traffic cop.”

From here, it seemed the flight headed west and went down the Hudson River before turning east to JFK Airport by flying over the Narrows and Coney Island — and well out of the flight path of traffic taking off and landing at LaGuardia Airport.

With the regularity of the subway — the Star Journal reported a quip that “it all was like the IRT with flight insurance” — passengers were treated to the glimmering sun over New York harbor and ocean mists in the distance.

After the spectacle of these aircraft coming into the heart of the city, the Star Journal wistfully noted they came in to land “almost anti-climactically.” Regularly scheduled flights between midtown and JFK were to take place for a fare of $7; round-trip was $10.

But this novel effort failed to solve a problem that persists to this day: getting people from the city to the airport “in a time reasonably proportionate to the length of [the] total trip.” Although it seemed like a smart idea, the operation proved unprofitable, since the helicopters carried on average only eight passengers. The heliport, which had cost $1 million to build, drowned in red ink. It closed in 1968.

In 1977, the experiment was revived briefly, only to fail with tragic consequences when a landing gear collapsed and the blades of an idling helicopter crashed onto the roof. The copter flipped on its side, killing four people who were boarding and sending a 20-foot rotor blade skidding across the roof and over the west parapet wall. It killed a fifth person on Park Avenue.

Within hours, the heliport was closed indefinitely.

For more information, call 718-278-0700 or visit astorialic.org.

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