Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields:

Southwestern Michigan

© 2002, © 2014 by Paul Freeman. Revised 7/29/14.

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Grand Rapids Municipal Airport / Kent County Airport (revised 1/7/13) - (Original) Hillsdale Airport (revised 4/20/14)

South Kent Airport (added 7/29/14)

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South Kent Airport, Grand Rapids, MI

42.84 North / 85.69 West (Northwest of Detroit, MI)

An 11/1/65 USGS aerial view of South Kent Airport.



This small general aviation airport on the south side of Grand Rapids may have been established at some point between 1950-65,

as it was not yet depicted on the 1950 USGS topo map.

The earliest depiction which has been located of South Kent Airport was an 11/1/65 USGS aerial photo.

It depicted South Kent Airport as having a single unpaved northwest/southeast runway,

with several T-hangars & 6 single-engine aircraft on the north side of the field.



The 1969 USGS topo map depicted South Kent Airport as having a single unpaved northwest/southeast runway,

and several T-hangars on the north side of the field.



Gary Norton recalled, “South Kent is where I learned to fly in a Cessna 140 [in 1972].

Note it is a bumpy grass strip with a fence at each end of the runway; a tree line & parked airplanes, gas pumps, and buildings next to the runway.

This, coupled with a student pilot in a taildragger, should send goose bumps through pilots who understand these parameters.

Also, Calvin Molyneux was my father-in-law & an Army Air Force taught, hard-nosed instructor. This scenario was cause for extreme stress on my part.

I can’t tell you how many times it took me to learn to takeoff without Calvin’s help.

I know he had 3 persons to teach how to fly, and his patience was usually pretty short.

He had to force our minds to use right rudder to overcome the corkscrewing slipstream of air from the propeller.”



Gary continued, “Once we were in the air, we had to learn to land.

This is not the case for pilots who have 5,000' long concrete runways.

I had to learn how to land on an 1,800', fence-to-fence grass strip.

Not only was this a short field, there was a Big Red Barn when turning final for Runway 31.

One of the first maneuvers we learned to accomplish was to fly a perfect pattern. I emphasize perfect.

Calvin would not allow me to deviate 25' altitude or 0 degree direction. All corners had to be square & distances on the numbers.

I had to learn how to slip the Cessna while in final because of the trees & the aforementioned Big Red Barn.

Also, the Cessna 140 has a slippery shape & is difficult to slow.

Therefore, the landing speed has to be controlled & in a cross-controlled condition, you lose altitude while not gaining speed.

I was warned to be careful in a windy crosswind condition, because when you are cross-controlled, you have little room for correction.

Once safely on the ground, Calvin warned me to not lose concentration on landing the plane.

A characteristic of a tail dragger is a tendency to ground loop. I remember Calvin telling me that I should not finish landing until the Cessna was tied down.”



Gary continued, “South Kent Airport was managed by Roland Palma, and he owned the Fixed-Base Operator, Palma Aviation.

He was wary of us & once, as I was standing near him watching Evan go for a lesson, I heard him say, 'I am just waiting for one of you to kill yourselves.'

He really meant it from the tone of his voice & I never had an occasion to be his friend.”



A circa 1985 MI Airport Directory (courtesy of Gary Norton)

depicted South Kent Airport as having a single 2,070' Runway 13/31, with several small hangars along the north side.

The manager was listed as Palma.

Unfortunately, it also noted that the airport was scheduled for closure in the Summer of 1989.



The 1991 USGS topo map continued to depict South Kent Airport.



A 1999 aerial photo showed that a housing development had covered the site of South Kent Airport,

with no recognizable trace remaining of the small airport.



An 8/22/13 aerial view showed no trace remaining at the site of South Kent Airport.



As of 2014, street maps show that the site of South Kent Airport is commemorated by the names of several of the residential streets which replaced the airport,

including Airfield Drive & Runway Drive.



Thanks to Gary Norton for pointing out this airfield.



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(Original) Hillsdale Airport, Hillsdale, MI

41.94 North / 84.65 West (West of Detroit, MI)

Hillsdale Airport, as depicted on the May 1942 Chicago Sectional Chart (courtesy of Chris Kennedy).



The original Hillsdale Airport was located adjacent to the northwest side of the town.

 

The Hillsdale Airport may have been established at some point between 1937-38,

as it was not yet listed among active airfields in the Airport Directory Company's 1937 Airports Directory (courtesy of Bob Rambo).

The earliest reference to the Hillsdale Airport which has been located

was in the Airport Directory Company's 1938 Airports Directory (courtesy of Chris Kennedy).

It described Hillsdale as an auxiliary airfield, with 2 runways in a cross-shape:

1,900' northwest/southeast & 1,800' northeast/southwest.

 

The earliest depiction of the Hillsdale Airport which has been located

was on the May 1942 Chicago Sectional Chart (courtesy of Chris Kennedy).

It depicted Hillsdale as an auxiliary airfield.



The only photo which has been located showing of Hillsdale Airport in operation was a 9/19/43 aerial view looking north

from the 1945 AAF Airfield Directory (courtesy of Scott Murdock).

It depicted Hillsdale as having 2 grass runways in an X-shape.



The June 1944 U.S. Army & Navy Directory of Airfields (courtesy of Joe Benson)

described Hillsdale as having a 1,900' unpaved runway.



The 1945 AAF Airfield Directory (courtesy of Scott Murdock) described Hillsdale Municipal Airport

as a 50 acre irregularly-shaped property within which were 2 gravel & sod runways: 1,900' northwest/southeast & 1,800' northeast/southwest.

The field was not said to have any hangars,

to be owned by the City of Hillsdale, and to be operated by private interests.



According to a 1976 book published by the Hillsdale County Historical Society & the Hillsdale County Bicentennial Commission (via Michael Goble),

one evening late in the Fall of 1945, a group of 75 or 80 aviation & flying enthusiasts met to talk about organizing a Hillsdale Aviation Club.

The first president of the new organization was Bernard "Bud" Richard, an experienced pilot & flying enthusiast.

During the first year, the monthly meetings were devoted to planning & financing a clubhouse for a meeting place.

The first "Dawn Patrol" sponsored by the new club was in 1946,

and with the exception of 2 years, this has become an annual event.

 

With money obtained from the profits of this event,

materials were purchased for a clubhouse & office for the airport

while the members held "work bees" doing all the labor required to build a modest sized office, meeting room, and restrooms.

The earliest operator was Lloyd Brown, with Guy Pearce as instructor.

He was followed by Francis Clymer & Russell King.

 

The most detailed depiction of the Hillsdale Airport which has been located

was in the 1946 MI Airport Directory (courtesy of Doug Ranz).

It depicted the field as having 2 unpaved runways (1,900' northwest/southeast & 1,800' northeast/southwest),

with a hangar & office at the northeast corner of the field.



An undated (circa late 1940s?) aerial view looking north at Hillsdale Airport (courtesy of Jeff King)

showed 2 single-engine aircraft next to a ramp with 2 hangars, on the north side of a grass airfield.



Many of the students at Hillsdale were veterans, using their benefits to pay for flying lessons.

When this source of revenue began to dry up, no one wanted to manage & operate the airport.

The city had about decided to abandon it & put it back into farmland

but at this point, to avoid closing down altogether, the Aviation Club stepped in

and agreed to keep telephone, restrooms & a supply of gasoline available.

By the late 1950s the inadequacy & poor approaches of the "old" field become more & more apparent.



The last photo which has been located of Hillsdale Airport was a 4/25/58 USGS aerial view,

which depicted only 1 single-engine aircraft visible parked outside on the north side of the field.



The 1959 USGS topo map (courtesy of Mike Denja) depicted Hillsdale Airport as having 2 unpaved runways,

with 2 buildings on the north side.

 

The 1962 AOPA Airport Directory described Hillsdale Municipal

as having 2 sod runways (1,900' Runway 13/31 & 1,800' Runway 4/22).



The last depiction which has been located of the original Hillsdale Airport was on the 1962 USGS topo map.

 

The original Hillsdale Airport was apparently replaced within the next year

by a new Hillsdale Municipal Airport 2 miles to the east of the town,

as only the new field was listed in the 1963 AOPA Airport Directory (according to Chris Kennedy).



The property of the original Hillsdale Airport was sold & was eventually redeveloped as an industrial park.

 

As seen in the 1998 USGS aerial photo,

no obvious traces of the original Hillsdale Airport appears to remain.

However, Keith Wood pointed out a faint remaining trace of the former airport -

the row of trees running southeast from the center of the photo matches the southern edge of the former northwest/southeast runway.

 

The site of the original Hillsdale Airport is located northwest of the intersection of Route 99 & Mechanic Road.

 

Thanks to Michael Goble for pointing out this former airfield.

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Grand Rapids Municipal Airport / (Original) Kent County Airport, Grand Rapids, MI

42.9 North / 85.65 West (Northwest of Detroit, MI)

An aerial view looking northwest at Grand Rapids Municipal Airport

from The Airport Directory Company's 1933 Airports Directory (courtesy of Chris Kennedy).

 

As described on the web site of the current Grand Rapids Airport,

groundbreaking for Kent County's first airport took place in 1919,

on a site 4 miles from downtown Grand Rapids.

 

The United States' first regularly scheduled airline service began in 1926, between Grand Rapids & Detroit.

In 1927, Charles Lindbergh landed the Spirit of St. Louis at Kent County Airport.

This visit came only a few months after his historic New York-to-Paris flight.

 

With an infusion of federal funds, the airport took on a new look in the 1930's.

WPA money was used to remodel the Administration building & build a new restaurant.

In 1930, the Kent County Board of Supervisors appointed one of its own, Tom Walsh, to manage the airport.

Tom Walsh's years of service to the airport would span almost thirty years & leave a lasting legacy.

 

The Airport Directory Company's 1933 Airports Directory (courtesy of Chris Kennedy)

described Grand Rapids Municipal as having two 2,900' asphalt runways.

The aerial photo in the directory depicted a ramp with several hangars.

The Manager was listed as T. E. Walsh,

and the operators were listed as Furniture Capitol Air Service & Kohler Aviation Corporation.

 

Grand Rapids Airport, as depicted on the 1935 9M Night Flying Chart.

 

The Airport Directory Company's 1938 Airports Directory (courtesy of Chris Kennedy)

described Grand Rapids Municipal as having 4 sod runways,

with the longest being the 2,700' northeast/southwest & northwest/southeast strips.

 

 A 1938 aerial photo of Grand Rapids Airport (courtesy of Tom Byle),

shows the field's preWW2 configuration, with a number of runways in a roughly square-shaped plot of land.

However, it can be seen that construction was underway to extend the northwest/southeast runway

into a newly annexed plot of land to the southeast.

 

An undated photo of the new Administration building, which was completed in 1939.

It boasted the very latest heating, lighting, plumbing, and all modern conveniences of the time.

The building's 24" thick, steel-reinforced concrete walls were built to be "bomb proof".

 

In 1940, Grand Rapids was one of only six American cities boasting scheduled air service north, south, east, and west.

 

WW2 military needs in the early 1940s led to the addition of several buildings at the airport.

Because it fulfilled all requirements for night lighting,

the airport was a useful place early in the war to train transport pilots & to conduct training exercises.



The first pilot cadet training program in Michigan began at Kent County Airport in 1942.

Hundreds of military pilots eventually received their primary & advanced flight & ground school instruction

at the field over the next 2 years.



The 1945 AAF Airfield Directory (courtesy of Scott Murdock) described Kent County Airport

as a 324 acre irregularly-shaped property within which were 5 runways, with the longest being a 4,420' northwest/southeast concrete strip.

The field was said to have a total of 22 concrete hangars, ranging in size up to 120' x 60',

and to be owned & operated by Kent County.

 

The 1946 MI Airport Directory (courtesy of Doug Ranz)

depicted the Kent County Airport as having a total of 5 asphalt or tar runways,

with the longest being the 4,400' southeast/northwest runway.

 

All-cargo air freight service came to Grand Rapids in 1946,

and in 1947 a new $60,000 control tower began operating atop the Administration building.

 

An undated aerial photo looking northwest at the Lear hangar along the southwest side of Grand Rapids Airport (courtesy of William Willyard),

from the back cover of the 1948 Lear Annual Report.

A V-tail Bonanza & a Beech 18 are parked in front of the hangar marked “Lear Service”.



Kent County Airport, as depicted on the 1949 Milwaukee Sectional Chart (courtesy of Donald Felton).

 

By 1949 the airport's facilities were strained to the maximum,

and the citizens of Kent County voted to expand the airport at its current location,

which would require the purchase of 120 acres & 89 houses.



A colorized circa 1940-50s photo of a DC-3 unloading in front of the Kent County terminal.



In early 1952 the newly expanded 5,700' runway was completed.

For a time, movable gates were necessary to keep 44th Street traffic

from crossing the airport's longest runway while planes were taking off & landing.

 

A 1954 aerial photo of Grand Rapids Airport (courtesy of Tom Byle) depicted the airport's new configuration,

with the new concrete Runway 18/36 extending over a significantly larger plot of land toward the south.

A hangar on the north side of the field said "Lear Northern Service" on the roof,

as well as another small hangar marked with "Lear" on the southwest side of the field.

Land had been cleared on the southeast side of the field for the new Lear factory,

but the buildings had not yet been constructed.

 

By 1956, increased air travel resulted in the airport again bursting at the seams.

In 1957 the Aeronautics Board hired an aviation consultant to conduct a study exploring which option was more feasible:

to expand & improve the existing airport or to start over on a new site.



Kent County Airport, as depicted on the 1958 USGS topo map.



In 1958 the decision was made to replace the original airport with a newly constructed field in eastern Cascade Township.

The groundbreaking was conducted for the new field in 1961.

 

USAF Lt. Col. Mark Bailey recalled, "I flew in United DC-6's out of the old [Kent County] airport

to Chicago many times as a youngster in the 1960s.

My father also flew in North Central DC-3's out of the airport as well."



By the time of the 1962 AOPA Airport Directory,

the original Kent County Airport was in its final year of operation.

It was described as having a 5,700' concrete Runway 18/36,

a 4,400 asphalt Runway 12/30, and a 3,400' asphalt Runway 4/22.

The operators were listed as Northern Air Service (Cessna) & Grand Rapids Aviation (Beechcraft),

and airline service was listed as being provided by Lake Central, North Central, and UAL.

 

A March 1963 aerial photo of Grand Rapids Airport (courtesy of Tom Byle),

taken only a few months before the field closed.

It shows the original runway layout at the north end of the field,

as well as the newer concrete Runway 18/36 which extended toward the south.

"You can see where the long runway crossed 44th Street & they closed gates to let planes land & take off.

The taxiway to the east off the long north/south runway went to the Lear plant."

 

A close-up from the March 1963 aerial photo of the west side of Grand Rapids Airport (courtesy of Tom Byle),

Tom observed, “The furthest south hangar on the west side said 'Lear' on the roof.”

It was evidently a facility of Bill Lear, who went on to produce the Lear Jet.

 

The final transfer of all Kent County air service took place in 1963,

and the original Kent County Airport closed in November 1963 (according to Grand Rapids resident Tom Byle).

 

By the time of the 1967 Milwaukee Sectional Chart (courtesy of Chris Kennedy),

the site of the original Kent County Airport was labeled as "Abandoned airport".

 

According to Tom Byle, "All the hangars were on the north & west sides of the field

but were demolished to make way for the industrial park."

 

The site of the former airport was labeled "Kent Industrial Center on the 1981 UGSS topo map.

 

USAF Lt. Col. Mark Bailey observed, "The old airport now is an industrial park.

I last saw it 20 years ago [in the 1980s] and some pavement still existed."

 

Grand Rapids resident Tom Byle reported in 2004 that none of the original airfield buildings or hangars still exist.



As can be seen in the 2005 USGS aerial photo,

the site of the former Kent County Airport has been heavily redeveloped with industrial buildings.

However, more than half of the former runways have been reused as streets or industrial backlots.

The most obvious of these is the former Runway 18/36 & its parallel taxiway,

which have been reused as a street - Roger B Chaffee Memorial Drive SE.



Jim Saltsman reported in 2006 that he was “able to find (& stand on) portions of the original northwest/southeast runway.”



An April 2012 photo by Andrew Roberts, “part of a taxi strip heading northeast to southwest right where it connects to the original northwest to southeast runway.”



An April 2012 photo by Andrew Roberts, “of part of the original northwest to southeast runway. This area is just off Roger B. Chaffee Boulevard after 32nd Street.”



An April 2012 photo by Andrew Roberts, of “Roger B. Chaffee Boulevard at 36th Street, which was the large north/south runway.

There are a few other places where the original asphalt runways still exist for this airport, however, they are inaccessible because they are on private property.”



The site of Kent County Airport is bounded by Jefferson Street Southeast to the west, Eastern Avenue to the east,

44th Street Southeast to the south, and 32nd Street Southeast to the north.

 

Thanks to USAF Lt. Col. Mark Bailey for pointing out this former airfield.



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