ALLENTOWN, Pa. - On July 10, 1947 there were plenty of smiles on the faces of federal government officials (represented by Levy Anderson, regional director of the War Assets Administration) and Allentown city officials (headed by Mayor Brighton C. Diefenderfer), as photographers for the Evening Chronicle recorded the transfer of what was then called Convair Field- now Queen City Airport- to the city.
With Republicans in Congress pushing the beleaguered administration of President Harry S Truman (who polls mistakenly showed would lose the White House in 1948) to sell off government property related to World War II, it was a natural choice: an airfield created in 1943 to test the Navy's Sea Wolf torpedo bomber built by the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation would be given to the city.
There had been some disappointment in Allentown at war's end when all the federal money had not led to the establishment of a post-war aviation plant in the city. Receiving the deed from the federal government seemed to make up at least a little for it. Neither the city nor the "feds," told what the details of the agreement between them were.
But the devil, as the saying goes, was in those details. Recently a vote by the Lehigh –Northampton Airport Authority to not sell the airport for development was testament to that. Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski has found, as many other mayors and city officials have over the last 65 years, that using the land on which the airport sits for other purposes is virtually impossible without the authorization of the federal government. And that authorization, without a substitute to take Queen City's place, current federal officials are no more willing to give than those of the Truman administration were.
It was on July 30, 1947 that an editorial in the Morning Call gave the first hint at the core of the agreement. "Obviously," it stated "the Government desires the City to continue the property for aviation purposes, which constantly are becoming more important to the national economy and might be vitally important to the military welfare of the country."
This was confirmed to the press in 1954 by Diefenderfer. "The federal government stipulated," he said, "that the field must be kept open and maintained as an emergency landing field, and such a restriction was placed in the deed. The restriction still stands."
As the Cold War heated up in the late 40's and early 50's the federal government did indeed take advantage of that stipulation. As early as 1948 the National Guard signed a lease to take over the airport from the city so reservists did not have to travel all the way to Reading to get flight training. The following year a series of simulated bombing attacks called Operation Vultee One were held there by the National Guard.
In 1951, apparently with no complaint from the government, the airport's hanger was turned over from the National Guard by the city to Air Products and Chemicals, a producer of industrial gases. Under contract with the military it used the space for the mounting of oxygen generating equipment on trailers and, through its K-G Equipment Co. subsidiary, made values and gauges. The local press hailed it as finally making use of a "white elephant."
Air Products paid $12,000 a year rent on the property which it occupied until 1966. The rent money was used to maintain the airport. Since 1966 the hanger has been used by the city as a municipal garage.
The next attempt to use the airport for other purposes was in 1954 when the Allentown Jaycees decided the unused runways of the airfield would make a great drag race track and get the younger generation's "hot rods" off the city's streets. In April of 1955 the Civil Aeronautics Administration agreed to allow for supervised races by the Lehigh Valley Timing Association but only against a stop watch.
But local groups began to complain about the noise. Proposals for turning the runways into a professional race track raised even more hackles. Finally Mayor Donald Hock said no races at all could be held at the airfield and the CAA backed him up.
"The closing of the airport to the landing, taking off, or maneuvering of aircraft thereon is objectionable and could not be considered by use consistent with the commitments made by the United States Government in the deed of conveyance," it said. Hock was apparently glad to have the "feds" get him off the hook. "I'm being upheld by a higher court," he said.
Despite these various rulings and interpretations plans for the airport property continued to be floated. A high-rise apartment building was suggested and in 1959 a major hotel company wanted to build a hotel there. But both of these projects died before they ever got beyond the drawing board. No reason was ever given but presumably the government's objection to blocking the "maneuvering of aircraft" was at least part of it.
On May 15, 1961 Mayor John "Jack" Gross made the startling announcement that the city was taking over the running of the airport whose new name would be Queen City Municipal. But in 1963 the city turned it over to the Reading Aviation Service Inc. to run. It was also in the 1960s that the government allowed at least some of the land to be used by private industry, the first being Spirax-Sarco, a maker of steam and heat transfer equipment.
In 1993-94 the city tried once more to get the property for development. And once more they met a reaction reflected in more recent events that the airport cannot be closed without a replacement field being established. What the future holds for Queen City is unknown but it is unlikely the 65 year old saga will be finally resolved anytime soon.
Allentown, PA 18102