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From a potato field to the skies: The birth and growing pains of Shelter Island aviation

After Island historian Edward Shillingburg was asked to take part in a presentation at the Shelter Island Historical Society in August, a document in the Society’s archives surfaced on the history of the Klenawicus Airfield, and other early stories of Island aviation.

The Historical Society’s event later this summer is to consist of several people giving short reports on the Island’s preserved properties, and Mr. Shillingburg drew the Klenawicus straw. “The idea is to bring to the public’s attention the Island’s open space program,” Mr. Shillingburg said. “To answer questions of, ‘What are they?’ ‘Where are they?’”

The airfield, a beloved, 17-acre Island institution — known fondly as the Klenawicus International Airport (see below for the reason) — was purchased by the town in April 2011 for a total of $4,148,500 from the Klenawicus family, using Community Preservation Funds to preserve it from development. Money for the CPF comes from a 2% tax that buyers pay when purchasing East End properties and is used in turn to purchase open space for preservation.

The Shelter Island Pilots Association was granted stewardship of the airfield.

There didn’t seem to be any historical record of how the airfield was founded, until the Historical Society brought forth an oral history project by Shelter Island High School student Natasha Borisova, which was published in the historical Society’s Autumn 2000 Newsletter.

Below (with slight editing) is Ms. Borisova’s report:

By Natasha Borisova

Aviation has been a significant part of Shelter Island history. There’s not much information about this fascinating topic in the Shelter Island archives. The purpose of this project is to fill the historical gap, to present and preserve the history of aviation on Shelter Island.

“Flying had started to become a popular new sport in 1909 when Glen Curtiss flight clubs and airports began to spring up all over Long Island,” wrote Frances Kestler in “Never-Never Land: The Saga of Westmoreland Farm.”

“But flying required a special courage due to many accidents in the small and, as yet, flimsily built planes. Many were two-seaters, and most were open cockpit biplanes,” Ms. Kestler wrote.

Long Island was a major site of flying achievement from the creation of airplanes in the early 20th century with, as the volume “Picture History of Aviation on Long Island” says, “The concentration of so much achievement in American aviation on Long Island in those pioneering days made it truly the ‘cradle of aviation,’ as it has been called.”

An aerial view of the Klenawicus Airstrip taken some time in the 1970s. (Credit: Shelter Island Historical Society)

The Klenawicus family had a major influence on the history of aviation on Shelter Island. The family bought a lot for a farm in 1927 to grow potatoes. Joseph Klenawicus Sr. was the first in the family to take an interest in aviation. He and his good friend Mike Sabal built their first airplane together in 1935, when they took an engine from a car and used it for their plane. When they finished, their take off was the first flight from Shelter Island.

The plane got up in the air, but then the engine failed and it crashed into a cornfield. That didn’t stop them, though. Joe and Mike kept working on different planes and Joe bought an airplane, a 1929 Kitty-Hawk, around 1945. He worked on it for about two years, fixing it up, and then was ready to have it inspected so he could fly.

It was a cold winter day, and had been raining for a few days. The canvas covering the plane was frozen to the ground.

“Instead of getting a knife and cutting the canvas around to get it up, Joe came up with an idea to use a blow torch to apply heat to the edges of the canvas so the ice would melt. Back in those days things were a lot more flammable,” said Frank Klenawicus, Joseph’s younger brother.

They used a substance called “dope,” which was highly flammable, to hold the plane together. The canvas cover caught fire and the whole plane burned up in minutes. Joseph, in his 30s at the time, was devastated. Parts of the Kitty Hawk were saved and Frank hoped to restore it and get it to fly someday.

“When Mike Sabal’s plane was ready, he tried to take off from Hilo Shores. There wasn’t a runway long enough there,” Frank said. “So he built floats that went into the water hoping that the plane would get up in the air before it hit the water. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t long enough, and the plane crashed into the water. It flipped over and Mike had to climb up from under it.”

“During the 30s there was a lot of sea plane activity,” said Frances Roe Kestler. The reason was there were no landing strips for the airplanes on the Island.

Dudley Griffing was another early pilot. He worked with seaplanes, which he would fly from different creeks, North Ferry’s slip, or, the most common place, a ramp at Louis’ Beach. In 1938, when he was in his late 20s, Dudley started the first airline service from Shelter Island to New York City. Unfortunately, it only lasted four or five years.

“He didn’t make any money off it,” said Frank Klenawicus.

Dudley didn’t just work with sea planes. “He had all sorts of planes,” Hoot Sherman said. He was a “local legend” as the Islanders called him. He took many people for airplane rides around Shelter Island, Frank and Hoot remembered.

Frank recalled a story from the early 1930s, during a harsh, cold winter when the waters around Shelter Island froze. The ferries couldn’t get through the thick ice. Trucks with food couldn’t make it over to bring supplies to the Island residents. During that time, airplanes were used to deliver what was needed.

“There was a place for them to land in the Heights,” Frank recalled.

The Klenawicus airfield was a potato farm until about the 1950’s. The planes that used to land there had only a narrow path, the width of a car, between the potato rows. Other obstacles were the large trees at the end of the short runway. Planes had to go around them. Then, around 1955, when Jon Wright and Dick Edwards organized the Shelter Island flying service to Flushing Airport, the runway was increased to its present length of approximately 1,600 feet.

The Island’s airstrip was private, Frank Klenawicus said, “Because of the threats of lawsuits, such as the day a young man was flown into Shelter Island on a charter airplane and he couldn’t get out properly. He didn’t know any better and fell off the wing. His mother was screaming at us, that we don’t have any special steps to get out of the plane. And we told her, ‘Lady, this is private property.’”

James A. Roe Sr., of Westmoreland Farm, was another early pilot on Shelter Island. At age 21 he joined the United States Army Air Corps. He became one of the chief flying instructors and was sent to major flying fields to train as many men as he could. In 1946, Mr. Roe started the first airstrip at Westmoreland Farm on what was once a private golf course. Mr. Roe decided to put another airstrip on a potato and lima bean field around 1950. Then he had two airstrips to work with. “If the wind was against him, he would fly from the airstrip that better suited take-off,” Frances Kestler recalled.

The Westmoreland Airfield was used mostly for friends and family. Mr. Roe had parties where many dignitaries from New York and Washington, D.C. would be flown in by planes and helicopters.

During World War II, several Islanders learned to fly fighters and bombers. “George Dickerson, Leo Johnson, Dan and Anton Schaible, Blaise Laspia and Charley Avona were all pilots,” recalled Frank Klenawicus. “Avona got killed while flying over Germany.”

After the war some returned from the service with a yearning for planes and flying.

Many bought a used or a wrecked plane after the war. Sid Stiber, a member of an aircrew, came to Shelter Island in the 1950s. He didn’t have his flying license yet, so he went to the Klenawicus airport and took lessons offered by instructors from Mattituck. After he got his license, he bought a wrecked plane in Mattituck. Frank Klenawicus helped him repair it. “I flew that for several years, and then every few years I kept improving my airplanes,” Mr. Stiber said. “They got bigger and faster.”

Sid Stiber made the first international flight from Shelter Island in 1967. “I flew the Atlantic Ocean to Europe in a two engine airplane and that’s how the Shelter Island ‘Klenawicus International Airport’ got its name.”

From Shelter Island to international educator: Author of Island aviation history living in Berlin

By Ambrose Clancy

Natasha Sell (Credit: Courtesy photo)

We contacted Natasha Sell (formerly Borisova), who wrote a history of aviation as a high school senior. The 2000 Shelter Island High School alumna is currently living in Berlin with her husband, Lorenz Sell.

“I’m so happy to hear this,” Ms. Sell wrote when told her school project would be appearing in the Reporter.

The schoolgirl scholar has stayed with her passion for research, writing, teaching and learning. After graduation from Shelter Island High School, Ms. Sell studied International Relations at Tufts University and then received a Masters from Harvard Graduate School of Education in School Leadership and Development. She has since led global education projects at Harvard, the Asia Society and the Ross Institute. Since 2012, she has entered the entrepreneurial start-up world with Mr. Sell.

They’ve created an online learning platform “focused on group learning and meaningful engagement called Sutra.co.,” Ms. Sell wrote. “We teach a course called Transformational Teaching Online and have helped hundreds of educators, trainers, facilitators, etc., create online learning experiences that emphasize meaningful connection and conversation.”

She splits her time between East Hampton, Moscow and Berlin. Speaking about her research project on Island aviation, Ms. Sell wrote: “It was an incredible experience for me to put that together and I’m so happy it lives on.”