Wellesley’s failed attempt to establish an airport

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on January 21, 2016.

You have to admire youthful exuberance. Kids can just get so passionate about their interests. Whether it’s for the Red Sox, Taylor Swift, or texting on their smartphones, our children can show a level of enthusiasm that most adults can’t come close to approaching.

This isn’t a recent phenomenon. Nor is it always about the trivial and inconsequential. Take for instance, Wellesley youth’s obsession with aviation in the late 1920s. Their passion was so deep that it nearly resulted in Wellesley getting its own airport. No joke. A bunch of kids really did stir up enough interest for aviation that the Town came within a hair of permitting the establishment of an airport at the eastern edge of Wellesley!

Specifically, these efforts can be attributed to one small group of students, the Wellesley Aero Club, a short-lived extracurricular organization at the high school.

But before we get to this student group, we first need to understand a little something about the early history of the aeroplane. Sure, everyone knows about the Wright Brothers in 1903 and that it was World War I that proved to the world the critical value of aviation. Fewer people realize, however, that the role planes would play in society was still unclear during the decade following the war.

What actually first helped define this role was the introduction of “aerial mail” by the U.S. Post Office at the beginning of the 1920s, whereby instead of taking five days to send a letter to California by train, it would take only two by plane. Clearly, business and commerce were going to benefit greatly from aviation.

It was largely this new airmail system that led to increased interest about aviation here in Wellesley. Given the town’s location directly along the Boston to New York flight path that the airmail planes followed, pilots would fly overhead on an almost daily basis, much to the excitement of locals.

This wasn’t just because Wellesley residents knew their mail was en route. It was also because the town was able to play a key role in aiding the pilots. One of the challenges with early aviation was the limited technology available for navigation. As there was no radar at the time, and the development of air-to-ground communication was still very much in its infancy, pilots were more or less on their own in the cockpit. It therefore wasn’t uncommon that they would lose their sense of location. One such example: In 1924, an Army aviator came within 15 feet of landing his plane in a field off Weston Road after mistaking it for the Framingham Aviation Field. Oops…

The first step toward improving navigational capabilities within the vicinity of Wellesley was the installation in 1927 of a large airmail beacon by the Federal Government on the Babson Institute campus near the Needham line. Given its visibility from over 50 miles away, this light would help pilots chart their course in poor weather and darkness.

Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence — or maybe it was a response to the excitement over Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in May 1927 – that the Wellesley Aero Club was organized by a group of aviation-enthused high school students that autumn. Although many of the details regarding this club are unknown, it appears that the club’s mission was twofold.

The first is what you could call recreational. Each night, several of its members would stand in the middle of an open field on the corner of Grove and Hampden Streets and use high-powered spotlights to try to communicate with pilots overhead. The ultimate reward? A flash of a plane’s lights in recognition of the students’ efforts.

The Aero Club’s second purpose was pure advocacy. These students truly believed that aviation was the future and that now was time for the town to get on board. Wellesley needed an airport. Not just because it would be an economic boon, but also that the construction of an airport could prevent death or injury. In the late 1920s, there was no landing strip between the airports in East Boston and Framingham. As aviation was still extremely experimental, it was not infrequent that a pilot would become distressed and immediately seek somewhere to land. Wellesley could fill a huge void in the geographic distribution of available landing strips.

Aero Club members worked their hardest to see that this would happen. They began by conducting their own six-month study to determine where an airport could be established within the town. Their recommendation: either a large field off Great Plain Avenue near the Needham line or on what is now the North 40 adjacent to Weston Road. The club also got other Wellesley residents interested in aviation by arranging a public lecture on the subject as well as organizing a field trip to the Boston Airport where 71 residents took turns riding in airplanes — many of them experiencing flight for the very first time.

Youthful enthusiasm about aviation wasn’t just confined to the Aero Club. In 1928, the Wellesley Boy Scouts took the initiative and (with the owner’s permission) painted the word ‘Wellesley’ in 12-foot-high letters on the roof of the Colonial Garage building at the corner of Central Street and Crest Road in order to help guide aviators.

Adults caught the airplane bug, too. In particular, there was an official Town Moderator-appointed committee charged with considering the future of aviation in Wellesley. They likewise agreed with the Aero Club that an airport was needed. They disagreed, however, with the student group’s recommended locations. A better site was the east corner of town to the north of Worcester Street near the Newton line on the current site of Route 128 and the William Street office park.

And so, in May 1929, Town Meeting finally got the chance to approve the issuance of a permit for two businessmen to open an airport on this latter site. Not surprisingly, most voters supported the proposal — 57% to be precise. But alas, it needed a two-thirds majority and too many voters were concerned about an increase in air-traffic noise. A second proposal the following year also saw defeat.

The applicants therefore went next door to Natick and successfully obtained permits in 1931 to establish the Natick-Wellesley Airport on Worcester Street just east of Route 27. Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise for Wellesley. Turns out residents in Natick hated the airport because of noise disturbances and increased vehicular traffic. It shut down in 1937.

Of course, aviation was still going to revolutionize the world. The Wellesley Aero Club, however, was not going to witness any part of it. The student organization appears to have folded in 1930, just three years after its formation.

Nevertheless, the club shouldn’t be forgotten. It provides a fantastic example of how a sector of the youth population can contribute to the political discourse in Wellesley. All that’s needed is passion and a strong work ethic. Surely these exist within many of our younger residents today. So, young folks, if you want to make a difference, speak up! You just might be surprised how much you can accomplish.