Regional airport has seen tragedy and triumph
The Hudson Valley Regional Airport has witnessed a lot of history, from wartime pilots’ training and the arrival of world leaders and U.S. presidents to mistaken landings and even a hijacking.
The airport, established as New Hackensack Field in the Town of Wappinger in 1930 by the U.S. Department of Commerce, initially served as an emergency landing strip for mail routes between cities on the East Coast. Colonial Airlines, one of the original airmail contractors, was among its first tenants.
Locals grumbled at times about the slow pace of improvements. In a letter to the editor in The Beacon News in 1940, a reader asked: “Is it a flying field, or a cow pasture?”
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered Stewart Field in New Windsor transformed into a pilot-training center for West Point cadets. As part of the order, New Hackensack Field became an auxiliary training facility to practice takeoffs and landings in Vultee BT-13s, and a 60-foot observation tower was constructed.
Pilot training was an elective for the cadets. Of the 514 graduates in June 1943, 206 earned their wings. Four died in training accidents.
At the height of World War II, on June 17, 1942, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill flew into New Hackensack Field from Washington, D.C., aboard a Navy plane. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had come from his home in Hyde Park, was there to greet him in a hand-controlled automobile; polio prevented him from using his legs.
In April 1947, with the war over and the field no longer needed by the military, the War Assets Administration sold the airport, valued at $2 million (about $27 million today) to Dutchess County for $1. A month later, the renamed Dutchess County Airport (DCA) opened on weekends for private flights.
Gov. Thomas Dewey boarded a plane at DCA on Aug. 23, 1950, and flew to Ottawa, Ontario, the Canadian capital, to make what the Albany Times Union described as “one of the most important speeches he has delivered as titular head of the Republican Party,” opposing the seating of “Red China” on the U.N. Security Council.
In May 1959, the airport hosted the Eastern States Soaring Society’s glider meet, which included a reenactment of a 1910 powered flight from Albany to New York City by pioneering aviator Glenn Curtiss.
Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy landed at DCA on Aug. 14, 1960, where he was greeted by 5,000 supporters en route to visit Eleanor Roosevelt in Hyde Park. Two years later, then-President Kennedy again flew into DCA with Vice President Lyndon Johnson and former presidents Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower to attend Mrs. Roosevelt’s funeral. With the Cuban missile crisis at a boiling point, Kennedy was advised to have a telephone installed outside the church, enabling Washington officials to contact him if the situation worsened.
President Bill Clinton flew into DCA in 2000 for one of several visits he made to the mid-Hudson Valley. Presidential candidate Donald Trump followed suit in 2016 on his way to a rally in Poughkeepsie.
Perhaps the most dramatic moments in DCA history took place on Jan. 27, 1972, when Heinrich von George, who had lived in Peekskill until 1970, hijacked a Mohawk Airlines flight from Albany bound for New York City. Armed with a pistol and threatening to blow up the plane, von George demanded $200,000.
The 10-hour drama came to a head after the plane landed at DCA, where the money and a getaway car provided by the Dutchess County sheriff had been placed at the end of the runway. Von George ordered a flight attendant — his sole remaining hostage after the others were released during a stop at the Westchester County Airport — to fill his duffle bag with the cash, then forced her to the car. When von George shot at an approaching FBI agent who told him to surrender, the agent returned fire and killed him.
The gun turned out to be a starter’s pistol. The “bomb” was two water-filled canteens. The flight attendant was not harmed.
While not as dramatic, an unplanned arrival on Sept. 24, 1982, caused a stir: A four-engine Aero Airways DC-8 touched down when the pilot mistook DCA’s 5,000-foot runaway for the 11,800-foot runway at Stewart.
Over the years, a number of airlines offered passenger service, from Colonial Airlines in the 1950s to Command, Colgan, Air North and American Eagle Airlines later on. Commercial flights dropped off after Stewart initiated passenger service in 1990. Commutair, which offered flights to Burlington, Vermont, was the last commercial airline to operate at DCA, ending service in 2001.
In 2016, DCA was renamed Hudson Valley Regional Airport. Jeff Durand, its director of aviation, said about 120 aircraft use the field, mostly for private, recreational flying. In 2021, Dutchess Community College opened a $16 million Aviation Education Center, which has a small fleet of aircraft, including a Grumman G3-C20 jet that once served as Air Force One for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.