Charlotte Niles, who founded the East Hampton Airport to teach locals how to fly in 1946. Photographs courtesy of Charlot Taylor.
By Mara Certic
Charlotte Niles was born in September 1913 in New York. Her father was a lawyer and a founder of the Wildlife Conservation Society. According to her niece, Charlot Taylor of East Hampton, she grew up rather comfortably and spent her summers in the family’s home on Amagansett’s Main Street, where it still stands today.
But when World War II began, Ms. Niles knew it was her time to pitch in. She trained with the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Ms. Taylor still has letters that her aunt wrote to the family during the time of her “rigorous” training in the intense Texas heat.
Ms. Taylor remembers her aunt telling her of the various bombers she flew during the war. The WASP motto was “We live in the wind and sand… and our eyes are on the stars.” Perhaps Ms. Niles took those words to heart, for when the war ended, she decided to come back to where she spent her summers and bring aviation to the East End.
In 1946, Ms. Niles set up shop at the small East Hampton Airport, which, at the time, her niece remembers to be nothing more than a large field. According to her niece, Ms. Niles built a small terminal, a hangar, two short runways and installed a gas pump.
“I don’t even remember that there was a parking lot,” Ms. Taylor said at her East Hampton home on Wednesday. She does remember her aunt flying her around the area, taking her to nearby islands. “‘Let’s go for a spin,’ she’d say” and niece and aunt would spend the afternoon exploring the East End from the sky.
Ms. Taylor also recalls a split rail fence around the airport, and at each post there was “a beautiful red rose,” she said. “Things were done with care and simplicity and beauty. It was a pleasant environment, it was a welcome to visitors,” Ms. Taylor said.
Ms. Niles gave flying lessons for $3 a pop, to local GIs, potato farmers, the two airport secretaries and Perry B. Duryea. According to her niece, she was always trying to teach other women how to fly the small prop planes that, at that time, were the only aircraft in and out of the airport.
One day, a Bonanza plane landed at the East Hampton Airport and Ms. Niles’s life changed. She fell in love with its pilot and they got married. Her husband had a boatyard in Massachusetts, where Ms. Niles ended up spending most of her time.
Ms. Taylor doesn’t remember exactly when her aunt moved on from her airport life, but a Newsday article from December 1955 names the East Hampton Airport manager as a Mr. Lamb. In that same article, the airport manager reportedly rejected a proposed $1.5 million expansion of the airport, deeming it “too grandiose.”
Ms. Niles died in 1981. Next Tuesday, September 9 would have been her 101st birthday, according to her niece.
Another Newsday article, this one from 1952, spoke of socialites stranded on the East End following a Long Island Rail Road strike, who decided to “take to the air.” “The traffic, though unexpected, was not unprecedented at the airport, which has transported as many as 150 passengers in a single week end,” the article read. On one weekend in July this year, there were 623 flights reported at the airport.
Ms. Taylor who said she was previously never particularly affected by aircraft noise, is among the group imploring the town board to reject FAA funding and put in place restrictions. “My aunt would be shocked and horrified to see what the airport has become,” she said at the special airport meeting on August 27. “This was never, never her intention, make no mistake.”