10 Amazing Abandoned Airports and Airbases
You’d think the sky-high costs of constructing an airport would ensure that some boss, somewhere, would make sure they stayed in operation as long as possible. But times change, technology moves on, and geopolitical strife interferes with even the best-laid plans. As a result, forgotten commercial airports and military airbases lie abandoned around the world, their once state-of-the-art equipment now rusting into ruins fit for cows, car races, and intrepid Instagrammers.
1. ŽELJAVA AIR BASE // CROATIA, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA
Željava Air Base was constructed underneath Plješevica Mountain along the border of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Built in secret between 1957 and 1965 under the codename “Objekat 505,” the base cost a whopping $6 billion or so was meant to provide a strategic command center and long-range early radar warning system for the Yugoslavian armed forces, according to Atlas Obscura. The base was also designed to take a hit from a 20-kiloton nuclear bomb, house 1000 people, and launch a jet from each of its four exits (which kind of makes it sound like an ideal super-villain lair).
The base remained in use until the Yugoslav National Army decided to destroy it in 1991 while withdrawing from the area, and the Military of Serbian Krajina (a short lived quasi-state in the chaos of Yugoslavia’s breakup) exploded 56 tons of explosives there the following year, just to make sure the place was no good to anyone. Well, almost: Today, the Bosnian Federation uses the base to train bomb-sniffing dogs, thanks to the huge amount of unexploded munitions that still litter the site.
2. FLOYD BENNETT FIELD // BROOKLYN, N.Y.
Built on Barren Island, an old New York dumping ground, and the surrounding swamp (filled in withsix million cubic yards of sand), Floyd Bennett Field officially opened as New York City’s first municipal airport in 1931. But the Great Depression had caused commercial air traffic to take a nosedive (figuratively), the airport was never able to lure the airmail contracts away from Newark Airport, and it was too difficult to get to for most New Yorkers. Instead, it became world famous as an airport for aviation pioneers. Amelia Earhart, Howard Hughes, and Wiley Post all used the site as points of departure for record-breaking flights. Then, in 1939, the future LaGuardia Airport opened, and two years later the Floyd Bennett Field was sold to the U.S. Navy. Today, one of the hangers has been converted for use by Historic Aircraft Restoration Project and several have been transformed into a sports complex, but much of the rest of the site has been left in ruins.
3. ELLINIKON INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT // GREECE
Built in 1938 as the first airport to serve Athens, construction wasn’t even complete when the Nazis seized the airfield during their occupation of Greece. (The airfield went on to be attacked at least a dozen times by U.S. and British bombers and fighters during World War II.) After the war, the Greek government allowed the United States Air Force to use the airport for several years, before the Americans returned the field to the Greeks in 1956.
The airport stayed busy for the rest of the 20th century, but closed in 2001 after a glitzier airport was constructed for the 2004 Summer Olympics. The northwest side of the site was redeveloped for the Olympics, but today many of the hangars, as well as much of the rest of the site, are abandoned and littered with trash. Airplanes sit idle on the runways, the gates still showing signs for flights that departed over a decade ago. A €7 billion plan to redevelop the site as a coastal resort has been floated by developers—but with Greece’s economy in a tailspin, the place may stay a picturesque ruin for years to come.
4. GAZA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT // GAZA
Built for $86 million, the Gaza International Airport opened in 1998 but permanently closed three years later after its control tower and radar station were bombed by Israel Defense Forces. The IDF also bulldozed the runway in 2002, although staff continued to serve some areas of the airport until 2006. Today, Palestinians have taken to digging up parts of the airport (later renamed Yasser Arafat International Airport) for reuse as construction material. The airport is also the site of a happier memory: In 2010, more than 7000 Gazan children set a Guinness World Record by simultaneously dribbling basketballs on an intact portion of a ramp.
5. THE NICOSIA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT // CYPRUS
The Nicosia International Airport, which opened in 1939, has been mostly abandoned for 40 years. Once the main airport for the island of Cyprus, most of the facility has been empty since Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974. Part of the site is now used as the headquarters of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, but many of the other buildings are in tatters, and the airport is part of a United Nations controlled buffer zone (in other words: don’t try to visit). A damaged 1970s Cyprus Airways plane still lingers on the runway, a remnant of an attempt to evacuate civilians four decades ago.
6. UPPER HEYFORD BASE // OXFORDSHIRE, ENGLAND
Created during World War I and used by the British Royal Air Force mostly as a training base from 1918 until 1950, the Upper Heyford base was transferred to the United States Air Force at the start of the Cold War. The Americans added a few touches to make the place seem more like home, according to USA Today, including a shopping mall, bowling alley, baseball diamond, pizza parlors, donut shops, and American-style fire hydrants and street signs. At its height in the 1970s and 1980s, 13,000 U.S. servicemen were stationed at the base, and three spy planes flew out from the site regularly to patrol the perimeter of the Communist bloc. The U.S. Air Force abandoned the base in 1993, and its future has been controversial ever since—some see it as a blight on the landscape, and others as an important monument to Cold War history. Much of the site lies in ruins, although the interiors of some rooms (including the Mission Control Center) appear to be veritable time capsules. A preservation effort is underway, and while sneaking onto the site is a bad idea (it's heavily controlled by security), tours are available.
7. JOHNSTON ATOLL AIRPORT // U.S. MINOR OUTLYING ISLANDS
Located on one of the most isolated atolls in the world, more than 700 nautical miles southwest of Hawaii, this tiny airport was a U.S. military base for much of the 20th century before closing in 2005. (That could be a good thing—nuclear weapons testing in the 1960s contaminated the island with plutonium.) The site was also home to bioweapons tests on barges full of rhesus monkeys, and served as a chemical weapons storage site. The runway is closed and abandoned, but reportedly sometimes still used in emergencies.
8. BAGEROVO AIRFIELD // CRIMEAN PENINSULA
The Bagerovo airfield on the Crimean Peninsula, about 700 kilometers southeast of Kiev, has mysterious origins—perhaps due to its top-secret classification for many years. It was already in use by the early 1940s, and after the war it was rebuilt to test cruise missiles and perform aerial nuclear explosions, among other dangerous tasks. The place was so secret, personnel were known as "deaf-and-dumb," meaning they wouldn't even acknowledge inquiries about their job, let alone answer them. In 1971, the airfield was de-classified, after the media acquired some photos of activities at the site. In the 1980s, the airfield's extra-long runways were home to the Soviet space shuttle Buran, and was also used as a training ground for Soviet pilots. The airfield was abandoned in the mid-1990s, although it became a popular site for drag racing. A developer bought the site in 2012, with plans to dismantle the runways and place wind turbines there instead—perhaps a nice coda to the site’s nuclear past.
9. MARINE AIR CORPS STATION EL TORO // NEAR IRVINE, CALIF.
The Marines based their West Coast aviation efforts out of this 4600-acre airport for several decades during the mid-20th century, but you might know it as the place where Will Smith departs to greet the aliens in Independence Day. The base was commissioned in 1943, and in 1950 became a "permanent Master Jet Station and center of support for the operation and combat readiness of Fleet Forces, Pacific," according to the Navy. The four runways were designed to handle the most gigantic aircraft the U.S. military had to offer, and the base was home to a famous air show for years. Decommissioned in 1999, there are plans to convert it into a massive metropolitan park, but it's currently used as a filming location for the likes of Will Smith and Top Gear.
10. PEARLS AIRPORT // GRENADA
The charmingly named Pearls Airport in Grenada was the country's first, but it hasn't seen air traffic in years. Abandoned after the U.S. invasion in 1983, it's now home to some wandering goats and cows, as well as two decaying Soviet planes (a reminder of Cuba's presence in Grenada from 1979 to 1983). Locals say the Cold War relics were damaged during the invasion, and have been falling into ruin in a field ever since. Like a few other abandoned airports around the world's, Pearls is now a popular drag-racing locale.
BONUS: CIUDAD REAL CENTRAL AIRPORT // SPAIN
Spain holds the unfortunate distinction of being home to a number of white elephant airports, due to the size of its construction bubble at the start of the 21st century and the force with which it burst during the Great Recession.
The Ciudad Real Central Airport airport, about an hour outside Madrid, was also called the Don Quixote Airport (fitting, given that character’s delusions of grandeur). Built for €1 billion ($1.1 billion), the airport opened in 2008 but went bankrupt and closed in 2012 after failing to attract enough interest from airlines. While lying abandoned for the last few years, it became a symbol of Spain’s economic woes in the wake of the Great Recession. Last month, a group of Chinese investors placed a €10,000 ($11,000) bid at a bankruptcy auction for the site. The auction has attracted no other bidders, but the sale won't close until September—so if owning your own abandoned airport has always been your dream, now’s your chance.