Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine, March – 2012
By Jim Ignasher
North Central Airport opened in 1951, but how many know it was actually re-named Peters-Fournier Airport in 1953? And who, by the way, were Peters and Fournier? Theirs is but one of the forgotten tales connected to Smithfield’s state-owned airport which lies tucked away in the northeast corner of town.
Just as the invention of the automobile led to the necessity of the parking lot, the airplane created the need for airports. The earliest “airports” were nothing more than grass fields, but the first airplanes didn’t require much space for take-offs and landings.
The advent of World War II led to the rapid advancement of aviation technology, for in just five short years the United States went from propeller driven planes to high-powered jets. By wars end it was clear that small grassy airfields would no longer be adequate to handle modern post-war aircraft. This led to the genesis of what later became Smithfield’s North Central Airport.
Even before the end of the war, there were those in northern Rhode Island who were preparing for peacetime commerce, and those plans included the construction of a modern state-owned airport that could service the Blackstone Valley region. In March of 1945, members of the Woonsocket and Pawtucket Chambers of Commerce met to discuss the feasibility of such an undertaking. At that time, northern Rhode Island already had four airports. There was Smithfield Airport, located where Bryant University stands today; Montgomery Field in North Smithfield; What Cheer Airport in Pawtucket; and Woonsocket Airport. All were considered for possible expansion, and each was rejected for different reasons.
The proposed airport had to be located within easy access to Providence, Woonsocket, and Pawtucket, with room for future expansion. A large area of mostly undeveloped land on the Smithfield-Lincoln town line seemed to fit the requirements, and by the summer of 1945 it was officially announced that the site for the present-day airport had been selected. Understandably, not everyone supported the decision; especially those who stood to have their land taken under eminent domain by the state. Despite any protests, within a year, 862 acres had been condemned, and the project was set to move forward. However, due to political infighting, rising cost estimates, and problems with funding, actual clearing of the land didn’t begin until February of 1950. Construction took another twenty-two months as costs ran higher than original estimates. An interesting bit of trivia relates to the fact that twelve miles of electrical wire was installed during construction.
Dedication ceremonies took place on December 15, 1951. Part of the celebration included a helicopter owned by New England Helicopter Service that carried 1,700 pieces of mail out of the airport to the Saylesville post office in Lincoln. The mail contained souvenir cachets that received a special cancellation stamp before being mailed out. Today, due to their rarity, these cachets are sought after by collectors.
North Central Airport gets its name for being in the northern-central portion of the state. It couldn’t be called Smithfield Airport because that name was already in use. Many are probably unaware that the airport actually has another name, although it is seldom if ever used. In 1953, the airport was re-dedicated as the Peters-Fournier Airport in honor of Cranston native Private First Class George J. Peters, U.S. Army, and Connecticut native, Sergeant William G. Fournier, United States Marine Corps, both World War II Medal of Honor recipients.
PFC Peters was part of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment that landed in an open field near Fluren, Germany, on March 25, 1945. Almost immediately an enemy machine gun opened fire on them killing several men. The rest found themselves pinned down in the open with no place to hide as the gunner methodically swept the field with bullets. With disregard for his own safety, Peters single-handedly attacked and silenced the machine gun, but was mortally wounded in the process. His actions undoubtedly saved the lives of others in his unit. Besides the airport, a school in Cranston is also named for him.
On June 28, 1943, during heavy fighting on Guadalcanal, Sergeant Fournier’s unit was attacked by overwhelming enemy forces and ordered to withdraw. Fournier and another Marine, Lewis Hall, sacrificed their lives when they ignored the orders and stuck to their machine gun position to cover the retreat of their comrades. Their gallantry saved the lives of many Marines who later re-grouped and counter attacked, eventually winning the battle.
On October 19, 1963, an air show sponsored by the Pawtucket Rotary Club was held at North Central which began with a skywriting greeting to the crowd of approximately 15,000 attendees. Among the attractions were aerial stuntmen who performed wing-walks, precision flying, and daring transfers from moving vehicles to low flying airplanes. One daredevil jumped from an altitude of two miles wearing a special suit that allowed him to perform a series of loops and whirls while trailing smoke before opening his parachute at a mere 1,500 feet.
The airport has an administration building that hasn’t changed much since it was built. In 1977 it was dedicated as the Chester M. Spooner Memorial Building, the name of which can be seen over the main entrance from the parking lot. Mr. Spooner was a native of Pawtucket, and former publisher of the (Pawtucket) Evening Times who was very influential in helping to make North Central Airport a reality.
As with any airport, North Central has seen its share of accidents; the total number of which may never be known for accurate record keeping did not exist before the 1960s.
The first known accident occurred several months after the airport opened, on July 19, 1952, when a 29-year-old man was fatally injured when his plane crashed just after take-off in a cow pasture one-hundred feet beyond the runway.
Some accidents were the result of pilot error, such as the one which occurred in November of 1966, when the pilot forgot to lower his aircraft’s wheels before landing; or the piggy-back landing – midair collision that occurred in September of 1968 when two planes tried to land on the same runway at the same time.
Other less notable accidents involved collapsed landing gear, aircraft overshooting the runway and crashing into trees, ground collisions, and the occasional “nose-over”.
On September 8, 1997, North Central Airport was the scene of one of Rhode Island’s most horrific civil aviation accidents in terms of loss of life, and the worst to ever occur at the airport, or in the town of Smithfield. On that day, a Cessna 182E carrying a group of skydivers crashed on take-off killing five of the six people aboard. One of those aboard was a twenty-one year-old Massachusetts woman who was making her first parachute jump. Her parents and boyfriend had come to support her, one of whom carried a video camera that captured the crash on film.
For some unknown reason there seems to be a bit of confusion, at least for some, as to the exact location of the airport. It’s hard to believe, but some sources have it listed as being in Pawtucket, while others think it’s in Lincoln, probably due to the Lincoln mailing address of 380 Jenckes Hill Road. Posters advertising events at the airport in recent years have cited both locations. To be fair, some of the undeveloped acreage is located in Lincoln, but just to set the record straight, the airport proper is definitely in Smithfield.