The Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) greets millions of visitors to the city every year, yet the surrounding neighborhood - which includes Southwest Philadelphia and part of Delaware County - is one of the lesser known areas, even to some Philadelphia locals. The Philadelphia Seaplane Base, located on an eight-acre plot of land along the Delaware River and west of the airport in Essington, a town in Tinicum Township, Delaware County, is a special spot in our community with a rich history.
Keesha Lane, PHL’s Assistant Director of Community Engagement & Outreach, is thrilled for the opportunity to work with airport partners to shine a light on the surrounding community and some of its hidden gems.
“Philadelphia is packed with things to do, but so many of us drive by spots like the Philadelphia Seaplane Base on a daily basis on our way to work or home, and have no idea of the role of this historic waterfront site,” said Lane. “I’m so excited to help uncover some of these spots for our neighbors to enjoy and create a destination for locals, tourists and aviation enthusiasts.”
The Lazaretto Building, a historic building on the site that was restored by Tinicium Township for use as office space, originally served as a quarantine facility for the Port of Philadelphia from 1800-1890; it then became The Orchard Club until 1915, a spot for wealthy Philadelphians to spend leisure time away from the city.
Robert Glendenning and Frank Mills, Sr. acquired use of the facility in 1916 and opened the Philadelphia School of Aviation. Both shared a keen interest in flying and had bonded after the delivery of Glendenning’s Curtiss Flying Boat a year earlier, part of a family of early flying boats developed in the United States prior to World War I. Mills was a licensed seaplane pilot, employed by Glenn Curtiss Flying School as a pilot, flight instructor and mechanic. The aircraft owners began offering free flying lessons at the Essington facility to any college students who would volunteer for military service if the country went to war.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the U.S. Army took over control of the school, the aircraft, and its personnel, renaming it Chandler Field - the first seaplane base in Pennsylvania. It was used as an induction facility and a school to teach pilots and mechanics.
Mills later purchased the property from the City of Philadelphia in 1936 for $10,500; after his death in 1940, the operation of the base transferred to Mills’ three sons - Bob, Frank and Bill. While the base was shut down during World War II when the U.S. government curtailed all civilian flying within 50 miles of the coast, the brothers reopened it after the war, where they operated it for nearly 60 years; they offered pilot training, air taxi, and maintenance services. The base was a well-known spot for giving seaplane ratings to airline pilots who came through PHL on layovers.
Tinicum Township purchased the base in 2006. Today, it remains a township-owned, public-use seaplane base with one seaplane landing area. As of 2008, it had 4,500 general aviation aircraft operations with an average of 12 per day. The Township continues to make improvements to the grounds, the seawall, the marina and floating docks for seaplanes.
Since 2015, the 100th anniversary of seaplane operations, Friends of the Philadelphia Seaplane Base 9N2 and the Tinicum Township Historical Society have hosted a Splash-In - a fun event for visitors and the regional aviation community to share their interest in seaplanes and the history of the base. While the 2020 event was canceled due to COVID-19 and the 2021 event was held virtually due to debris in the water following Hurricane Ida, supporters look forward to resuming an in-person celebration in 2022.
Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Seaplane Base.