at Philadelphia


An outline of the history of the Philadelphia Seaplane Base
and the Mills family of Essington Pa.
 Compiled by Walt Ellis.

Photo of Frank Mills at the Glenn Curtiss
Flying School in San Diego, 1914. [Click to Enlarge]



The state of Pennsylvania purchases the land from a family named Smith, for the purpose of Building a quarantine facility for the port of Philadelphia.


Operated as a Quarantine facility.

Late 1800s-1915

The Orchard Club. Many fruit trees were planted around the grounds; wealthy Philadelphians would come and spend leisure time here away from the city.


Frank Mills worked on the Panama Canal, during that time he saw an airplane fly over and became interested in flying.


Frank Mills attends Glenn Curtiss flying school in SanDiego, Ca. (note, the cost of the school was $1500 to be put up front for insurance for the airplane, then $1.00 per minute).

Jan 1914

Frank Mills receives diploma and gets FAI Hydroplane license, #60, he is then employed by Curtiss as a pilot, flight instructor and mechanic.


Robert Glendenning a Philadelphia banker purchases a Curtiss flying boat. The aircraft was built in Hammondsport, NY and Shipped by rail to Philadelphia. Frank Mills came with the aircraft to help assemble it. Glendenning and Frank apparently got along well, as Frank was offered a job and decided to stay, and work for Glendenning. Subsequently four or five of Glendennings friends also bought Curtiss flying boats, which also came to Philadelphia with pilot/mechanics. The aircraft owners acquired use of the Essington facility in 1915 and started a flying school in 1916, the Philadelphia School of Aviation. They offered free flying lessons to any collage students who would volunteer for military service if the country went to war.


United States goes to war. Frank Mills gets married. The U.S. Army takes over the Essington Flying School, the aircraft, and the personnel. The facility was called Chandler Field, even though there were never any runways there. The facility was used as an induction facility and a school to teach pilots and mechanics. In the winter the Delaware River froze over and could not be used for flying so the army moved the entire operation including aircraft, hangers and personnel to Lake Charles La.


Frank Mills Jr. born in Lake Charles. Frank Mills Sr. sent to Indianapolis by the army to be a test pilot.


With his employment with the army over at the end of the war, Frank applies to the US Post Office and is offered a position as an airmail pilot at a salary of $3600/yr. Before he gets to act on the post Office offer Frank hears that the Essington facility is available for lease, he decides to lease the property and start a flying school in Essington.


C. Robert “Bob” Mills is born. 1924: William Mills is born. All three brothers worked with their father after school and on weekends all three eventually get pilot and mechanics licenses.


Frank Mills purchases the property from the city of Philadelphia for $10,500.


Bob goes to Miami Fla. To work for Pan American as a mechanics helper on the flying boats.


Bob receives his mechanics license. July, Bob gets a call from his mother, his father is very sick and she would like him to come home and help run the seaplane base. Dec. Bob receives his pilot’s license. Frank Mills Sr. passes away.

7 Dec 1941

Pearl Harbor.

8 Dec 1941

Seaplane Base receives a telegram from the federal government, the propellers are to be removed from all airplanes and the hangers are to be locked until further notice.


Bob goes to work at the Naval Aircraft factory in Philadelphia. In June Bob is sworn into the navy as seamen 2nd class in the aviation cadet program.

July 1943

Bob graduates at Pensacola as an Ensign and Naval Aviator, and receives his “Wings”, then continues training to be a torpedo bomber pilot flying Grumman TBF aircraft.


Bob at sea aboard USS Santee in the Pacific. Bob is awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his part in the operation in the Leyte Gulf. Bob returns to the US in Dec. 1944.

April 1945

Bob goes to night fighter school in Daytona Beach, flying Grumman F6F hellcats.

August 1945

War ends.

September 1945

Bob discharged from navy, and returns home and receives his flight instructor certificate. Frank already has the seaplane base operating. When Bill gets out of the navy in 1946 all three brothers operate the base together. They become dealers for Cessna, and Republic Seabee, they do pilot training, airtaxi, and Maintenance. Later Frank decides to go into corporate aviation and takes a job with Westinghouse Airbrake. Bill spends more time with the boating side of the business, and Bob devotes most of his time to the flying side. Bob joins naval reserve and becomes Commanding Officer of Jet Fighter Squadron 934, Willow Grove flying FH Phantoms, and F9F6 Cougars, and the TV-2 Lockheed trainer.


Bob joins AOPA.


Bob becomes a designated flight examiner.


Bob is Chief Pilot for Downtown Airlines, which flew Piper Aztecs on floats, and Dehaviland Twin Otters on floats from Penns Landing in Philadelphia, to Wall Street, in New York city on the East river.


Bob retires from the reserve with the rank of Commander.

June 1990

Bob receives Certificate of Appreciation from FAA.


Bob receives Charles Taylor Award from FAA. (This award is given to people who have been in aircraft maintenance for 50 years).


Bob receives Pilot of the Year Award from the SPA.


Bob receives the Annual Wright Brothers Award, from the Aero Club of Pa.


Bob earns type rating in the Grumman Albatross.


Seaplane property sold. Collection of memorabilia moved to the Millville Army Airfield Base Museum where it is on permanent display.


Base operations continued by manager Hank Grenfel.


The seaplane base was registered to Island Marine Partners. Hank Grenfell served as base manager and Designated FAA Pilot Examiner. Tom DiCecco and Lou Fitzpatrick served as instructors.


Tinicum Township purchased the base, intent on keeping it a seaplane base and making improvements. They plan on restoring the pier, floating docks and the ramp. They plan on obtaining PA state aviation funding, constructing new hangars and providing 100LL fuel. The Lazaretto house will be restored, and a fire house, with large banquet facilities, will be erected between the Lazaretto house and the street.


Float-Flite, Inc. sold the cub and replaced it with a Cessna C172 on Baumann amphibious floats [Photo]. Seaplane instruction resumed.


The floating dock was replaced, and the ramp was usable to accommodate transient seaplane pilots. State and local funding is planned for ramp improvement, including new plates and grading, removal of some pilings and removal of the big tree. See ramp photos.

Sadly, Bob Mills passed away on March 29, 2008 in Daytona Beach at age 87. See Tribute.


Operations resumed out of Spitfire Aerodrome (7N7) in an Amphib 172.


Rumors continue that the township will make improvements to the seaplane base with the intention of keeping it active.


Seaplane instruction continued in the 172-Amphib out of Spitfire Aerodrome (7N7).


Tinicum Township and the Lazaretto Preservation Association of Tinicum Township (LPATT) continued to investigate possibilities for improving the site of the Lazaretto House, including plans to improve the seaplane base.


No training activities taking place. The Aero Club of Pennsylvania started providing input to Tinicum Township to help improve the seaplane base.


The 100th anniversary of seaplane operations at Essington. June Splash-in 2015 attracted 5 seaplanes and many drive-in pilots who had been trained by Bob and Hank over the years.


The 100th anniversary of the aviation school at Essington. June Splash-in 2016 attracted 6 seaplanes, 10 antique cars and about 75 persons from the public. Bids are out for restoration work on the Lazaretto.


Four seaplanes flew in for the 2017 Splash In. Major restoration of the Lazaretto building is expected. Future plans include improvements to the grounds, the seawall, the marina and floating docks for seaplanes.


Restoration of the Lazaretto building is well underway. The old porch has been demolished, the contemporary trees out front are gone (but not the BIG tree). Construction fences abound.