The Airport That Wouldn’t Die
An embattled Florida field had more than history on its side.
- By Carl Posey
- Photographs by Mike Ramos
- Air & Space magazine, August 2009
Dirk Shadd/St. Petersburg Times
(Page 4 of 6)
In mid-August 1923, while Clarence was grounded with a broken arm, Albert took four passengers up in the Falcon on a flight to Pensacola. The prop threw a blade and the airplane crashed, killing all aboard. “My dad never fully recovered from Albert’s death,” says Whitted. In 1928, the city opened the airport that bears his name.
In 1929, the Goodyear blimp came to visit, and ended up staying. A huge hangar was raised. It looked like the beginning of a golden age. Unfortunately, the Great Depression was right behind it. By April 1930, all the banks in St. Petersburg had closed, and Goodyear retrieved its airship. All that remains of the blimp are two iron tie-down rings planted in concrete blocks.
Despite the hard times, the city built Hangar One in 1931. Three years later, a young Chicagoan named Ted Baker (no relation to the current mayor) moved in with two used single-engine, four-passenger Ryan Broughams, a skeleton staff, and a government-awarded franchise for the 142-mile St. Petersburg-Daytona Beach mail run. Baker’s outfit was the forerunner of what would become National Airlines, the nation’s seventh largest carrier before it merged with Pan American.
The airport continues to draw visitors, many of whom stay. Henry Van Kesteren, known as Van, first visited Whitted in 1962, while ferrying his family in a Piper Apache from his Air Force assignment in Suriname to a new post at Travis Air Force Base in California. “We landed in Miami to clear Customs,” he recalls, “so I said, ‘Let’s run up to St. Petersburg.’ We stayed at a little hotel across the street. Borrowed a car and toured around. I thought, ‘What a neat little town,’ not knowing I would come back.”
His last posting turned out to be MacDill Air Force Base, across the bay. When his military career ended in 1969, he and wife Ginny, also a pilot, settled into St. Petersburg and immersed themselves in Florida’s real estate boom. Their business card advice: “Let us show you from the air.”
When Bay Air Services, the airport’s fixed base operation, came on the market in 1973, Van Kesteren purchased it with a partner, whom he bought out a year later. He ran Bay Air until 1987, owning and flying just about everything that flew. He was also active in developing supplemental type certificates, which the FAA issues for product modifications. “It’s like a patent,” he explains. His certificates have included composite props for the Piper Malibu and Aerostar. Today his company, VK, Inc., occupies a big blue hangar on the north side of the field, home to a polished Aerostar, a straight-tail Beechcraft Baron, and a blond labrador named Rusty. “I just deal in airplanes that interest me,” says Van Kesteren, now a trim 88 with some 39,000 hours. His most recent acquisition is an Eclipse 500, which he owns with Bud Risser.
Ron Methot, a tall, rangy fellow, now runs Bay Air and St. Petersburg Flight Service. The time-honored tradition of washing and gassing and moving airplanes in exchange for flight time—extinct at many general aviation fields—is alive and well here. “We’ve got guys who were here pumping gas who [now] fly for airlines,” Methot says, who pumped gas himself there at 17. “I am sometimes referred to as a drug dealer, flying being the drug.” Today, he has logged about 25,000 hours. “I’ve always flown off this airport, and I haven’t flown what can’t come in here.”
That would include everything that needs more runway than the 2,864 feet of 18-36 and the 3,677 feet of 6-24. “Short runways mean we don’t have the corporate traffic that takes over an airport,” says Methot. “We have to rely on smaller aircraft users. We don’t sell enough fuel to do this for a living. It got tougher after 9/11.”