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In 2003, Steve Lange (left) chaired a sign-waving group that met each Friday at a different intersection in the city. (Dirk Shadd/St. Petersburg Times)

The Airport That Wouldn’t Die

An embattled Florida field had more than history on its side.

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(Continued from page 3)

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.”

Randy York’s office is in another corner of Hangar One. “I’ve been here since August 1978,” he says. “I got my flight school approved in ’78, set up at Bay Air. A few months later, Van and I partnered up in the helicopter business.” 

York bought the company in 1987 but continued to share Hangar One with Bay Air. “About six years ago, we had 20 helicopters from all over the world. I downsized.” West Florida Helicopters now operates four piston-powered Schweizers in Hangar One. “We do photo flights. Rebuild them for resale.”

An extension grafted onto the north side of Hangar One houses the cluttered upstairs office of airport manager Richard Lesniak, who came to Whitted after the 2003 referendum. He says revenues and rents earn the city $800,000 to $900,000 a year. Last year, the airport had 84,000 takeoffs and landings, with 185 airplanes and 300 jobs based there. “Since 2003,” Lesniak says, “the city has put about $7 million capital in the airport, another $4 million for a new control tower and taxiway improvement—$11 million in five years.”
Completed in 2007, the new terminal is named for John Galbraith, a former Marine pilot, and his wife Rosemary, a former flight attendant. Galbraith moved his investment firm to St. Petersburg because he could fly in and walk to his Bayfront Towers condo. Over the years, his philanthropic impulse pumped millions of dollars into a host of causes, including the airport.

When city playground money became available, Terri Griner, now president of the Albert Whitted Airport Preservation Society, put in a bid to create an aeronautics-theme playground by the control tower. The park, which seems to be always full of children, has a jungle gym modeled on the medevac helicopters that fly from the airport, swings with a blimp motif, and miniature airplanes on spring stands.
The Albert Whitted Airfest, Inc., an annual airshow, earned a small profit in 2006. But in 2007 it lost money, so last year’s show was canceled. The next St. Petersburg Airfest is set for October 23 to 25.

The preservation society has about 30 unpaid volunteers, including Griner, and a pool of perhaps 100 more for special projects. Pancake breakfasts are offered the first Saturday of every month, in tents set up outside the group’s headquarters. “We market the airport,” Griner explains. “We hand out welcome bags in the terminal, with city maps and so forth. We provide all the tours.” They also got Hangar One named an historic landmark, putting another obstacle in the way of those who would try to close the airport.
The most interesting airplane at Albert Whitted may be the red WACO UIC biplane in Tom Hurley’s hangar. This is his second WACO; its predecessor was an open-cockpit UPF-7. The UIC’s enclosed cabin attracts people who want to fly in an old biplane, but don’t want to be blown around.

Hurley is a big, sometimes gruff man whose hands are scarred and stained from the labor of keeping NC13562 flying. Today, he is putting it back together after the annual inspection. Hurley takes people out for hops of various magnitudes, flying low enough for passengers to get biplane experience and for people on the ground to read the big “BIPLANE RIDES” painted on the lower wing’s underside.

Keeping an airport like Albert Whitted alive is not unlike caring for a 75-year-old biplane. History suggests that for downtown airports, “forever” may really mean “for now.”

“The 2003 referendum was very convincing,” says Methot. “We’re accepting federal funds, which obligates us for 20 years. But I don’t think any airport is safe in this country. All it would take to close the airport would be a new referendum.” 

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