The Airport That Wouldn’t Die

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

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)
Air & Space Magazine

From a long final for Runway 6-24, Albert Whitted Airport looks like an aircraft carrier on the glittering blue of Tampa Bay, neatly berthed alongside the modest skyline of St. Petersburg, Florida. The field is groomed like a fairway, its aprons and tie-down areas dotted with light aircraft that, while mostly middle-aged, seem freshly minted. 

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For some visitors, the tableau will evoke flying in the 1970s. Older hands may picture Betty Grable debarking from a Lockheed L-10 Electra. Why? Because this is what all city airports were once like: small, tidy, fairly busy, and, most important, downtown. Whitted is one of the last of its kind, a relic of a friendlier epoch of aviation.

The best view of the field is from Randy York’s Schweizer 300C helicopter. A compact, cheerful man, York has spent much of his life flying rotary craft, including two tours in Vietnam as a gunship pilot. Buzzing with him around St. Petersburg’s high-
rises, you see how the airport and city blend seamlessly. The airport’s east-west runway flows into First Street South only a few blocks from the heart of town.

When you mention the apparent blurring of boundaries, York dusts off the mother of all airport accessibility stories. An elderly couple, lost after leaving Tampa International, finally reached what they thought was the interstate. But the “freeway” turned out to be a runway, 18-36. Apparently undaunted, they drove their rental car off the end of the pavement and into the bay, where, luckily, police were staging maritime rescue drills.

Just outside the northwest corner of the airport sits one of the city’s water treatment plants, which, when the wind is right, makes its presence known. Next to that is a Coast Guard station, and nearby, a garishly decorated floating casino called Big Easy idles.

The airport’s 110 acres may be the most valuable property in St. Petersburg, the kind of waterside property that makes developers salivate. Land like this, they say, deserves better. But others think the land was meant to be an airport, a place where citizens can hang out and watch the airplanes, largely unimpeded. It’s not just an airport, they’ll tell you, it’s our airport. 

The field has been a target almost from birth. In 1935, just as the airport’s operations were starting to grow, a local investment company wanted to turn the site into wharves. As early as 1940, the powerful St. Petersburg Times began a long campaign to get rid of the airport. In 1958, the city manager tried to close the field and allow development; a local pilots’ association coalesced to defeat his plan.

In 1982, a city council committee proposed peeling off some airport property for a convention center, and giving the remaining land to the nearby University of South Florida. The full council, however, backed the airport. During the dispute, defenders of the airport asked the mayor to form an advisory committee. The mayor demurred, urging instead the creation of a private committee that the city government could not load with its pals. The result was a 12-member firewall between the airport and city politics—a key factor in future battles.

All these were mere skirmishes compared to what was coming. A year after the 2001 municipal election, St. Petersburg’s economic development director, Ron Barton, floated a plan that would close the airport altogether, devote about 60 acres to a bay-front park, and use the other 50 for an “urban, mixed-use community.” The city council rejected the idea, inflaming its proponents, who quickly banded to form the Citizens for a New Waterfront Park. 

In St. Petersburg, any change in the way waterside property is used requires an amendment to the city charter, via a referendum vote. To get the issue on the ballot, proponents must submit a petition signed by at least 10 percent of the voters from the last municipal election. By August 2003, the Citizens for a New Waterfront Park had the necessary 15,000 signatures and a secure place on the November ballot.

“It looked like they would win,” recalls Jack Tunstill, a longtime flight instructor who became one of the generals in the airport war. Now, against what seemed long odds, the airport side fired back. Almost overnight, yellow-and-black signs calling for citizens to support Whitted bloomed like fields of daffodils across Pinellas County. Randy York put a big one in the bed of his pickup and drove it around St. Petersburg. The Advertising Air Force, a company that flies banner advertisements, towed “Save Albert Whitted” signs from its airplanes for free. Money flowed in from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which established a political action committee and paid for a consultant.

About Carl A. Posey

Novelist and award-winning science writer Carl A. Posey was the author of seven published novels, a number of non-fiction books, and dozens of magazine articles. He was a licensed pilot and an Air & Space magazine contributor for more than 30 years, beginning with its second issue in 1986. Posey died on February 9, 2018.

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