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)
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Bud Risser notes that the voters were not just supporting aviation. Crucial reinforcements came from a “number of other constituencies that had nothing to do with flying,” he says. “One group didn’t want to see high-rise buildings near the waterfront. Another group, in west St. Petersburg, worried that too much emphasis was on downtown.”

It was a resounding victory. “After the election, I looked at every precinct,” Risser says. “The one we didn’t carry, off the south end of the airport, was a 49-51 split. The demographics were everybody.”   

To many residents, a vote for the airport was also a vote for preserving important aviation history. Ninety-five years ago, on January 1, 1914, a Benoist XIV flying boat lifted off from the bay front before a cheering crowd and flew the 21 miles across the water to Tampa. It was the world’s first scheduled airline flight. Young pioneer pilot Tony Jannus became the world’s first commercial airline skipper and Mayor Abram C. Pheil the first scheduled-airline passenger. A flying replica of the Benoist, built for the 75th anniversary of the first flight, hangs in the St. Petersburg Museum of History not far from the airport.

James Albert Whitted became the local face of aviation. During World War I, he’d been one of the first pilots in the U.S. Navy, teaching at Pensacola and flying from the improvised carrier Langley. After the war, Albert began designing and building airplanes with his brother Clarence, a talented mechanic. Together, they built two pusher-type seaplanes, the Bluebird and the Falcon.

“My dad was a genius on any kind of engine,” says Eric Whitted, a retired educator who has become keeper of the Whitted brothers legend. Then, as now, flying was great fun, but not necessarily a living. “Albert didn’t have to work,” his nephew explains. “My grandmother owned most of the real estate around Central Avenue.” 

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. 

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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