A couple of years ago I stood on the top deck of the inverted-pyramid Pier enjoying the view and a stiff breeze coming from the north. As I looked southward I noticed a small yellow plane struggle to make headway as it took off from Albert Whitted Airport. Eventually, the plane picked up a bit of speed and was gone.
I wondered why an airport was located so close to downtown St. Pete, and thought it would be interesting to find out more about its history. I began with a quick look on the internet, and found the Albert Whitted Airport Preservation Society’s website at https://awaps.org/, which was very informative.
Birthplace of Scheduled Flight
I learned that Albert Whitted Airport is recognized as the birthplace of scheduled flight. The first scheduled passenger flight in history, from St. Petersburg to Tampa, took to the air on January 1,1914, departing from the waters of Bayboro Harbor in a “flying boat” designed by Thomas Benoist. The pilot was Tony Jannus and the first paying passenger, former Mayor A.C. Pheil, who bid $400 for the privilege.
Many people are not aware that the land on which the airport is built is the result of a 1920s dredging and landfill project, which turned a five-mile stretch of the city’s natural shoreline into a “sea walled front yard”. The dredging of Bayboro Harbor produced the landfill that would become the city’s first public airfield.
The airfield was built on this land in 1928 and named for Lieutenant James Albert Whitted, a St. Pete native and one of the first 250 naval aviators. Commissioned just as the United States entered the World War I in 1917, he survived the war but died several years later in a plane he had designed and built.
Albert Whitted Airport opened under this new name in the summer of 1929. At the time it was the smallest of three airports in the area, and the only one owned and operated by the city. In 1934, National Airlines initiated service from Albert Whitted, and eventually merged with Pan Am.
Through the Years
A blimp hangar was built at Albert Whitted Airport in 1929 to house the Goodyear Blimp, which arrived in December of that year. The blimp’s time at the airport was short-lived due to the stock market crash and bank failures of the depression, but there is still an occasional touch-and-go by contemporary blimps flying in to cover special events.
In 1934-1935, the Coast Guard station was built in the southeast corner of the airport. During World War II, the Coast Guard at Albert Whitted were part of the effort to hunt German submarines in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. During World War II the airport was also converted to military use as a flight training base for Naval and Marine Corps aviators.
After the war, general aviation activity resumed alongside Coast Guard activity at the airport. In 1976 the Coast Guard wanted to add four large, land-based aircraft, but they proved too large for the airport’s short runways, forcing them to move their air station to Clearwater. Albert Whitted became a non-flying Coast Guard installation and remains home to several cutters (Coast Guard ships).
In the 1970s, Albert Whitted Airport offered a “Penny a Pound” promotion: folks who would like to take an airplane flight would pay just one cent for each pound they weighed. You stepped on a scale, and paid accordingly—if it read 150 pounds, your ticket was $1.50!
Today the airport is still owned and operated by the City of St. Petersburg. Tens of thousands of general aviation flights take off and land there each year. Albert Whitted provides various aviation services, including aircraft fueling, storage and parking; aircraft charter and rentals, sightseeing tours and more. Several lifesaving organizations utilize the airport, including the Civil Air Patrol, Bayflite medevac, and various organ transplant flying services, such as Care Flight.
For young people who may be interested in flying, the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) Chapter 47 offers two great programs where first flights are absolutely free: Young Eagles for ages 8-17 and Flying Start for 18 and up. Volunteer pilots give their time, planes and fuel to provide this fun and exciting service to our community.
The terminal is located on the north end of the field at 540 First Street SE. Inside are several aviation-related businesses as well as a pretty good restaurant called The Hangar. The restaurant is on the second floor so you can dine while you watch planes and helicopters take off and land. If you enjoy al fresco dining there is a large balcony. My wife and I dine there often.
For more information on the airport and its amenities, please visit http://www.stpete.org/visiting_the_city/airport/index.php.