Orlando Municipal Airport, Shawnee Airlines and the Beechcraft 99 Commuter

When I was a kid, my mom was a travel agent. She started with the Grace Steamship Lines in downtown Chicago in the 1950’s, where she met my Dad.

Lucky for me.

Mom was hired by Orlando-based Shawnee Airlines in the late 1960’s as head of the new airline’s reservations department at Herndon Airport, now Orlando Executive Airport.

A little history: The Orlando Municipal Airport opened in October of 1928. Pan American Airlines provided regular service between Orlando and Cuba and Puerto Rico. During WWII, the Orlando Municipal Airport became the Orlando Air Base, for pilot training.

In 1946, after the end of the war, the City of Orlando took back control of the Orlando Air Base from the military, and major airlines Delta, Eastern and National started scheduled service. In 1961, OMA was renamed Herndon Airport, but by 1968, the majors had relocated their operations to the old McCoy AFB, eight miles to the south. Hendon’s runways were too short for the coming jet age.

Orlando Municipal Airport and Terminal opened 1951

This void in passenger service left Herndon Airport open to commuter operations for short hop flights within the state. In 1968, Shawnee Airlines stepped in to fill that void at ORL. Shawnee was a Florida-based commuter airline that operated Beech 99’s, Martin 404s, DC3s, Aero Commanders, and briefly, turbine Twin Otters to the Disney STOL port. Most people don’t know that Walt Disney World ever had its own airport.

Shawnee Airlines Schedule

Initially Shawnee Airlines flew to 14 Florida cities, including Daytona Beach, Ft. Myers, Palm Beach and others, on a daily basis. Later, after going through several reorganizations, the airline also added the Bahamas as a scheduled destination, landing in Nassau, Treasure Cay, North Eleuthera and Bimini. In the late 1970’s, the airline completely folded after losing its FAA operating certificate for poor maintenance practices.

The Shawnee Beech 99s I remember flying in as a kid were civilian aircraft produced Beechcraft in Wichita, KS. The aircraft is an un-pressurized twin turbo-prop, 15-seat passenger plane, with a crew of two. There were no frills and no stewardesses. The 99 was designed in the 1960’s to replace the aging Beechcraft Model 18, which first flew in 1937. The maiden flight of the BE-99 was in July 1966, and the FAA issued the type certificate in May of 1968.

If you look closely, you will see that Beech built the 99 Model from the parts bin, using the wing structure of the Beech Queen Air, and the engines and nacelles of the Beech King Air. There were several engine iterations over the years, starting with a Pratt & Whitney PT6A-27 versions, churning out 550 horsepower, to PT6A-36 engines, flat-rated at 715 shaft horsepower. Only the King Air is still in production today.

Beech 18

In 1984, Beech Aircraft introduced the Beech 1900 turboprop, a pressurized 19-passenger commuter airplane to replace the 99. The BE-1900 is still in wide use today, and the remaining 99s are typically in cargo operations.

I can recall flying in the Beech 99s as a kid from Herndon Airport down to visit relatives in South Florida. We would depart Orlando, land at West Palm Beach to drop and pick up passengers, and then on to Ft Lauderdale. It sure beat riding the Greyhound bus. I still have some old black and white Polaroid photos of the Florida landscape from 9,000 feet taken from those old Beech 99s.

Nowadays, Orlando Exec is home to just General Aviation operations. The days of scheduled airliners and commuters are long gone. It’s too bad too, because the downtown Orlando business district is just a 3 mile trip from Exec. The only positive to not having scheduled service is the lack of continuous presence of the TSA.

Beech 1900

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