This past week I had a conference in St. Petersburg, FL. The decision was whether to drive 2 ½ hours to St. Petersburg, FL for two days of meetings, or fly the A36 and arrive in less than a half hour.
In this case, flying to KSPG rather than driving to attend the conference at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort was a no-brainer. Dealing with I-4 and I-275 traffic through downtown Tampa, across the Gandy Bridge, and then through St. Petersburg can be hectic during periods of light traffic. During rush hour, it can be madness. Besides, my hotel was less than a mile from the airport. The lineman was a nice young man, who attends the University of South Florida, and he graciously offered me a ride in the FBO’s van over to the hotel.
The St. Petersburg area has a long aviation history. Before there was an aerodrome, seaplane service was started near downtown.. On January 1, 1914, a Benoist XIV flying boat took off from the water and flew 21 miles across Tampa Bay to Tampa, starting the first U. S. scheduled airline service. The airfield itself was not built until later, on landfill from dredging Tampa Bay, and opened in 1929.
The namesake for the airport is Lt. James Albert Whitted, USNR, a native of the city. Lt. Whitted was one of the first WWI naval aviators commissioned in 1918. After the war ended, he gave rides to locals, flying in an amphibious plane he designed and built. Unfortunately, he perished in 1923, along with four passengers, after a propeller failure.
In 1934, National Airlines, one of the country’s first commercial airlines, began civilian service out of Albert Whitted. But like almost all other airports, Whitted was converted to military use during WWII, and was used for training Cadets.
On my flight over to St. Pete, I was assigned a 270 degree heading, directly over the top of Tampa International Airport’s East-West runway. This is actually the best way to transition Tampa airspace, and avoid the conga line of commercial jets landing and departing KTPA. At 3000 feet, I watched beneath me as 757’s and Airbuses took off to the south.
Flying westbound past Tampa, approach control gave me a descent clearance to 1,600, turned me south, and then cleared me for the visual approach to RWY 18 at KSPG.
Albert Whitted Airport is directly on Tampa Bay. A mile from touchdown, I descended over the St Pete Pier, and on short final, a gaggle of small sailboats participating in a regatta. The tops of their masts seemed like they were just mere feet below my landing gear as I approached the runway threshold.
Flying small airplanes into downtown St. Petersburg was almost not an option. The air field has been in the sights of developers since the beginning of its existence. Starting in 1935, a local developer wanted to close the airport and turn the site into wharves.
In 1940 the St. Petersburg Times newspaper began an ugly PR campaign to close the airport. And in 1958, the city manager tried to shut down Albert Whitted airport and allow development on the valuable bay front property. Each time, local pilots and community leaders banded together and defeated the assaults.
In 2003, a developer once again tried to persuade the city of St Petersburg to close the airport and allow him develop it into high rise, bay front condos, a small park and commercial space. Fortunately, the local aviation community rallied again to save Whitted, and a referendum was put on the ballot. Fortunately, local residents recognized what a jewel their little downtown airport was. Despite a disinformation campaign by the St. Petersburg Times, on November 4th, 2003, the citizens ignored the fear mongering and voted down the condo proposal by a 72%-28% margin.
At age 74, the little airport was given another lease on life and spiffed up. A new Terminal building was constructed, including an on-field restaurant. Later, a new Air Traffic Control Tower was erected.
Thanks citizens of St. Pete, for saving this national treasure. You had the foresight that Chicago did not have with Meigs Field. I’ll be back.