History Repeats at Albert Whitted Airport

Mayor Ken Welch has called for another look at Albert Whitted and alternative uses, noting again possible expansion of the downtown waterfront parks. Photo courtesy of the City of St. Petersburg.

You might think aviation in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County began 1914 with the launching of the first commercial airline from the St. Petersburg Pier. Actually, the city’s aviation roots can be traced to what would become Albert Whitted Airport, where the first recorded flight in the county took off in 1912. 

In that year celebrated pioneer pilot Leonard Warden Bonney brought a new Wright Brothers biplane to St. Pete as part of an exhibition tour. The airstrip he used was a spit of sand extending into Tampa Bay at Bayboro Harbor, made from the harbor dredging. Bonney tried to charge admission to see his biplane up close, but few paid the price (25c for adults and 15c for children).  Most watched the plane from a distance for free. Bonney was killed in 1928 while test-flying his experimental airplane known as the Bonney Gull in New York. The plane had unique wings shaped like those of a gull.

In 1917 a much larger landfill was leveled at Bayboro, and other barnstorming airplanes made occasional appearances. While many pilots would come and go, St. Petersburg also began to see its own cadre of local pilots. A few of these got their training from the first airline, which also operated a flight school. Notable among these was Bird Latham, manager of the St. Petersburg Electric Light and Power Company. Latham was also the “Exalted Ruler” of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks and likely responsible for the mysterious Elks’ flag that flew on the Benoist airboat, the first airliner, on its first flight between St. Petersburg and Tampa. Lathan bought one of the Benoist airboats after it ceased operation. Another celebrated early local pilot was Johnny Green. A colorful character, he provided sky rides over the city, operated a flight school near the pier, and was involved in gun running to Cuba. For a time, he also operated the Green Lantern Dance Pavilion on the approach to the Municipal Pier.

The airport’s namesake, James Albert Whitted, was an early Navy pilot and operated an aerial sight-seeing business in St. Petersburg, image 1917. Courtesy of St. Petersburg Museum of History.

The city’s best-known pilot was James Albert Whitted, who came from a pioneer St. Pete family. His father, T. A. Whitted, served on the town council in 1894 and 1895. Albert, as he was known, was born in 1893. He enlisted in the Aviation Corps in 1917 and was one of the first 250 flyers in the U. S. Navy; his pilot’s number was 179. Albert was commissioned a first lieutenant in 1918 and served as a chief instructor of advanced flying at Pensacola. He began commercial flying in St. Pete in 1919, flying hundreds of residents and tourists. With his brother, Clarence, he designed and built a pusher-type seaplane christened the Bluebird. In 1921 he built the Falcon. Two years later, while flying near Pensacola, he and four passengers were killed when the propellor of the Falcon broke.

It was in 1928 that the city council authorized construction of an airfield at the eastern end of 7th Avenue South, named in honor of Albert Whitted. While the airport occupied approximately 110 acres, it was a modest facility with only one runway. The airport was dedicated on February 25-26, 1929, but Albert Whitted was not the city’s first airport. That distinction goes to Piper-Fuller Airport, located on the site of today’s Walter Fuller Park in west St. Petersburg, which opened three years earlier and operated until the beginning of World War II. A third airport, Grand Central located on Weeden Island, opened in 1929 and continued until about 1937. It was later renamed Sky Harbor and struggled to operate, finally closing for good in 1948. Amazingly, the small town of St. Petersburg boasted three airports in the 1930s. In 1941, St. Petersburg-Clearwater International (PIE) got underway and continues to thrive to this today.  

Postcard depicting the Good Year blimp and hangar. A blimp was stationed at Albert Whitted from 1930 until 1939. Courtesy of Michaels Family Collection.

Shortly after Albert Whitted opened, Chamber of Commerce Publicity Director John Lodwick came up with one of his many brainstorms for promoting the city: Goodyear blimps.  He arranged for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company to locate a blimp at the new Albert Whitted Airport and got the city to pay for construction of a necessarily large hangar. On December 11, 1929, the blimp Vigilant of St. Petersburg was christened and gave rides to VIPs over the city. The blimp Reliance paid a visit in 1932, and in 1933 the dirigible Akron paid a visit. Blimps were stationed at the airport until 1939.

Various New Deal programs in the 1930s provided substantial improvements for the airport, including funding for a seaplane hangar capable of housing five “huge amphibians” as part of the construction of a Coast Guard Air Station (CGAS). CGAS St. Petersburg was one of the original 10 Coast Guard air stations in the country. One of the first Coast Guard pilots stationed at St. Petersburg was R. T. “Pop” Cupples who had the distinction of being the Navy’s first pilot. His pilot’s license was awarded in 1906 – a mere three years after the Wright brothers’ first flight.

Envelope commemorating the 146th anniversary of the U.S. Coast Guard with the St. Petersburg Coast Guard Air Station at Albert Whitted. Courtesy of Michaels Family Collection.

G. T. “Ted” Baker founded National Airlines in 1934, which was headquartered at Albert Whitted and flew between St. Petersburg and Daytona Beach. The airline began with two single-engine, second-hand Ryan monoplanes. These were a passenger version of Lindberg’s “Spirit of St. Louis.” In its first year, it flew just 400 passengers, but it also had a U. S. airmail contract. For the first four months of the airline’s operation, the only passengers were the mail pouches.  But then things began to grow. Soon there were more passengers than seats available, and the line added three additional (second-hand) planes. One-way fare was $10.60 (less than $250 in today’s dollars, but likely a precious amount in the midst of the Great Depression). At one point Baker even considered reestablishing the first airline route between St. Petersburg and Tampa using Tampa’s Davis Island Field, but the proposed 10-minute shuttle service across the bay never came about. National Airlines moved its headquarters from St. Petersburg to Jacksonville in 1939 due, at least in part, to a lack of support from St. Pete city government. However, the airline continued to operate out of St. Petersburg until the end of World War II. It finally ceased operation in 1980, when it was acquired by Pan American.  

During World War II, Albert Whitted served as a training station for hundreds of naval aviators and war allies. In 1942 a contingent of Russian sailors attended minesweeping training at Whitted. Their vehicle flipped while traveling in a station wagon across the Gandy Bridge.  Police arrested them thinking they were Germans.

National Airlines founder George “Ted” Baker is second from right with the first flight attendant, Charlotte Georgia, in front of a 10-passenger Stinson aircraft.

Aircraft at the CGAS St. Petersburg were part of a valiant but inadequate deterrent to the German submarine campaign in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. As the submarine threat in the Gulf slowly abated, the air station concentrated on search-and-rescue activities. At the end of the war, Navy training ceased, civilian commercial and general aviation activity returned, and the Coast Guard remained the sole military aviation activity until its relocation in 1976. The Coast Guard’s desire to add four large, land-based HC-130 Hercules aircraft in St. Petersburg made continued operations at Albert Whitted an impossibility because of its short runways. This prompted a move to the larger St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport and construction and establishment of a new air station, Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater. With the establishment of CGAS Clearwater, CGAS St. Petersburg was converted to a non-flying Coast Guard installation, home to several cutters and the current Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg headquarters. 

A second airline – Red Carpet Airlines, organized by Bill Phillips – opened in 1971. It began as a leasing program, but in 1972 the company acquired two DC-3s and began charter flights. The airline relocated to St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport in 1974, and later Linton P. Tibbetts became airline president. Tibbetts was a resident of St. Petersburg involved in a range of commercial enterprises including Cox Lumber, and later Tibbetts Lumber Co. The airline was latter purchased by Key West interests and its name changed to Aerosun International, Inc.

In 2007, the city completed construction on a $4-million, 10,600 sq/ft terminal building named after John Galbraith. Galbraith was a Marine Corps pilot during World War II, and later a commercial pilot and mutual fund entrepreneur. As a philanthropist, he generously supported Albert Whitted. A new $3-million control tower and new taxiway were also built in 2010.   

These days, in addition to its core general aviation operations, the airport is also home to businesses such as St. Pete Air, Tampa Bay Aviation, Sheltair Aviation Services, The Hangar Restaurant and Flight Lounge, Tampa Bay Air Charter, biplane tours, It’s Time to Shine, FlyBuy, Advertising Air Force, and Hertz. The Civil Air Patrol has a small headquarters on site, and the Young Eagle Program has provided hundreds of young people with their first flight. Earlier this year, 19 students received $75,000 in flight training scholarships through the Friends of Albert Whitted Airport advocacy group. The Albert Whitted Airport Preservation Society continues to document the airport’s history and has provided educational services for the past 20 years.

Current aerial view of Albert Whitted Airport. The Coast Guard Station is in the forefront.

Albert Whitted is a base for a range of emergency support flights and would serve as an important logistical base in the event of a hurricane causing significant storm surge. The airport is designated by the Federal Aviation Authority as one of the nation’s critical reliever airports, easing congestion at commercial service hubs. In 2009, the Florida Department of Transportation named Albert Whitted the Florida General Aviation Airport of the Year. In 2021, Atlas Evaluation and Inspection Services undertook an economic impact study of Albert Whitted documenting a payroll of nearly $43 million, 948 jobs, and a local economic impact of $128 million. City Council recently approved a 20-year Airport Master Plan.

Over the years there has been discussion of closing Albert Whitted and using it for residential purposes or as a new waterfront park. As early as 1940, the St. Petersburg Times began a campaign to get rid of the airport. In 1958, the city manager tried to close the airport and allow development of the land. A local pilots’ association defeated that plan.  

  In 2002, Mayor Rick Baker proposed building an “urban village” at the airport site. This was rejected unanimously by the city council. The following year a group called Citizens for a New Waterfront Park collected some 15,000 signatures to get a question on the city ballot that would have closed Albert Whitted and turned it into an extension of the downtown waterfront parks. The city drew up alternative ballot questions in support of the airport. One asked, “Should Albert Whitted Airport remain open forever by amending the City Charter to require retention of an airport?” Voters approved the question at nearly 73%; the proposal to convert the airport to parkland failed with 78% voting no. However, a new waterfront park at Albert Whitted was not entirely out of the picture. In 2008, the city opened Albert Whitted Park on the north side of the airport. The seven-acre park has observation areas overlooking the airport and an aviation-themed playground.   

In 2022, Mayor Ken Welch called for another look at Albert Whitted and possible alternative uses, noting again possible expansion of the downtown waterfront parks, but ruling out high rises or condos. “I want to see what value the airport is bringing right now and come to a decision of what the best use is for that property going forward.” 

History does repeat itself.

Mayor Welch provided the following updated statement for this article: “It’s important to ensure our administration is in touch and inclusive with all of our communities in St. Pete when looking long-term, 50 to 100 years into the future, and considering the most impactful community and economic benefit for Albert Whitted Airport. Those principles are at the foundation of our commitment to accountable and responsive government. As the city began reviewing and updating the airport’s master plan, which was required by the Federal Aviation Administration and ultimately approved by city council last year, our priority was to be forward-looking as an administration while listening to the input and feedback from constituents and continuing this conversation. When you couple informed St. Pete residents and city staff with data-driven decision-making, it’s all but assured that the overall outcome for this city-owned property will be in the community’s best interest.”

Will Michaels is a former director of the St. Petersburg Museum of History and the author of The Making of St. Petersburg and The Hidden History of St. Petersburg. Contact him at wmichaels2222@gmail.com or 727-420-9195.