Historic City Memories: An airline for St Augustine

An airline for St Augustine

By Geoff Dobson

The St. Augustine Airport, once known as the St. Augustine Municipal Airport, has changed its name once again. The rumor on the street is that a scheduled airline is to come.

Hope for scheduled service at St. Augustine dates back to 1920. In that year, the post office department commenced the long distance carriage of mail by air. The limited range of aircraft, however, required division stations to be established in the same manner as that followed earlier by the stage lines and the railroads. At the division points, the planes could be refueled and serviced.

National air service commenced in 1920, and there was hope that St. Augustine might become a division point for air service from New York to Havana. Indeed in 1920, A news release from Continental Airline Corporation which (unrelated to the present Continental Airlines which was originally organized as “Varney Speed Lines” in the 1930’s) published in the New York Times and “Aerial Ace Weekly,” October 18, 1920, indicated that the Airline was negotiated for a flying field at St. Augustine. The news release assured potential passengers that “Stringent rules against ‘stunt flying’ would be enforced” Thus, it was hoped that passengers in St. Augustine could board the flying machines and travel to West Palm Beach and Key West. In Key West, the passengers could change to new seaplanes being constructed for the Aeromarine West Indies Airways, Inc and the Florida-West Indies Airways, Inc.

The giant seaplanes were powered by two 400 horse power motors giving them an average speed of eighty nautical miles an hour. The wing span was 104 feet. The planes, according to the New York Times, were equipped with ventilators, open port holes, and two cabins fore and aft connected with a passageway. The machines were furnished with other things a radio.

Scheduled aviation service, of course, was a big thing in the 1920. The same issue of Aerial Ace Weekly noted that Sir Trevor Dawson, Managing Director of Vickers, Ltd., was negotiating to establish transatlantic Zeppelin Service. Zeppelin Service across the Atlantic would not come until the late 1920’s but was short-lived due to the mishap with the Hindenburg.

British Zeppelin service was even shorter. The Labour government conducted a competition for the design and construction of two airships. One, the R-100 (nicknamed the “capitalist airship”) was designed and construed by a subsidiary of Vickers. The second, the R-101, (nicknamed the “socialist airship”) was constructed by the Government. It was far more magnificent than the privately designed ship. The Government designed airship included 50 passenger cabins, a 5,500 sq. ft. lounge, a dining room for 60 people, two windowed promenade decks, and on the upper deck an asbestos-lined smoking room for 24 people. It crashed on its maiden voyage to India, killing, among others, Lord Thompson, the Secretary of State for Air. Allegedly, Lord Thompson had a hand in increasing the ship’s weight in order to make it more magnificent. The more conservatively (no pun intended) designed R-100 was ordered dismantled. But hopes for Zeppelin service in Florida continued. As late as 1939, Miami had a one-square mile dirigible field waiting for the Zeppelins that no longer came.

The idea of passenger cabins on the aeroplanes for the proposed 1920 Continental service in St. Augustine was the very latest thing. But scheduled service to St. Augustine did not come. Indeed, scheduled transcontinental service in the United States did not come until the mid-1920’s. In 1927, the San Francisco – Chicago route was awarded to Boeing Air Transport, Inc., a predecessor of today’s United Airlines.

At first, the fledgling Boeing Air Transport used Boeing Model 40 aircraft which, in addition to the mail, had room for two passengers. [Writer’s comment: Things have not necessarily changed. Some fifty years later, the writer flew to Tallahassee in a mail plane. The plane had room for two paying passengers in the tail. Between the passenger seats and the pilot and co-pilot was a large pile of mail sacks.] It soon became apparent that there was a demand for passenger service. Boeing then developed for the run the 12 passenger Wright powered Model 80. This was soon followed by the more powerful and larger Model 80A on the transcontinental run. The Model 80A constructed of metal spars with an exterior skin of fabric was, for the time, humongous with a wing span of 80 feet and a length of over 56 feet. The plane could carry its 18 passengers in luxurious comfort cruising at 125 miles per hour.

The use of an enclosed cabin for passengers on the proposed 1920 service from Florida to Cuba was not an innovation. As early as 1920, the British-operated Imperial Airways was using tri-motored DeHavilands with an enclosed cabin to end the European isolation from Britain. In the late 1920’s Imperial Airways used such craft to carry the Royal Mail and passengers from Britain to India. The flight to India took a week but was a savings over the three week passage by ship. The major innovation, however, of the Model 80’s was the introduction of two new features: an enclosed flight deck for the captain and co-pilot and an onboard registered nurse to attend to the needs of the passengers. On previous aircraft such as the DeHavilands, the flight deck from which the captain and co-pilot guided the aircraft was outside above the cabin and open to the elements. Prior to the employment of the registered nurses, it was the duty of the co-pilot to attend to the needs of the passengers.

The Model 80A aircraft, was the height of modern design. It was a tri-motored biplane which had an enclosed cabin for the passengers. The cabin, equipped with leather covered reclining seats and a watercloset with hot and cold running water, was five feet wide. The rows of seats were divided with one seat on the port side of the craft and two on the starboard side. Each seat had a separate reading lamp and air vent. The roar of the three 525-horsepower Pratt & Whitney Hornet radial engines was muffled by sound proofing in the exterior fabric covered cabin walls, permitting passengers to speak to one another in almost conversational tones. A radio aerial above the cabin assured passengers that the craft was in touch with a line of radio beacons which the government installed along its route. Other beacons were established to guide the planes to emergency airmail fields along the way.

But regardless, St. Augustine did not get an airfield until 1931 when one was established at the Lorillard Race Track off State Road 16. In 1934, the St. Augustine City Commission purchased property in Araquay Park for the present airport which was operated by Luciens Rees and J. W. Richbourg. But still scheduled service did not come.

During World War II, the airport was improved for use of the Coast Guard. Following the war, good news came. In 1945, Orlando Airlines announced that St. Augustine would be a stop on its service from Deland-Sanford to Jacksonville.

Over the years since then several airlines have come and gone. In the late 1970’s or 80’s a commuter airline arrived. The City Commission decided to show support for the new service. It was necessary that some city officials go to New York. Therefore, it was decided to leave from St. Augustine on the new airline, fly to Jacksonville, and make connections there. Kenny Beeson’s luggage arrived in New York later than he did. Maybe with the Airport’s new name, commercial carriers will come — and stay.

Note: Some material for this article is taken from Geoff’s article on the Cheyenne Transcontinental Airport appearing in Wyoming Tales and Trails.

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 33 years, is a western and Florida history writer and was former General Counsel for the Florida Department of Transportation. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

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