Bluegrass Airlines, November 2007

Florida Airlines by Bill Odell

Note from Bill Von Sennet:  Bill Odell was a prolific author of adventures for Bluegrass Airlines.

The feature on Florida Airlines originally appeared on the Bluegrass Southern Division website in November of 2002.

Bill took his final flight on 8 June, 2005.  Read his memorial here.

Florida Airline was born in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, so it would be appropriate to look at the contributions to aviation and in particular airlines that occurred in the Tampa Bay area. A little known event occurred on February 19, 1911.  Daredevil pilots thrilled crowds at the South Florida State Fair.  Here, Lincoln Beachey and Jack Douglas Mc Curdy thrilled the crowd.  The next month while thrilling the crowd in the Tampa Bay area again, aviation history credited Beachey with making the first night flight.  A few days later, although not in Tampa Bay across the state at Palm Beach, Mc Curdy spoke the first wireless message from the air to the ground.


On January 1, 1914, Tony Janus made history when he inaugurated the world’s first commercial airline.  The birth of what was to become Florida Airlines.  He flew his Benoit air boat between St. Petersburg and Tampa, a flight of twenty-three minutes.


Later in 1929 a great rhubarb was going on in Tampa.  It seems they wanted to dredge up an airport and a seaplane base from the bay.  The New York, Rio and Buenos Aires Airline (NYRBA), the predecessor of the Pan American Airways, made promises that inspired demands for a first-class facility, for both hydroplanes and land planes.  If they provided such an airport, NYRBA would make Tampa the base of operations for the company.  The Tampa voters approved the plan but the residents along Bayshore Boulevard, the cities most fashionable neighborhood, got up in arms.  The politicians and the business community fought.  Finally, with the plan shelved, Pan American in disgust, abandoned the idea of establishing its base in Tampa and moved to Miami.


During the great depression a major airline was born.  The US Postal Service awarded it a 142 mile airmail route between St. Petersburg and Daytona Beach via Tampa, Lakeland and Orlando.  The date was October 15, 1934 and the airline was National Airline.  The “fleet” consisted of two second-hand Ryan aircraft.  They later added ten-passenger Stinson Aircraft.  Fate would have the two airlines, Pan Am and National merging in January 1980.


Tampa’s first airport was what we now know as Peter O. Knight Airport, where Eastern Air Line and Florida Air Taxi (Florid Airline) joined National Airline.  Tampa’s next civilian airport was converted from the US Army Air Corp’s “Drew Field” after World War II, later to become the present Tampa International Airport.  The first airport used at St. Petersburg was Albert Whitted.


This short story is about the history of Florida Airlines.  The requirement for an air service as provided by “Florida Air Taxi” was a rapid transport between St. Petersburg and Tampa, though this was just across the bay, a matter of only a few miles. Those familiar with Tampa as of today, see the many causeways linking the two cities that didn’t exist in those days.  To get from downtown St. Pete to downtown Tampa required a motor trip or rail trip that took the better part of the day.  The aircraft used for the service were generally in the three to four passenger size of the day.  In the sixties they were flying three Piper Apaches (one was N01P, the first off the line at Piper), two V-tailed Bonanza and three Beechcraft B-18's.


The second half of the sixties saw Florida Air Taxi expanding their route. The idea was a northern division of Tampa, Ocala and Gainesville.  A southern division of Tampa and Ft. Myers (Page Field, Southwest Regional did not exist, but Florida took a very active part in its planning).


Ft. Myers was a very seasonable market, generally from Thanksgiving to Easter.  During that period all of the B-18's were assigned to the southern division and the Apaches to the north.  The three Bonanzas were used for charter work, with one each at Tampa, Gainesville and Ft. Myers.  Traffic increases saw the need to replace the Apaches with Aztecs especially with the addition of US Mail contracts.


Working with the support provided by National Airlines, the FAA granted an exemption which allowed Florida to fly aircraft up to 26,200 lbs.  Many times National was over-booked to Ft. Myers and needed the backup the DC-3 would provide.  Initially the wording of the exemption restricted the use of the DC-3 to one aircraft in the air.  Florida had purchased three DC-3's, with smooth in-flight tracking , Florida have a second aircraft take-off as soon as the first had landed, a neat work-around.  With National’s support, the FAA relented and they could fly all three and eventually all seven DC-3's.


The support by National Airline for Florida Airlines (no longer Florida Air Taxi) to fly DC-3' was soon to pay off  big time.  National went on strike, leaving Florida Airlines the only service between Tampa and Ft. Myers.  Florida augmented their station personnel with some of the National personnel.  A policy that Florida Airline had been operating since its birth was that they were never over-booked.  When a flight was full and passengers were left over, they just wheeled up another plane.  During the strike, as passengers checked in they were given a number, as the number was called they boarded.  They flew until the last passengers was flown. The crew days were long with everyone flying to his max. Allowed.


About this time Florida Airlines saw new ownership and the headquarters moved from Tampa to Sarasota.  Sarasota became the first new addition to the route structure.  The seven DC-3' now made it necessary to expand service.  The first change was adding Sarasota and Miami to the Tampa / Ft. Myers route.  Next was to add Jacksonville to the Tampa/Ocala/Gainesville route.  This was not going to be enough and they started to look in other directions.  Another small commuter airline was available, Shawnee.  Shawnee had started out flying Beech 99's, but switched to DC-3'.  Florida wanted, primarily, Shawnee’s routes, the Bahamas and Ft. Lauderdale, their DC-3'3 were Wright powered and did not have the same allowable gross weight.  They did want their Martin 404's which were flying very lucrative gambling junkets to the Casino’s in Freeport and Nassau.


While this was going on a great effort was underway with Delta Airline for a special operating arrangement to be known as “The Delta Connection” (what is now common with almost all Major carriers and commuter’s).  This would require all Florida flights schedules at all city connections with Delta to connect.  This had gone as far as painting all Florida Airline aircraft to be painted “the Delta Connection” instead of Florida Airlines.  Delta backed at the last moment unless Florida switched to turbo-prop aircraft.  This would have required major refinancing and more than Florida wanted, so they stayed with their DC-3's.


The next added service was Tallahassee from Tampa and Orlando and Tampa and Orlando.  This at the same time that the FAA granted approval of qualified commuter airlines to operate up to 40 passenger aircraft.  This was a boon to some of the routes that were restricted to 26/28 passenger flights of the DC-3.  A search started for 40 passenger aircraft and found an airline in Georgia (Air South) that they merged with.  They had three Martin 404

s operating out of St Simon Island flying to Waycross, Valdosta and Atlanta and from Atlanta to Hilton Head.   Florida did not make friends in Georgia as they brought all the Martins to Florida and replaced them with DC-3's.


About this time National went on strike again and the Martins and DC-3's did a bang up job, flying more passengers than they ever had before.  Another big deal was an operating agreement with Icelandic Airlines.  Icelandic did not have authorization to land in the US, so they would fly as far as Nassau and Florida picked up the US passengers and flew them to Miami.  This actually turned out to be a major problem as Icelandic would usually be hours and occasionally days late.  Florida’s plane’s would arrive in Nassau to find Icelandic hadn’t left Europe.   The downtime waiting proved too costly and the agreement was voided.


Florida was doing so well on their Bahamas schedule, on time and zero flight cancellations, that Air Bahamas requested thy fly their routes when Bahamas planes were out of service.  Florida now had 7 Martin 404's.


Another service provided by Florida was to the US State Dept.  They flew scheduled flights Miami/Varadero, Cuba for the State Dept. authorized passengers.   The only US airline flying to Cuba.


Hard times came upon Florida Airlines when deregulation allowed so many “underfunded” airlines to start operation.  Because they were underfunded, they had to cut fares so much that they could not survive and took everyone else down with them.  Florida had programmed additional routes but never got the chance to fly them and finally filed Bankruptcy.  The airline was purchased with only four of the Martin 404's, the remaining aircraft going to the creditors.

The new airline was Southern International Airlines which retained only the Sarasota - Miami -  Nassau route.  Southern International Airline lasted only one year.  One of the Martins - N259S / was claimed from the scrap dealers, restored, and presently resides in the Martin Museum in Maryland.

Florida Airlines Flights 1 and 2

The flight list for Florida Airlines are actually a route as we flew linear (as opposed to Hub and Spoke) flights with originations in several of the cities over the course of a day. We operated south bound flights originating in Tallahassee, Jacksonville at 0700. We operated northbound originating in Freeport, Miami and Ft Myers at 0700. The 0700 from Ft Myers was designed to connect with the 0755 at Tampa to Tallahassee. This, in my mind, makes an interesting assortment of flights. It is obvious that the 0700 flights are the result of RON’s the night before. Ah! We can fly at night!! And even take off in the dark.

This is supposed to be a narrative of flights 1 & 2. We will depart Flt. 1 from TPA after boarding the connecting passengers from Ft Myers for Tallahassee. This must mean that Flt. 2 is departing from Ft. Myers. The day began with reporting in to OPS (by phone or TWX if at other than TPA) for the flight plan, expected loads and a WX summary. The First Officer did the walk around and fuel ordering based on the load while the Captain discussed the day with Ops. Fifteen minutes before the crew boarded and after a check of the pre flight check list would run up the engines and taxi to the gate. After shutting down the port engine the station loaded the passengers, freight, mail and freight In the case of the FMY departure, the TLH load was put on last as a convenience to the TPA ground personnel as they usually only had 6 minutes.

FLA 2, departing Ft Myers at 0700 hours, with 8 pax for TLH with 4 bags, !0 pax for TPA, with interline conx. 10 bags, 5 pcs frt., 2 pax for OCF, 3 bags, 4 pax for GNV, 5 bags.

After signing the weight and balance, passenger manifest and giving copy to station. Lite the seat belt/no smoking light. Flight attendant gives pre take-off instructions. Lets roll. Since Flt 2 is connecting with Flt 1, we will take the most direct flight to Tampa. Winds are 20 degrees at 10 knots, so we will be using rwy 36L (our terminal is in the Southwest airside). How many of you use a yoke and rudder pedals — hands please. Ok for those with the yoke how many use the prop, mixture, throttle levers --hands. How many can’t see the runway in the DC3 (BTW we are flying a DC3) An easy solution is to hold the shift key while you click the enter key 5 times. Now that we see our way, take the taxiway to the end of rwy 5. As you start down the runway and your ground speed increases to 60 Kts hit clr/space bar and ease forward on the yoke as the tail comes up. The DC3 should sart to lift off a about 80 kts. You do not need flaps! A heading of 320 should head us to TPA, level of at 4500, our assigned level. About 15 mile out of TPA turn to 270 degrees, descend to 2600', intercept ILS RWY 36L --108.9 heading at 004 deg. We make two wheel landings in the DC3 letting the tail wheel down gradually as you brake for the turn on to the taxi way.

The passengers are now boarded for the second leg to Ocala. In Kentucky (Bluegrass they have Horse farms, we have them at Ocala, a large Horse Auction facility is just adjacent to the airfield. Usually there are a lot of Biz Jets there from all over the world. Our flight is ready with 6 pax for OCF, 6 bags, 2 bags mail for OCF , 10 pax for GNV, 11 bags, 1 bag mail, 8 pcs freight , 4 pax Jax, 4 bags, 1 bag mail.

Ok taxi on to rwy 36L, clear for take off, climb to 4500, heading 20 degrees. This heading puts us on a nice approach to OCF ILS RWY 36 — 111.5 heading at 004 deg. Elev. 89'.

Ok pax are on board and baggage loaded for our next destination — GNV, our flight usually has a number of ill people heading to Shands Hospital, a great research and teaching hospital, and don’t forget our Gator’s, the University is a great source of income for the airline . We have 10 pax for GNV, 11 bags, 1 bag mail , 8 pcs freight, Jax has 12 pax with 12 bags, 1 bag mail and 4 pcs freight. GNV is only 32 miles up the road so we will fly at 3500' on a heading of 20 degrees to intercept GNV ILS RWY 28 --111.3 heading at 285 deg. Elev. 152'.

The last leg on the Northbound portion for our flight, Jacksonville, lot of business here with the insurance companies, our schedule was designed to get the pax on business getting there at the correct time. Our pax load to JAX is 18 with 20 bags, 1 bag mail, 18 pcs freight. We will be heading 028 deg to intercept JAX ILS RWY 7 — 110.7 — heading 074 deg. Elev. 30'

Our flight to GNV will be using the same ILS RWY as guess what, the wind has not changed direction. So we will head south at 5500' heading 205 deg. The Rwy and ILS are the same. You can make up your own loads (remember 26 PAX limit).

To Ocala again — remember the wind! We will be using the same RWY and ILS. Therefore we now take a few minutes longer as we take off NW fly SE and Land N. A heading of 175 will bring us across north of the runway so after about 5 miles we take dw leg of 184 until about 8 miles south of the field the turn t 274 and intercept the ILS.

Tampa is the same as Ocala as far as the wind so lets head about 151 deg. As we approach Tampa head 195 until south of Mac Dill AFB then turn 274 and intercept the ILS.

On to Fort Myers. The time of day is now bringing us the tourist passengers, we love them as they are the backbone of our traffic. For several years we have taken a little longer on this leg as we make these passengers happy by showing them the coast, they love it. So after heading north on 36 left we turn out about 255 deg. Until we cross the coast line, we now fly south over the islands, cays and beaches. This is great fishing and sailing country. The first thing we see is Ana Maria Island then to the left is Sarasota with its barrier Islands. Then we have Venice with its beautiful beach, if you like sharks teeth, walk the beach after the tide go’s out, you are sure to find some of all sizes. Next off to the left is Port Charlotte in front (for Capt. Bill) is Boca Grande. Home of the Tarpon fishing tournament each year. Next will be Red Fish Pass, what a current, then Captiva Island with its South Seas Plantation, excellent and they hace a great sailing school there. Separated by a few feet is Sanibel Island. As we get to the southernmost tip of Sanibel we turn slowly to the left as we see the Caloosahatchee River, on the right is Fort Myers Beach on the left is Cape Coral, where I lived for 32 years until my wife passed away. We had a 27' tri-marin and sailed most of the time when I wasn’t flying. Now set up for FMY ILS RWY 5 --110.7 — heading 051 deg. Elev. 18'.

Now we turn SE and head to Ft Lauderdale. We have no choice here we are landing on RWY 9L. So after taking off and getting to altitude, lets pickup a heading of 156 deg. This is usually a very uneventful flight unless the Everglades are on fire, quite a site in the evening to see this band of fire for miles in front of you. We will intercept ILS RWY 9L — 110.3, heading 093 deg. Elev 9 deg. Most of the passengers, if not all, boarded in FMY and are heading on to Freeport.

All passengers are on board as well as baggage so lets get going. We usually made three trips a day to Freeport, I preferred the 0700 out of Tampa as it had a 5 hour layover in Freeport, enough for golf at the Lucayan Country Club (we got a big discount) along with lunch which featured one great Lobster Salad. The RON had us staying at the Atlantik Beach Hotel (I splled it right) right on the beach. Lou Rawls (early in his career) sang there at night. Ok lets fly, heading of 65 degrees at 5500' until about 15 miles out then turn to 150 deg to intercept the Freeport ILS RWY 6 — 109.7 heading 062 deg.

You should have no problem now in getting back to FMY the termination of the flight.

Flt 1, is the same sort of thing as Flt 2. I will give you the runways, ILS’s, Elevations and anything else I might find pertinent.

KTLH / ILS RWY 36 --110.3 / Elev. 82'. The best way to fly this is head north out of Tampa to the Cross City VOR 112.0 the take 297 deg out of CTY and intercept the TLH ILS 110.3 --heading 001 deg. Set your ADF to WAKUL 379.

KMIA / ILS RWY 12 — heading 124 deg. Elev. 8'. After taking off from FMY RWY 5 take a heading of 122 deg. This will put you pretty close to the intercept of ILS RWY 12.

MYNN --Nassau. Nassau does not have an ILS. We used to fly to the Bimini VOR then head about 105 deg to Chub Cay then pick up the Nassau VOR radial 140 deg. to the airport RWY 14.

You can tell if you made the turn correctly if, shortly, you see the Nassau / Freeport mail boat just off your nose on the port side.

Flying these flights with Florida was great, you got to meet some very famous passengers, several come to mind, Ted Williams / the great outfielder with the Boston Red Sox, Helen Hayes / in my mind one of the greatest Actresses, then my favorite passenger of all— he entertained the passengers on every flight and made me late on each one--Red Skelton.

Suggestion--fly them all with the DC-3 (my favorite aircraft) then do it again with the Martin.

Great flyin

Sr Capt Bill Odell

Florida Airlines DC-3 departing Fort Myers FL

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