2010-05-20 / Undercover Historian

The Naples Municipal Airport: A soaring tradition

BY LOIS BOLIN
Special to Florida Weekly
“When once you have tasted flight,

A plane on the Naples beach, circa February 1920. COURTESY PHOTO A plane on the Naples beach, circa February 1920. COURTESY PHOTO

you will forever walk the earth with your

eyes turned skyward, for there you have

been, and there you will always long to

return.” — Leonardo Da Vinci

Humans have always had a fascination with flying. The first study of flight was conducted in 1485 by Leonardo da Vinci, whose 100 or so drawings illustrated his idea of the ornithopter, which was the design basis for the modern-day helicopter. Others who shared the fascination with flying included Joseph Michel and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier, inventors of the hot air balloon, and Sir George Cayley, the father of aerodynamics.

Those men laid the groundwork for two American brothers whose Nov. 9, 1904 flight opened a portal of flying possibilities and another way for people to get to Florida.

Location, location, location

Bill Gates said that the Wright Brothers “created the single greatest cultural force since the invention of writing. The airplane became the first World Wide Web, bringing people, languages, ideas and values together.”

This cultural force began landing on beaches, golf courses and in empty fields in Naples in the 1920s. It wasn’t until WWII, when America needed more pilots, gunners and aircrafts, that eyes turned skyward for the possibility of an official airport in our seaside city.

In “Pilots, Pinballs and Politics: The History of the Naples Municipal Airport,” Nancy Fessendon, Ph.D., a pilot and historian, chronicled the founding of our airport. On June 21, 1941, Mayor William Clark received a telegram that the United States War Department slated Naples as one of 191 sites under consideration for 149 new airfields to be built. A week later, the major conveyed the news to the town council.

The daunting task of finding land for the airport and arriving at an agreedupon price between the town, county and federal governments was accomplished in record time by September 1941 (I attribute this amazing feat to the fact that the Sunshine Law was not yet in effect).

The men responsible for procuring the land were Mayor Clark, who was also on the county commission, and Graham Copeland, who was chairman of the commission and president of the Naples Land Development Company. (You might remember that he was hired by Barron Collier to build the Tamiami Trail.)

The 636 acres eventually purchased were owned by two companies. The Naples Land Development Company sold 322.5 acres on the west side of Airport Road for $32.27 per acre; the Peninsula Investment Development Company sold 313.5 acres on the east side of Airport Road for $6.57 an acre. (Property has always been more expensive on the west side of anything in Naples, but I’m still not sure what accounted for this sizable difference in price per acre.)

In her book, Dr. Fessendon went on

to say that the Collier County News ,

the newspaper published in Everglades City at the time, made no mention of the airport coming to Naples. Perhaps, she noted, that was because of the impending war. After all, loose lips do sink ships.

On Dec. 5, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor threw the town into fitful sense of urgency to complete the assigned task. In spite of that, however, funding and construction complications, along with the war, would mean it was another two years before Naples had its airport up and running.

The best little airport

The “Naples Airdrome” was no longer needed after the war in 1947, so its management was returned to both the city and county as originally agreed upon. In 1958, the county sold its interest to the city of Naples.

Since then, our little airport has made history. In 1999, the airport received the Federal Aviation Administration’s highest

award for safety, the Air Carrier Safety Award, for the southern region of the U.S. Less than a month later, the airport became the first in the nation, since the 1990 Airport Noise and Capacity Act became law, to successfully ban Stage 1 aircraft. And in 2001, Stage 2 jet aircraft under 75,000 pounds were also banned.

Today the Naples Municipal Airport is back in the news, expanding its runways for safety issues and adding U.S. Customs agents. Regardless which side you take on noise abatement issues, our airport’s history — “from military occupation in 1941 to aviation’s premier destination for the rich and famous” — maintains a proud tradition that prompts us to look skyward every day. 

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