Florida Airlines




Bill Odell


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.