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Chasing Shadows: The origins of the Apalachicola airport

Mark Curenton Special to
the Times
The Apalach Times

Up until 1933 there was not an airport in Franklin County. Seaplanes had been landing in the bay and the river since the 1910s, mainly Navy planes from the Pensacola Naval Air Station.

In 1923 four local men, S. E. Rice, R. R. Rice, Elgin Wefing and Harry Fannin, bought a seaplane in Pensacola and flew it back to Apalachicola with an instructor, but in only a week and a half, they managed to crash the machine in the bay, ending their aeronautical experiment.

In spite of the frequent visits by Navy planes, there was no place for a land plane to set down in Franklin County. As aviation grew in popularity and usefulness, people in Apalachicola began to think the lack of an airfield was a situation that needed to be remedied. As early as 1930 the Apalachicola Times was reporting that the local population was showing enthusiasm towards acquiring an airfield.

The Business Men’s Club initiated the project in 1932; 160 acres two miles west of town was identified as a suitable location. The property was owned by the estate of Nicholas R. Hayes. At their first meeting in 1933, Dr. A. S. Ham brought a proposal before the Board of County Commissioners for the county to appropriate $500 to go towards the purchase of the land. Private citizens would contribute the remainder of the purchase price and the land would be deeded to Franklin County. The motion was made and unanimously approved for the county to proceed with the purchase on this basis.

On Jan. 16, 1933, the executors of Mr. Hayes’ estate, A. B. Gibson and George M. Counts, sold the 160 acres to Franklin County for $800. Almost immediately, engineers from the state road department came to the aid of the county, surveying the property and drawing up plans for the landing field. By the end of February 34 men were put to work clearing the land of palmettos and stumps. The labor was paid for with $1,200 from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a federal agency.

By early July the local newspaper reported that 90y men were at work on the airfield, and it was expected to be completed shortly. The first plane was scheduled to land on the field on Thursday, July 6, but engine trouble on the way prevented the arrival of the aircraft.

On Christmas Eve in 1933, Mary Wright Bain piloted the first plane to land at the new airport. Known as the Flying Grandmother, Mrs. Bain had taken up flying in 1930 at the age of 51, and was a member of the Ninety Nines, an organization of women pilots. Married to a mining engineer, she flew all over the country.

The voyage that brought her to Apalachicola’s new airport was a Christmas holiday trip to Mexico City. She had left New York on Dec. 18 and flown down to Mexico City by way of New Orleans in her private plane. On her way back to New York, she was flying around the northern rim of the Gulf of Mexico, planning to visit Miami before flying home. She had taken off from Mobile, Alabama earlier in the day, flying eastward following the coast. As it began to get dark she saw the new landing field and decided to try putting her plane down there rather than risk flying further in the dark.

The mayor, J. H. Cook, and other city officials welcomed Mrs. Bain to Apalachicola. She pronounced the landing field had “a very attractive layout.” It was noted she had little difficulty in landing or taking off in spite of the dry condition of the field.

Major McMullen, the state road department aviation officer, inspected the airport in July 1934 and reported to the county commissioners that he was pleased with the progress being made on the field. He also informed the board that a golf course could be built on the landing field without conflicting with its use as an airport. This was suggested as a means to help with the upkeep of the field. The county commissioners unanimously approved using the Apalachicola airport as a golf course, but there is no record if anyone ever played a round of golf on the airport.

On the weekend of Dec. 5 and 6, 1936, a Stinson tri-motor airliner visited the Apalachicola Airport. Flown by Les Misgrove, with Curly Tatham as co-pilot and Don Scott as the mechanic, the plane offered rides to the local citizens for a small fee.

The small field continued in occasional use until the early 1940s. As America geared up for war prior to Pearl Harbor, local businessmen and government officials approached the U. S. government, offering the Apalachicola airport as a potential training site for the expanding Air Corps. The offer was eventually accepted, and Franklin County purchased additional acreage to establish the airport as it is today.