Ground Clutter

The 2010 National Business Aviation Association convention in Atlanta was, as always, big, awesome, and exciting. This is the largest civil aviation trade show, and the fourth largest trade show of any industry in the country. There were around 1,000 exhibitors at the show plus another 100 or so aircraft, mostly jets, on static display at PDK Airport.

I met Kevin Johnson, vice president of economic development of St. Joe, a 75-five-year old company that owns some half a million acres of real estate in the state of Florida with no mortgage on any of it. That impressed me.

St. Joe, in partnership with the Bay County (FL) Airport Authority, played a big role in the creation of the first new major airport in the country in more than a decade, Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP), which replaces the Panama City-Bay County Airport.

The old airport started as a grass strip donated by the owner back in 1932. I was in and out of that airport during the 1970s and 1980s, insuring and selling airplanes. Many pilots of that era remember the awesome photo of the bikini-clad young lady which appeared for so many years (decades?) in Trade-A-Plane, advertising for Sowell Aviation.

I actually met the young lady in person. By that time she was in her 50s and still attractive. I asked how long she had parked airplanes in that bikini and she offered kindly, “Aw, I never parked airplanes in that bikini. I just brought it to work one day, posed for the picture, changed, and went back to work.” Something died in my heart right then.

I once departed that airport IFR in a mild-mannered Cherokee 140. Once in the clouds, the airspeed indicator and air-driven gyros went totally berserk. The electrically-driven turn and bank kept me alive until we broke out on top. Another time I flew along on a charter trip with Larry McMinish of Panama Aviation. We delivered two new toilets to a grass strip where we half expected to be met by two men with toilet paper, but weren’t. Instead we were met on a grass strip by a behind-schedule plumbing crew working on a new apartment complex.

A few years ago, the airport authority wanted to expand the old airport, but couldn’t. They approached St. Joe and a unique arrangement was the result.

St. Joe donated 4,000 acres to the airport authority on which the new airport was built. The airport is surrounded by some 75,000 acres owned by St. Joe. This is one of those partnerships of private industry and guvmint that makes so much sense.

The airport, which is free to operate around the clock 365 days a year with airplanes of any size, should be free of encroachment by development. That’s all worked out in advance.
It sounds wonderful. The groups that often plague airports and vice-versa should all be on the same team. It will be fun to watch.