Before Walt Disney World and in the infancies of Martin Marietta and International Drive there was the Orlando Jetport.
What started as a simple metal-framed hangar used by the Air Force to store "Hound Dog" missiles grew into Orlando's first large-scale commercial airline terminal handling 6.5 million passengers a year and known for housing the finest restaurant in town.
That was 25 years ago.
Since then the old jetport has gradually faded from memory, eclipsed by the 2.8 million-square-foot terminal that opened in 1981 and is now the busiest airport in the state and 12th busiest in the nation.
This week the buildings where Orlando International Airport first added "International" to its name will fade from existence altogether. They're being demolished to make way for future commercial development along the BeachLine Expressway.
"It was an important symbol of a very poignant time in our history," said Linda Chapin, who served on the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority when the new mammoth terminal opened.
That said, there aren't many eyes welling up at the sight of the wrecking ball.
"It was kind of embarrassing, that facility was," said Col. Joe Kittinger, a former fighter pilot and the first person to cross the Atlantic alone in a balloon.
"It was a dumpy building," said Kittinger, who lives in Altamonte Springs. "There were no amenities there. It looked like it was an absolute interim device."
While Atlanta and Miami had first-rate airports in the 1970s, Orlando was still taxiing planes up to a Quonset hut and letting passengers out to retrieve their bags from the curb.
The move to the new terminal in 1981 "was the moment we realized we really were on our way to being a big city," Chapin said. "It was the moment when suddenly sophistication and design and being a gateway to the world really came home to us."
By then Walt Disney World was in its 10th year and SeaWorld Orlando in its eighth. Martin Marietta, which eventually grew into Lockheed Martin, had developed a large employee base in Orlando.
In short, the town was too big for the jetport.
"It was like moving out of a one-bedroom apartment into a palace," said Sherman Dantzler, 78, chairman of the aviation authority at the time.
But on Oct. 29, 1961, when the first Delta Air Lines flight touched down on the runway at McCoy Air Force Base, the jetport was just what Orlando needed.
Larger planes, jets and more commercial traffic made it difficult to keep up operations at Herndon Airport, which is now Orlando Executive Airport.
So the city of Orlando worked out a deal with the Air Force to move commercial flights to the base.
The city took over the base and its runways when it closed in 1974, making way for the 15,000-acre airport complex that exists today.
Former Orlando Mayor Carl Langford was in office at the time.
"Before the terminal was built I said, 'We want to build a terminal that is made for people, not for planes,' " Langford said. "The old terminal was just a building. It was totally inadequate for serving the public."
While those early days of the jetport weren't known for their sophistication, a well-known restaurant called the Skyline injected a dose of refinement.
Chapin said she and her husband held their rehearsal dinner there, and she still savors the thought of the restaurant's apple muffins.
"I have that recipe to this day that I still use," she said.
The restaurant moved to the new terminal when it opened in 1981 but closed years later amid the legal troubles of its operator, airport concessionaire Champ Williams.
After the jetport was abandoned, the building had a string of tenants, most recently the United Parcel Service, which used it as a packaging area.
Now UPS is planning to construct a facility nearby.
Once the jetport land is completely cleared by mid-June, the airport will be able to market the property, visible from the BeachLine, for commercial development.
The airport is aiming to increase the amount of money it makes off of its vast property, including land near the planned University of Central Florida Medical School.
While the new terminal opened Orlando to the world -- a record 34 million passengers passed through last year -- there were a few drawbacks tied to the growth.
For one, parking can cost as much as $15 a day and sometimes finding a spot takes more than one lap around the garage.
"Before it was funny," airport spokeswoman Carolyn Fennell said. "Everybody could park on the curb."
Copyright: The Orlando Sentinel -- 5/29/06
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