Vintage Sarasota: Local Aviation Interest Took Off in Early 1900s

In our latest Vintage Sarasota post, we explore the history of aviation in our region.

By Larry Kelleher September 9, 2014

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When pilot Tony Jannus flew a Benoist Aircraft Company “airboat” into Sarasota in April 1914, Sarasota’s fascination with flight began.

Jannus made the 20-mile trip from Bradenton, flying along the Manatee River and Sarasota Bay in 27 minutes. During the long weekend he spent in Sarasota, Jannus entertained the crowds with exhibition flights and offered rides to adventuresome passengers for $15.

After the United States entered World War I, the Chamber of Commerce sought to bring an Army aviation camp to Sarasota. That did not materialize, but Sarasotans did build a sod landing strip (Lowe's Field) outside city limits along Fruitville Road. Intended for emergency use by Army flyers training in Arcadia, Franklin Field became a regular destination for student flyers by mid-1918. However, it would be 10 years before Sarasota would officially have a municipal airport.

Sarasota’s first municipal airport, off Beneva Road near Fruitville Road, was officially opened on March 12, 1929. During the 1930s, use of the airport varied. It was not until August, 1937 that National Airlines added Sarasota to its Florida route. However, the airline did not continue flying to Sarasota for long. The runways would become soggy during the rainy season, and the city could not afford to pave them. This led to the formation of the Sarasota-Manatee Joint Airport Authority. Work on the airport started in 1938 as a WPA project and continued throughout 1939 and 1940. The old municipal airport would become Lowe Field in the 1940s. It remained an active site for civilian flying until its sale in the early 1960s.

Aviation expanded to south Sarasota County when county officials wanted a public airfield for that part of the county. The first official airfield in Venice began in 1935 as a WPA project. Lacking an official name, the airport was called the Fred Albee Municipal Airport after Dr. Fred Albee, who had a medical center in Venice and had his own plane to fly patients to his hospital. Others called the airfield the Venice Municipal Airport or the Downtown Airport. Even though the airfield was eclipsed by an airport built during World War II, it continued to be used until the mid-1950s.

World War II brought great changes to Sarasota County. Two U.S. Army bases were established in Sarasota and Venice. In 1942, the 97th Bombardment Group moved onto the new Sarasota Army Air Base. The Army leased the field and, in return, had the right to erect large structures, enlarge runways, etc. During the following year, it was made into a fighter base and at its peak had more than 3,000 men stationed there. The Venice Army Air Base, south of the Venice Municipal Airport, served as a finishing school for fighter pilots. At the field, trainees were introduced to P-39s, P-47s and eventually the P-51 aircraft. By the end of 1945, both bases had shut down and were turned over to local authorities in early 1946.

One of the last public airfields built in Sarasota County was Buchan Airport in Englewood. Carved out of land that was supposed to be used for a subdivision in the 1920s, Buchan Airport, named for Peter Buchan, was begun in April, 1949. The airport was first used primarily for the county mosquito program for spraying of the southern half of Sarasota County. It continues to serve the local area today.

Special thanks to Mark Smith, former Sarasota County Archivist, for his research and time devoted to writing this article. Brought to you by Sarasota History Alive! "Where History Happens Everyday."

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