Friday, October 13, 2017

The Story of the Punta Gorda Airport - History of the Air Field and the Air Shows


It was in 1942 that a decision to build an air field in Punta Gorda changed the landscape of the town forever.  The United States was fully engaged in World War II, and large numnbers of fighter pilots were urgently needed. Florida's flatness and blue skies made for perfect training of the nation's airmen and women.  In those day, there was not yet a separate air force.

 Each branch of the military had its own air arm.  In October of 1942, County Attorney Earl D. Farr told the Punta Gorda Herald that an air field was to be built on 1,720 acres east of the county stockade (prison) then at the corner of Carmelita and Florida streets. Preliminary work began on the air field that October with major construction starting in 1943.  A road was built to the new field and Punta Gorda extended its water main.  Florida Power brought in electricity and the phone company installed service.

The Punta Gorda Army Airfield was officially activated on September 4, 1943, as a sub-base of the Sarsota base (It was reassigned as a sub-base of the Venice Army Air Field in March of 1944).  At activation there was a 20 foot tower and one building on site.  At the end of construction in December of that year, there were sixty-one buildings with over 150,000 square feet of floor space.  Housing including 268 hutments.  Units stationed at the base from the Third Air Force included the 502nd Fighter Bomber Squadron, the 490th Fighter Squadron and the 27th Service Group Detachment.  The base had forty Curtis Warhawk aircraft initially and later transitioned to the North American P-51 Mustang.

By December of 1943 there were 95 commissioned and 765 enlisted service men and women on the base which grew to 244, and 1097 retrospectively.  The base was designated as the 344th AAF Base Unit on April 24, 1944.  The base was inactivated in September of 1945.

After the war, the air field complex was turned over to Charlotte County by the War Assets Administration.  The first air show at the air field (still called that into the 50s) was on New Year's Day in 1950.   It featured Betty Skelton who was the US Female Aerobatic Champion from 1948 through 1950.    The Punta Gorda Airport has been home to The Florida International Air Show since 1981.




The airport saw no large airline service after the early 1980s.   Airline flights resumed in 2007 when both SkyBus and DayJet began flights at the airport. Unfortunatehy, Skybus ceased operations on April 5, 2008 and DayJet on September 19, 2008.

Airline service resumed on November 22, 2008 when low-cost carrier Direct Air began twice weekly service to 10 cities in the eastern U.S. Then on December 2, 2008 low-cost airline Allegient Air began offering flights to smaller cities. Vision Airlines also commenced flights out of PGA in 2009. Both Vision and Direct Air ceased flights out of PGA in 2012.  However, Allegiant now has flights to over 40 cities through the Punta Gorda Airport.

Sources:

Punta Gorda Herald, October 1, 1942
Documents on the Air Field's  Commissioning from Records of the U.S. Army Corps.
Program of the First Air Show held New Year's Day, 1950
Punta Gorda Airport Website
Wikipedia 

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