1935 – Coast Guard Air Station St. Petersburg Established
With the ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment Prohibition was repealed. Once again the primary emphasis of Coast Guard aviation would turn to rendering assistance to those in peril on the sea and its surrounding environment. To provide more effective life saving service along Florida’s western coast a decision was made to build a centrally located air station and radio station. Albert Whitted Airport jutting out into Tampa Bay from the southeast section of St. Petersburg was selected. Dredging of Bayboro Harbor produced the landfill that became the airport which had opened during the summer of 1929.
The Coast Guard St. Petersburg Air Station was built during 1934-1935 with Public Works Administration funds on the southwest corner of the airport. The air station consisted of a 100X120 foot steel framed hangar with associated maintenance shops, a wooden seaplane ramp into Bayshore Harbor, concrete aprons and aircraft operating areas, and underground fuel storage areas. Also built were two Spanish-style enlisted barracks, a general maintenance building, a mess hall, administrative offices, a recreation hall and officers’ quarters. Adjacent to the air station were the 165 foot Cutter Nemesis and two 75-foot patrol boats. A RD-4 Dolphin,CG#131 and two JF-2 Ducks, CG#168 and #171, were the initial aircraft assigned. The air station had access to the Albert Whitted runways which enabled landplane operation.
During the years preceding World War II, as Coast Guard aviation continued to expand and additional aircraft were obtained, there were numerous other aircraft types based out of St. Petersburg. These were the 00-1 Viking flying boat, a single engine biplane with open cockpit; the PJ-1 General Aviation flying boat, a high wing monoplane with pusher engines; and the PH-2 Hall Aluminum Company flying boat, a large biplane whose advantage was a slow water entry speed for open sea landings. Landplane type aircraft assigned at various times were the NT-2 New Standard and the O2U-2 Vought Corsair, both single engine biplanes; and the Fairchild JK-2, a single engine high wing monoplane.
A major search and rescue effort took place shortly after the station was commissioned. The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 devastated the Florida Keys. Aircraft from St. Petersburg joined those from Air Station Miami flying many missions searching and directing the patrol boats. The settlement of Flamingo had been completely wiped out. The living were rescued and the dead were recovered and taken to Miami.
The air station aircraft and crews flew many searches often working in conjunction with the CGC Nemesis and the patrol boats, as they aided those in distress. Flights were flown to warn of impending storms. Landings in the open sea to remove injured crewmembers, under less than favorable conditions, took place when the situation warranted it. Navigation aids and hazards to marine shipping were checked and although Prohibition was repealed and alcohol smuggling had decreased significantly the Coast Guard as the air arm of the Treasury flew many flights looking for illegal liquor stills. The Florida moonshiner was a tough old “cracker” who saw no reason why he should not make his own liquor, sell it to whom he chose, and not pay taxes in the process.
During the first years of World War II the aircraft at the Saint Petersburg air station were part of a valiant but inadequate deterrent to the German submarine campaign. The Coast Guard aircraft were not designed for combat and initially had to be jury rigged in order to carry depth charges. US Naval anti-submarine capabilities left a lot to be desired in both tactics and numbers. During 1942 and part of 1943 the German submarines raised havoc on the east coast of the United States and concentrated on merchant shipping in and out of the Gulf ports of Houston, New Orleans and Tampa. By mid 1942 Coast Guard air stations were equipped with aircraft more capable for submarine patrol duty. In April of 1942 CGAS received nine OS2U aircraft capable of carrying a 350 pound depth charge under each wing. Three were based at Key West, two at Port St. Joe and four at St. Petersburg. Coast Guard aircraft rescued and directed surface assistance to numerous seamen from torpedoed vessels during this period. By the end of 1943 the submarine menace had abated. Patrols continued but the primary mission had shifted back to search and rescue operations.
In November 1944 an Air Sea Rescue organization was formed nationwide. The Coast Guard was placed in charge as the control agency with authorization to direct all Armed Forces resources to respond in life saving operations. Along with the Coast Guard, the Navy and Army Air Force had both aircraft and rescue boats at various locations around the Gulf of Mexico. While any unit would immediately respond to an incident, The Coast Guard Control Center was simultaneously contacted so that all resources could be coordinated and effectively utilized.
The Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina and the Martin PBM Mariner came aboard during the last years of the war and stayed to be the backbone of the postwar search and rescue missions. Post war commercial marine and aircraft traffic continued to increase and pleasure boating operation increased exponentially. So did the Search and Rescue responses at St. Petersburg. All of the old aircraft were replaced. By the mid 1950s the helicopter, an excellent life saving machine, was on board replacing a number of the World War II seaplanes. Air Station St. Petersburg flew the large P5M Marlins, the last seaplane the Coast Guard procured. These were replaced in the 1960s by the HU-16s (UFs).
PBM: JATO assisted take-off from the open sea
During the 1970s a much larger and more modern facility that could accommodate C-130 Hercules aircraft was needed. Assets were moved to Clearwater Airport on the north end of St. Petersburg in October of 1976 and Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater was established. Air Station St. Petersburg was decommissioned 29 October 1976 after more than 41 years of saving lives. The rescues numbered in the thousands, a proud record, but it was not achieved without loss of men and equipment.
Note: See 1976- Air Station Clearwater Established.