The Venice Airport Heritage
From Humble Beginnings to a Contemporary Municipal Airport
Article Courtesy of the Venice Area Historical Society and Photography
Courtesy of Venice Museum and Archives
Venice was a thriving community when it emerged in the mid-1920s. By the mid-1930s, however, the city’s population declined from almost 4,000 to a few hundred people. The area benefitted when Dr. Fred Albee, a renowned orthopedic surgeon and investor in our region, established the Florida Medical Center in 1933, which attracted the city’s first airport to Venice.
Through Dr. Albee’s influence, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided funding in 1934 to construct a 3,000-foot sod runway on land he had donated, an area that currently includes Venice High School and its surroundings. In 1936, the Dr. Fred Albee Municipal Airport opened with much fanfare. The field provided private aircraft access to the community, and met the doctor’s need for transporting patients to his center, using his own plane, a Stinson Reliant, as an “air ambulance.” By 1939, a hangar, offices, flight training school and a repair shop were added to the airfield, and the local flying club was putting on air shows.
Local Realtor and landowner Finn Caspersen sent a telegram to the War Department in March, 1941, at the onset of World War II, offering up 3,000 acres of land south of town and the Army expressed interest within days. In July, the government announced that the area had been approved as a camp for use by up to 30,000 personnel in training for anti-aircraft artillery operations, but nothing further happened until the spring of 1942.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the government showed interest in using the property as an Army Air Force training facility. The locale offered great features for training, such as the climate, open terrain, and access to open waters for flight activity. The government eventually acquired almost 1,700 acres of land located just south of town. By June, supply trains were rolling into the Venice Depot, offloading hundreds of carloads of materials for base construction. Roads were built, numerous facilities went up, and contracts were issued for laying the 5,000-foot runways, taxiways, and parking aprons. Military personnel started arriving in July to help construct and operate the facilities.
Initially, the base was established as a Service Group Training Center to prepare personnel for supporting overseas air combat operations. The center had various schools, from administrative support to aircraft engine maintenance. Soldiers had access to mess halls, barracks, a chapel, commissary and exchanges, and two onsite theaters. The Army converted Dr. Albee’s Medical Center into a full-service base hospital for military employees and their families from airbases ranging from Bradenton to Fort Myers. The base also became a provider for local civilian jobs in multiple service areas. At its peak, almost 6,000 military and civilian personnel, who supported training for 22,000 transient personnel before the war’s end, were employed at this facility.
In the summer of 1943, the primary mission shifted to combat flight training while continuing to instruct service groups. Two fighter squadrons were transferred to Venice from Page Field in Fort Myers to serve as the training cadre for readying new pilots for aerial combat. Initial combat instruction employed the P-39 Airacobra and P-40 Warhawk fighters, and later segued to the P-47 Thunderbolt. In early 1945, the program converted to the new P-51 Mustang. By late 1944, pilots were logging 9,000 flying hours a month, operating in two shifts from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day. Veterans and residents said that the skies would often be “filled with airplanes.”
When the war ended in mid-1945, the airbase mission was no longer needed. Personnel started shipping out that spring, with the pace accelerating during the summer and into the fall. In early October, the base was ordered to cease operations and close the hospital. At the end of November, only a caretaker crew of about 100 was in place.
In 1946, the federal government started dispensing with base assets, many of which were turned over to the City of Venice, local organizations and private entities. For example, the city received the wastewater treatment facility and a large mess hall that later became City Hall, and the airfield itself was offered up for use as a full-service municipal airport. On May 26, 1946, Venice was granted a license to operate the airport. Beginning in June, 1947, a series of quitclaim deeds from the federal government transferred ownership of the airport property and facilities to the city. The former “downtown” airfield ceased to be used, and sections of the property were later acquired by Sarasota County for new elementary and high schools.
The “modern” municipal airport began to take on an active life in the 1950s and 1960s. Private aircraft activity grew, and local facilities were upgraded as needed to fulfill the government-directed role as a general aviation airport. Today, the airport meets operating expenses through land leases, fuel flowage fees and hangar leases.
Airport operations have grown over the years, even with the closure of the east-west runway in 1961. That year, about 40 private aircraft called the Venice Airport “home.” Today, about 230 aircraft are “based” in Venice. In 1961, the airport experienced about 11,000 take-offs and landings. To contrast, with more accurate counting measures, about 60,000 such operations occur annually. Originally constructed as a military necessity, the Venice Airport has evolved into a civilian fixture that is self-supporting, an established facet of city life, and that continues to contribute to the community’s well-being.
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