Keys aviation history preserved at Marathon museum

January 21, 2013 

Visitor from California tours EEA Air Museum in Marathon. This World War II-era Beechcraft was used to ferry officers during the war.

KEYNOTER STAFF

Not many people remember the name Juan Terry Trippe.

But, Keys aviation history begins with Trippe, who got the first government contract to fly mail between the U.S. and Cuba.

That Pan Am airmail service began Oct. 18, 1927 when a rented plane dubbed “La Nina” flew the 90 miles from Key West to Havana carrying mail between the two countries.

Passenger service on Pan Am began Jan. 16, 1928 when Trippe’s fledging airline began the first scheduled US flag commercial passenger service between the Southernmost City and Havana.

That’s just one milestone in Keys aviation history and preserving that legacy is part of the mission at the EAA Air Museum at Florida Keys Marathon Airport.

Funded by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EEA) Chapter 1241 and by donations from visitors, the museum operates out of rented space with one hangar and some adjoining space where a 1942-era military DC3 is open for tours.

The bright green logo on the DC3 declares its last commercial mission was ferrying passengers for Ozark Air, a regional carrier that operated in the Midwest.

But the plane has an even more colorful history to tell. Shortly after it came off the assembly line in 1942, the plan was assigned to the U.S. Navy and spent some time in Jacksonville, Fl. It was also assigned to duty with the Army Air Corps (later, to become the U.S. Air Force).

Some of the DC3s built during the war are still flying, mostly in South America, says Ed Waldorf, who heads up the EAA chapter’s Young Eagles program in Marathon and helps volunteer at the museum, which has seen a large increase in visitors since the DC3 returned to Marathon.

It’s on loan from the Prairie Aviation Museum of Bloomington, Ill. And is owned by a retired businessman who lives part of the year in the Keys.

The plane has a colorful history in private service, including time spent carrying passengers for a wealthy Texas oilman, H.H. Coffield.

Visitors to the museum can climb aboard the DC3 and see the seat where Grace Kelly - before she became Princess Grace of Monaco - sat on a flight to Houston.

Inside the hangar, visitors can climb aboard a Beechcraft Model 18, which was a twin-engine workhorse deployed by the military to carry officers during World War II.

The same model Beechcraft also was the first passenger plane flown by Phillipines Airlines, Asia’s first and oldest airline.

Avery Loucks, director of operations at the Marathon museum, said that model was favored because it could land and takeoff in some rugged conditions. And it could carry cargo as well as passengers. During World War II, it was known as the C-45.

Some wonder why an air museum in Marathon, since Key West had a much earlier aviation history?

Well, because EAA member Tony Daiuto had a thing about planes. He loved to build them and fly them and get others to be as enthused. He helped spark the idea of a museum at the airport a dozen years ago, Waldorf says.

In the early days, it was mostly tucked away in a corner of the Marathon terminal, then space constraints reduced it to a few showcases.

And then the EAA members persuaded county airport managers to help find a more permanent home. The artifacts, memorabilia, books and two still-servicable WW II-era planes have found their home at the north end of the field, next to Marathon General Aviation’s office and hangar (across U.S. 1 from Marathon city hall).

The landing field at the Florida Keys Marathon Airport also has a World War II connection.

Belcher Oil built the landing strip for the Coast Guard in 1942-43. “It was designed to be a reliever airport for planes in trouble flying from Miami-Ft. Lauderdale to San Juan, P.R.,” Waldorf says.

At that point in the war, military planes ferried cargo and troops from the U.S. to Brazil and then a transatlantic hop to Africa, he said.

There’s a lot more history on display at the small museum, which operates from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily during season. Admission is free, but donations are welcomed.

And while you’re there, be sure to have kids try the flight simulator while adults can read about the history of Pan American World Airways, Juan Trippe and the role the Florida Keys played in this country’s early aviation history.

There’s also a rare photo of Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, World War I flying ace, who helped found Eastern Airlines in the 1930s. That had a Keys connection too, merging Eastern Air Transport and Florida Airways. The photo shows the medal-of-honor winner at a ground-breaking ceremony in Miami (Rickenbacker was president of Eastern from 1938 until he retired in 1963).

For more information about the air museum, call 305-432-1145 or visit: www.1241.eaachapter.org.

The Experimental Aircraft Association, Chapter 1241, will sponsor an Aviation Day on Saturday, Mar. 30, at Key West International Airport. This is the weekend following a Key West visit by the Navy’s precision flying team The Blue Angels.

The chapter’s Young Eagles program, which offers scholarships for students interested in pursing careers in aviation, will sponsor free airplane rides for interested students at the Mar. 30 event. All students ages 8 to 17 are eligible.

Pilots donate their time and their planes for the Young Eagles Rally.

For more information, visit: www.1241.eaachapter.org.

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