A Place in Florida – The Airport That Lives With History – Part 2

There’s a place in Florida, Opa-Locka Executive Airport, that just can’t stay out of the history books. So many historic events have gotten their start there since this airport took off in the 1920s that historians could be asking, ‘What’s next?’

Part 1 of this story of Opa-Locka Airport told of its beginnings and subsequent development amid a myriad of changes in aviation and geopolitics. It also recounted nine instances that students of history could point to and say, ‘Why Opa-Locka?’

I don’t have a crystal ball that answers ‘What’s next?’, but I can offer a theory that might explain ‘Why Opa-Locka?’ But first…

Let’s take a closer look at those nine historic events – and why Opa-Locka’s airport seems to have been in the thick of things for almost a hundred years.

Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
As noted in Part 1, this is America’s greatest unsolved mystery, and it began at this place in Florida, Opa-Locka Airport.

By the time she took off in a Lockheed Electra 10E on June 1, 1937, Amelia Earhart was an international celebrity, known first as ‘Lucky Lindy’, then as ‘Lady Lindy’ as a result of her 1932 first-ever nonstop solo flight by a woman pilot across the Atlantic. Five years after Charles Lindberg’s historic flight, she was now ‘Queen of the Air’.

Before that, she had been a successful and heavily promoted writer who had served as aviation editor of Cosmopolitan magazine – a position that catapulted her into the publishing scene and a marriage – some said “of convenience” — to George P. Putnam, who published two books she wrote.

She also promoted women in aviation by competing in the ‘Powder Puff Derby’. And her high-profile endorsements of such products as luggage, cigarettes and women’s clothing and sportswear (enhancing her tall, thin look that some said emulated Charles Lindbergh’s appearance) endeared her to American women.

When she and navigator Fred Noonan took off at Opa-Locka June 1, 1937, they headed first to the Caribbean, then made multiple stops in South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, arriving at Lae, New Guinea June 29. Only 7,000 miles of their 29,000-mile flight remained – but it was the most difficult part. Almost all of it was over the Pacific.

The plane took off July 2, headed northeast for Howland Island, just a dot on a map. It disappeared in the vicinity of Howland, never to be heard from again. The Navy and others’ vessels searched a 150,000-square-mile area for six to seven days without success. The disappearance spawned many theories, but the mystery was never solved.

Bay of Pigs Invasion
It’s no secret now, but the 1961 disastrous invasion by Cuban exiles of the Bay of Pigs was planned by the CIA at Opa-Locka Airport, troops were trained here, and 20 B-26s were prepared for battle here. The troops’ final training, and the launching of the invasion, took place in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Fidel Castro’s band of 80 rebels had overthrown Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and turned Cuba into a Communist state. The goal at the Bay of Pigs was to overthrow Castro.

E. Howard Hunt (later a Watergate conspirator), aided by friends in Miami’s Cuban exile community, spent time at Opa-Locka drawing up plans for a new Cuban government. The plans were tossed in File 13 when Cuban troops defeated the invaders – destroying Hunt’s reputation as a master spy. The invasion was conceived in the Eisenhower administration, but Hunt blamed the new Kennedy administration and the state department for the defeat, which helped to solidify Castro’s power.

Cuban Missile Crisis
When a U.S. U-2 spy plane discovered Soviet missiles in Cuba aimed at the United States in 1962, it resulted in a confrontation that was the closest the world has come to nuclear war. Opa-Locka Airport, rundown and struggling to find new tenants after being on the losing side of the Bay of Pigs invasion, was hurriedly prepared for battle again.

President John F. Kennedy reclaimed Opa-Locka for use as the Peninsula Base Command for an invasion of Cuba. Fourteen days after the crisis began, Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev agreed secretly that the U.S. would remove its missiles in Turkey (it didn’t) and the Soviet Union would remove its missiles in Cuba (it did). Opa-Locka Airport could return to its commercial ways. In 1967, it was the world’s busiest commercial airport.

The CIA and Opa-Locka Airport
With leftists agitating in Latin America’s Banana Republics in the early to mid-1950s — posing a perceived threat to the 1823 Monroe Doctrine designed to keep European powers out of the Western Hemisphere — Opa-Locka became a convenient and available place in Florida to mount and execute covert operations against them. The CIA continued to use Opa-Locka for this purpose until the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

The Infamous ‘Black Flights’
One Banana Republic (a term coined by O. Henry in 1904 to denote a country exploited by large-scale agricultural plantation companies ) was Guatemala. When leftist President Jacobo Arbenz began flirting with Communists in 1952, then brought about land reform opposed by United Fruit (which had ties to the new Eisenhower administration), red flags went up in the United States, if not in Guatemala.

The U.S. decided to depose Arbenz, and Hunt says he did much of the covert planning from a ‘safe house’ in Miami, with more than a little help from Guatemalan exiles at Opa-Locka Airport. In fact, as the coup attempt drew near, there were almost nightly flights from Guatemala to Opa-Locka, bringing anti-Arbenz people in for training. Thus, the term ‘Black Flights’, which to this day officially never happened.

Though no invasion was necessary, the operation was successful. Arbenz was deposed without bloodshed. But that led to decades of unrest in Guatemala and its neighbors.

Mariel Boatlift
In 1980, prodded by 10,000 asylum-seekers demonstrating at the Peruvian Embassy in Havana, Castro said, okay, leave Cuba if you like – and 125,000 did. Most of them headed for Miami, and Opa-Locka airport again was available for any historic event that came along. The U.S. Coast Guard – significantly challenged at the airport to process wave upon wave of the refugees – discovered Castro had opened the doors of prisons and mental health facilities, and 2% of the refugees were criminals. They were denied asylum.

Hurricane Andrew
Destroying or heavily damaging 117,000 homes south of Miami with 165-mile-an-hour winds, Hurricane Andrew displaced tens of thousands of people in 1992. Opa-Locka Airport was the only relatively unscathed place in South Florida from which to mount a massive recovery effort.

The Demise of a Dirigible
Partly because of its spaciousness, Opa-Locka Airport was an important stop-over for ‘blimps’ during the 1930s. The huge airships had had a prominent but checkered role in World War I, so few people questioned the City of Miami’s purchase of an old World War hangar at Key West to dismantle it, move it to Opa-Locka and set up shop as a blimp station in 1929. The U.S. airships Akron and Macon and the German Graf Spee all made well-publicized visits to Opa-Locka. It was not unusual back then to see a blimp in the skies over Miami.

The U.S. Navy’s Akron was an accident-prone flying aircraft carrier – it launched Curtiss Sparrowhawk biplanes – that in retrospect probably should never have left its Goodyear christening hangar in Ohio. It was overhead in Washington on March 4, 1933, when President Delano Roosevelt took the oath of office. Little did anyone know then, but the Akron was an accident waiting to happen.

Seven days later, the Akron headed for Opa-Locka, bound for Panama, looking for a potential airbase site. On the airship’s return trip, it again stopped at Opa-Locka so her gun crews could get some target practice, among other reasons. Leaving Opa-Locka on March 22, she returned to her home base at Lakehurst, NJ. On April 3, loaded with VIPs interested in airships’ commercial potential, she unexpectedly ran into a violent storm off New Jersey and crashed into the sea, killing 73.

Training of the 9/11 Hijackers
In months preceding 9/11, the terrorists moved about freely in South Florida, as well as in the United States. Few places they visited were more important to their mission than Simulator, Inc., at the Opa-Locka Airport. That’s where Mohammed Atta, the leader, and a sidekick, Marwan Al-Shehhi, paid $1,500 to spend 90 minutes a day for two days learning how to fly a Boeing 767. The simulator, which has controls similar to a 767, has the topography of New York City stored in it. Investigators think the two practiced crashing into the World Trade Center.

So… Why Opa-Locka Airport?
So, why does the Opa-Locka Airport fill the history books? Here’s my theory. Some of these historic events put Opa-Locka Airport in the history books for the same reason some people climb mountains: just because it’s there. But it goes beyond that:

  • The Cold War. Although it began life in the 1920s, the airport is mainly a child of the Cold War. Sure, it had a prominent role in World War II, but it was not until after the war that Opa-Locka Airport became almost a household word.
  • Its location. Think of Florida as an index finger of the United States sitting out in the middle of a vast sea of change, with Miami and Opa-Locka on the fingernail. The fingernail of the index finger always is in the thick of the action, isn’t it?
  • Geopolitics. The winds of change often give birth to extreme measures. Opa-Locka Airport gave the United States a haven for combating what it perceived to be dangers to its political health – in Cuba, in Central America and indeed the rest of Latin America.

Training of the 9/11 hijackers? Why did they choose this place in Florida to learn to fly big planes? I think Opa-Locka Airport was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Top Five Summer Destinations to Spend Your Vacation

Miami and Orlando are well-known for their beautiful and pristine beaches. The fact is, they are the most visited cities in Florida where millions of travelers go every year. The good thing when you spend your vacation in Florida is that, you will find it easier to find the attractions and tourist destinations plus, the places are really clean and world class. So, what are you waiting for? Check these destinations out and see for yourself if there is one which could possibly turn your taste on.

#1. Disney World – it is irrefutably the most popular destination in Florida. Since Disney World stood there, millions of people at any walks of life take time to visit it every year because of its greatest selection of on-property resorts available for all budget ranges. With plenty of shopping malls and boutiques, you have all the options you need to choose what you really want when you want them. Aside from that, Disney World Florida has four great theme parks you can spend quality time with your family plus the first-class diners you can enjoy. What could you possibly ask for?

#2. SeaWorld Orlando – being in or beside the water this summer could be one of the best options you have. But not only that; SeaWorld Orlando does not just bring you some place near the water but also lets you discover and witness the beauty of marine lives you can see every second of your stay. It is an absolute fun watching dolphins perform and feed the colorful fishes while you have your feet soaked in cold water. The truth is, SeaWorld Orlando never fails to please everyone especially during summer time. It is worth your time and effort to go to the place and experience something different, something refreshing.

#3. Daytona Beach – when you are in Florida, you can complete your stay only if you spend some time in Daytona Beach. It is the most famous and most visited beach in Florida ever since it opened to cater the needs of restless “beachers” who are looking for nothing but have quality time in the beach, do sunbathing and submerge into a deeper blue sea. Aside from that, this is where you can easily drive right in the beach if that’s what can make you really enjoy. And you should know that Daytona is well-known for its great surf.

#4. Amelia Island – in Florida, there are great places which are not known to majority of the traveling public and Amelia Island is just one of them. Only a few have known that being in this island could be fulfilling enough that you do not want to go some place else during your vacation or holidays. For this summer, if you haven’t tried to be here, then this could be the best time you should. You can always bring your family with you and get lost into the little secret paradise. For sure, you will be able to find the place relaxing and serene which makes it a perfect getaway.

#5. St. Augustine – vacation would be much enjoyable if you spend it together with your family, friends or loved ones. Thus, if you are looking for a perfect place to stay in Florida, do not hesitate to try going to St. Augustine as it always be the perfect place for you. With its unique attractions and old-world charms, you will be drifted away into the era or romance. The beaches here are even better from those you can find in Miami. The shopping malls are also as big and have better offers than others.

Amazing Must-See Places in Florida

Florida is one of the most interesting states to visit in America. It is a family-friendly place that offers a lot of beautiful scenes and wondrous attractions. It is known for having a warm beach weather, breathtaking beaches and soft sand. One thing to keep in mind though when visiting Florida is to pack your sunscreen, sunglasses and walking shoes. You will find a lot of things to do that you will not mind staying outdoors most of the time amidst the hot weather.

Florida is famous for the Disney World. This is probably the main attraction of this state making it an ideal vacation spot for kids and adults alike. It is indeed a must-place to see especially if you are fond of Disney characters, amazing carnival rides and theme and amusement parks. Other theme parks to visit are Universal Orlando, Sea World Orlando and the Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.

Florida is likewise known for its beautiful, sandy beaches. It offers a sunny weather that perfectly complements beach activities like surfing and snorkeling. Amelia Island is a beautiful place to see with many miles of beaches and interesting state parks that offer trails for hiking, nature watching and biking. It is recommended especially to those who love nature trips and outdoor activities. Amelia Island is a popular spot for beach weddings, spa weekend getaways and golfing activities.

For those who want to have a taste of Europe, St. Augustine is a place to see in Florida. It is known as the oldest European established city in the U.S. It is famous for its natural charm and romantic ambiance in almost every corner. It is a common weekend getaway place as well because of the many leisure activities it offers to families, groups of friends and couples.

If you happen to be spending a lot of time in Orlando, you would not want to miss a taste of its amazing nightlife. Universal City Walk is one of the best spots to see that offers the best in live music, dancing, casual and fine dining, a lot of shopping and movies. It is the home to a wide selection of themed night clubs. So if you feel like drinking and dancing the night away, you should never miss the chance to visit the Universal City Walk.

Florida is indeed a place to see if you adore being outdoors – whether for nature tripping or club hopping. With so many attractions and beautiful places to explore, not to mention a perfect weather to enjoy the beach, Florida is a perfect vacation spot that will leave you with many fond memories.

Grab Your Share of Great Ocean Views From Your Amelia Island Hotel

Amelia Island sports a lovely and lively downtown area designed in Victorian style with 13 miles of beach shoreline dotted by sea-oat covered dunes. Some of the best FL Beach Hotels have doors opening to simple beachside pleasures such as the hunt for an elusive shark tooth or building that dream castle in the sand. Since human feet have left imprint and impact for more than four centuries on the isle, many a vacationer keeps a watchful eye upon the sandy shore seeking something deposited long ago by history.

Go Hunting at Fort Clinch State Park

Standing at the water’s edge at one spot for a half hour allowing the surf to tickle you toes may reveal a coveted shark’s tooth – if you have the patience to wait and the eye for discovery. At the north end of the island sits some shark teeth hunting grounds near the pier in Fort Clinch State Park. Helpful hint: Go hunting at midday when these black ancient teeth come a glistening under a strong Florida sun. Teeth never tumble about in the surf but tend to float. Practice “locating” ancient shark teeth floating in the surf can result in a good hunt. Some people claim they can really focus well coming away with a dozen or so teeth from one hunting session when participating in this fun-filled beachcombing activity.

Go Afloat Touring

Amelia Island is the most southern member of an archipelago of barrier islands that number 100 stretching from the Santee River in South Carolina to the St. Johns River in Florida. Since there is a nearby submarine base that requires consistent dredging of Cumberland Sound, the Navy keeps replenishing the island’s northern stretch of beaches with fresh sand and historic artefacts. That’s right, often very old items dredged from the bottom where they have sat for hundreds – and some for millions – of years get deposited on Amelia Island beaches awaiting discovery from the next history hunter.

Check Out the Tooth

When you take a scenic Amelia River sightseeing boat tour, ask the captain to show you a tooth from a megalodon, a prehistoric version of the modern day shark that was an estimated 45 feet long living millions of years ago. If you wish to pick up something nautical and collectible but don’t want to labor in your quest, go a hunting through the shops found along the main thoroughfare of Fernandina Beach where many curiosities may be found just a shell toss away from your Amelia Island Hotel. If a sightseeing boat tour is too tame for your liking, take part in a kayak-driven tour that will guide you deep into the marshes, inlets and creeks for a nature lover’s view.

Amelia Earhart – Cold Case For a Hot Lady

In Jane Mendelsohn’s imaginative 1997 novel “I Was Amelia Earhart” she fictionalized what happened to the famous aviator, and it was a good read. There are countless non-fiction versions of “Lady Lindy’s” last days, some more bizarre than any fiction I’ve seen. But like the ghost of Elvis Presley, Amelia Earhart is back. All the mystery, drama and romance surrounding the beautiful woman who vanished over the Pacific Ocean seventy years ago, has returned to haunt us again. Strictly speaking, the case was never officially declared closed.

After taking off from Lae, New Guinea on the last leg of her round the world trip, Amelia Earhart and her navigator friend Fred Noonan disappeared while trying to find tiny Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean. Photos taken just before takeoff revealed an ailing and exhausted Earhart. It was July 1937. They’d already traveled 22,000 miles and had 7,000 miles remaining, all of it across the Pacific Ocean. If you’ve never crossed the Pacific-up close where you can see it-you cannot begin to imagine the sheer magnitude of this unforgiving sea.

(An Aside)
Once during a dark night aboard a large ship in the Pacific ocean, I watched the birth of an island in the form of an erupting volcano as it thrust itself out of the sea to begin the formation of an atoll. It was one of those moments that make you feel very small. I cannot conceive of the audacity of those two hearty souls making that lonely crossing over that colossal body of water in a tiny aircraft. Earhart wrote a book called “The Fun of It.” Maybe that explains her.

More Clues
Last fall, on a tiny Pacific atoll now called Nikumaroro, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) reported finding parts of an aircraft they say could be from Earhart’s Lockheed Electra; also a man’s shoe heel, a woman’s shoe with a 1930s Cat’s Paw heel of the type Earhart had been wearing when she took off from New Guinea. Since the islanders did not wear shoes back then, these are substantial clues. After eight previous visits, funds permitting, the team headed by Rick Gillespie will return to the island this July to search for human remains, which hopefully will reveal DNA.

A Diary?
The most intriguing angle of this very cold case is the emergence of yet another clue, the diary of 23-year-old James Carey, an Associated Press reporter who took notes while the radio crew of the Coast Guard cutter Itasca was trying to contact Earhart and guide her to Howland Island. Included in the diary’s notes is a shortwave distress call. “This is Amelia Earhart …” Recently, a member of the TIGHAR team saw a copy of the diary for sale on eBay and bought it for $26. There are other quotes in the diary. James Carey has died, but his son Tim Carey verifies the diary, which he says is part of his family history. How’s that for destiny? The Itasca could hear Amelia’s distinctive Kansas voice, but she could not hear them or their code signals. Why? She and Fred Noonan were unaware they’d lost their outside radio-reception antenna during takeoff from the Lae Airport in New Guinea, and that would prove disastrous.

Rumors of a Legend
As a young child I heard the Earhart buzz around the dinner table. Over decades the press churned out rumors. Amelia Earhart was sent by President Roosevelt to spy on the Japanese. Amelia and Fred Noonan were romantically involved; they crash-landed on an island and showed up in New Jersey. Natives reported seeing them captive in the hands of the Japanese. Their twin-engine Lockheed Electra ran out of fuel and fell into the Pacific. Noonan was a drunk and should never have gone with her.

As the stories grew, so grew the legend. Bones were found that eventually proved not to be theirs. As for Fred Noonan, he did have a drinking problem, but he was a veteran of Pan American Airways with a reputation for being the best navigator in the business.

Woman of Firsts
Feminist icon before there were feminists, aviation editor at Cosmopolitan Magazine, book author, first woman to solo the Atlantic (more than once), first woman to fly non-stop across the U.S., a zillion other firsts and groundbreaking awards including the Distinguished Flying Cross-Earhart was going to be the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. Instead, she inspired books, motion pictures and people who wanted to believe she was alive somewhere-anywhere. My first set of luggage simply had to be-you guessed it.

She Married a Man Just Like Her
Earhart’s husband was explorer, author and publisher George P. Putnam. Rugged individualist and promoter par excellence, Putnam and Earhart had been lovers when she finally broke her engagement to another man to marry Putnam. He became her personal manager, organized all of her races and record-breaking flights including her last, for which he never forgave himself. A mid-1970s television movie about Earhart and Putnam featured Susan Clark and John Forsythe in a quite believable portrayal of their lives, and her role as an advocate for women in the work place. Not surprisingly, Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt whom she taught to fly, were pals.

Seventy years later, the Lockheed Electra’s radio remains silent but the Itasca’s signals linger on.