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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
University of Florida
Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Interviewee: Walter Stotesbury
Interviewer: Mike Rowland
Date of Interview: November 19, 2003
Interviewee: Walter Stotesbury
Interviewer: Mike Rowland
Date of Interview: November 19, 2003
R: Today is Wednesday, November 19, 2003. My name is Mike Rowland, and I am
interviewing Walter Stotesbury for the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at
the University of Florida.
S: [I was] chairman of the Airport Authority. Back then it was an advisory board,
later [it was] a city ordinated authority, and then later a state ordinated authority.
I finished my term in 1991. I invited Fred Cone in to give me a history of the
airport. It was at that time, which I can't give you the date [of] right now, that he
announced to me-he was very cooperative-that the city didn't want that airport.
It was a farm. The government was basically going to build the airport. This
would have been 1940-something; I wouldn't know the dates. Well Fred told the
city commission that if they wouldn't buy it for the $18,000-that was the original
cost, that he would buy it, and he would subscribe and let the government build
him an airport. Whether or not that's all exactly true, those are the facts as I
recall them. He introduced that to the city commission back in that time. You've
got to remember [that] Gainesville probably didn't have 8,000 people in it. The
only strip they had here was just northeast of this site about ten blocks.
R: Do you remember the name of that field?
R: Was it Jarvis or Chambers? There were two airfields in Gainesville.
S: I don't remember, [but] somebody would that's older than I am. Anyway, the city
commission went along with it, bought it, and, of course, the airport was built.
One of the people that poured the airport was a man who later came and formed
Denny Concrete Company, which was later bought out by Florida Rock. Charles
Harden Denny, III, lives here still and is a close personal friend of mine. His
daddy poured the runways because in those days, people who knew how to pour
concrete were in demand with the growing war pending. After that, the war came
along. At the end of the war it was not real active, but [it was] active enough.
We had hundreds of airports in Florida built for defense purposes. As I
understand it, these airports can be taken back over at the whim of the
government, which is good. Having said that, I remember being out there and
climbing through two or three four-engine bombers that were just left there.
R: Is this after WWII?
S: This is after WWII, which would have been 1945. When the war ended,
everything quit; everybody folded up tent. There were old barrack buildings,
which we later had to tear down because the kids were using them for illicit
purposes. They were crumbling. So I watched the thing deteriorate while I was
in high school. In fact, I used it as a racetrack. I did my drag racing out there
[and] nobody knew it because nobody ever went out there. It was basically
R: When did you go to high school?
S: [I went to high school in] 1948, here in Gainesville.
R: Was that your senior year?
S: It was my senior year. I started here in 1945. I was a sophomore, a junior, and
a senior here, and I graduated in 1948.
R: When did you come to Gainesville?
S: That was the second time we came, in 1945. We originally came here in 1933
and stayed until 1939. We went to Jacksonville thereafter, and, due to the war,
we ended up back here. So the airport was little used. I remember flying out of
there at a very early age, even in high school. There was nobody there; it was
basically just another airfield. It was kept up alright, but that was due to the
government. A lot of people don't know it, but the government provides all of the
things necessary to have a good airport. The state, the city, and the county don't
put up 10 percent. Well long story short, when my term [as chairman] ended out
there, probably in 1991 or something, we'd gotten up to such an active degree
that 385,000 people were using the terminal alone. [There were] some forty-odd
flights a day.
R: That's 385, 000 people in a year?
S: [That is] in a year. We were landing and taking off from 23,000 or 24,000 per
month. [It was a] very active field.
R: This was through the 1980s?
S: This is through my tenure [until] 1990 [or] 1991.
R: When did your tenure start?
S: [I started at the airport in] 1978.
R: So you were with the airport for a long time.
S: I picked it as my charitable donation to the city to help them stop drugs. This
was a drug center, and I had seen enough children be burned by it. I found out
that one of the reasons we were a drug center is Gainesville did not have radar.
This was known as the black hole, which covered most of the small airports near
us and the lakes. It was not uncommon for druggers to come in and out of here
very easily because was no way to monitor them. Jacksonville's radar basically
went down to 1,000 feet. Well, that's where all the drug flying is, below 1,000
R: Were these flights coming from outside of the U.S. or from points south of here?
S: Who knows? When I got involved in it and realized it was bigger than I would
ever be and the money was so big, I had to have guards put on my children. At
that point I realized that this was no longer my charitable interest, but a
frightening experience for me. We later on did get radar, but, even though it was
approved in 1991 or so-I went to Washington to get it-it never really became a
fact until about 1998 or 1999. [This was] due to the fact that people didn't
understand the importance of it. I was fortunate, with the help of Captain Hicks,
Don Fuqay, Congressman MacKay, Senator Graham, and Governor Chiles, to
the get the appropriation for that [radar] here. But after my tenure was up people
didn't know what it was, so they didn't get it until later. Now our airport only does
about 135,000 people a year and there's less than thirteen or fifteen flights a
day. The number of takeoffs and landings dropped below 10,000. So that's a
short synopsis of the whole airport.
R: Well, maybe we can get into a little more detail.
S: Sure you can.
R: If you could, tell me a little bit about yourself. When were you born? Where
were your born?
S: I was born in Tallahassee in 1930, so I'm seventy-three [years old]. I started
flying in Tallahassee when I was three [years old]. A guy named Ivan Monroe
ran the airport up there. My parents were friends of his, so he took me out to
see his Ryan PT-10 in 1933. It was in the hangar and he put me in the back
cockpit and he ordered the thing towed out of the hanger. He asked me if I
wanted to go flying [and] I said, sure. I was three years old [and] I'd never
thought about flying in an airplane; well I dreamed about it. Ivan Monroe['s]
daughter [Jet] went to school with me up in Tallahassee also. [Mr. Monroe] had
them wheel it out and I was sitting in that cockpit, and I knew my mother was out
there. I said, mother, I'm going flying, I'll see you later, in three-year old terms.
She would liked to have hit the fan. She was probably twenty-seven, and maybe
even less than that. She hollered at Ivan and she said, Ivan, don't you take that
boy up. Ivan said, well Ellen, do you want to go? That was my mother's name.
Ellen said, yeah, I'll go, because I was about to cry if they wouldn't let me fly.
This is an open cockpit, two holes basically with a low wing. So he fired that
thing up. The first thing I remember as we got off the ground, with me peering
over the cockpit with the wind in my face thrilled to death, mother was terrified, is
that people and the cars really do look like ants. I remember that specifically.
Thereafter, I never got over it; it was a part of me forever.
R: And you've loved flying ever since.
S: It's all I ever really wanted to do, [and] I didn't know that either. You don't know it
until you get to be an old curmudgeon.
R: What were your other experiences with aviation as a boy?
S: [I had experience] with model airplanes, flying with anybody that would take me
up, trying to control the thing without any instructions. I didn't have any money,
couldn't afford to buy instruction, [and there] weren't any instructors around here
to speak of. I'm just an airport kid. [I would] ride my bicycle out there, it was a
long way too. I would do anything to go to the airport, even if there were nothing
out there. That's just what happens to kids who get involved in aviation. They
don't care whether they're flying or not, they just want to be around it. We don't
have that kind of an informal invitational hospitality to young people today. Of
course, after 9/11 [day of terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon
where commercial flights were taken over by terrorist and crashed into prominent
buildings in the U.S.], most airports have been locked down. If they don't know
you, you're not allowed on the field unless you have a license and a driver's
license. That's all it takes now.
R: When the city went to purchase that land for the airport, who owned it?
S: I wish I could tell you. There were notes that I had, but they're gone because
nobody was interested. I was running this business that I've got here, which was
much bigger than it is now, but it was too busy to even interview Mr. Cone. But
he gave me such a complete [report of the history]. It's a shame I didn't keep
R: Why did they settle on that location?
S: It was a farm [that was] available. The Civil Aeronautics Authority at the time
wanted the [airport] there in conjunction with the military. They thought that's
where it should be. Now that's an interesting question, because there was a
group around here that thought that we ought to build a new airfield. [They
thought] that would generate traffic; build it and they will come [thought]. Wrong!
R: This is a more recent group?
S: [This is a] recent group back in the 1990s. They didn't confer with the people
that we knew could give them an immediate answer. There's nowhere to build
an airport around here, not environmentally; you wouldn't even be allowed to
build one. So we were stuck with where we were, and my job was to develop
that. I had a program for bringing in Ocala and building a tri-city, kind of a golden
triangle, to develop this airport. But I finally realized that I should run my
business, not the airport, and that's in somebody else's hands.
R: I've heard some folks say that maybe an airport that's located somewhere
between Gainesville and Ocala would be better.
S: Well there's a perfect one already built that helped train, from what I understand,
General Dolittle's flight to bomb Japan, and that's the Williston Airport. It's got
thick, powerful runways, and that would be the perfect spot. We knew that at the
time, but everybody got so interested in building the new airport [that they didn't
consider the existing one]. One of the people pushing for that new airport was
an architectural professor who had been involved in building the airport in South
Florida, I think it's called Collier, which became totally unused except for
occasional flights. It was a financial boondoggle and an environmental
catastrophe for that area. It was a 10,000 foot runway, as I understand. But
they were promoting these things, and so often people launch into something
they don't know anything about, and all they do is muddy the water. There it is,
it's called the Dade-Collier [Training and Transportation Airport]. It's built right in
the middle of a swamp; total waste of money.
R: [That is] down in the Everglades?
R: But they did build the airport.
S: They built it, yes. The shuttle doesn't even use it [except] maybe as a back-up.
But the history of aviation is bereft with those that don't know what they're doing
trying to do something about it. I call that people getting into positions of
authority with no authoritative background, which generally makes for a bad
soup. But that's democracy, better than anything else. But Gainesville's airport
is suitable for doing most anything we need, it's just not used. Most airports are
not used. The truth is, we have fewer airplanes today and fewer pilots today
than we had thirty years ago, and I've got the records to prove it. Of course, you
can go to the archives and it's right there.
R: What did city and county government do to aid aviation in the years before
S: [They didn't do] much of anything, nothing. A few people flew out of, basically,
farm strips here. In those days, the planes were designed to fly from farm strips
and land on them. A paved runway in the 1930s was rare. As you will recall,
Roosevelt Field [near New York City], where I believe Lindbergh took off in 1927,
was a narrow tarmac. It's a shopping center now.
R: Well WWII was an important period for the expansion of the airport. What
factors do you think led the army air forces to build up a base in Gainesville?
S: This would be a thought: It must have been central to the defense of the
peninsula [of Florida], because we are surrounded by other airfields. There is a
huge airfield over in Keystone, which is operational. There is a grand airfield at
Williston, as I pointed out, [and] a grand airfield at Dunnellon. There's one up at
Lake City, which is all part of it. But we had the peninsula, and we were trying to
finally realize that aviation was the way to protect it. As it turned out, without air
superiority, you can't do much on the ground, and I think that's what it was.
Jimmy Doolittle and Billy Mitchell knew that. Billy Mitchell got court marshaled
for telling everybody that, [and] so did some of the naval aviators. The real truth
about flying is [that] it is extremely dangerous, because you are dependent on
vacuum to keep the darn thing up. If the vacuum isn't there, it's coming down.
Therein lies the history of aviation, but nobody really figured out that vacuum
made a plane fly. It's like a sailboat, they didn't understand that sailboats don't
get blown, they go into a vacuum.
R: What was the airfield's mission during the war?
S: Apparently, it was place of training. It was there to protect the peninsula. It was
there to launch fighter aircraft and bombers where necessary. Fortunately, it
R: What kinds of units and aircraft were stationed there?
S: To my knowledge, we had twins, we had four-engine airplanes, [and] we had
singles. I understand there were Corsairs out there, they are much older
airplanes. A person that you could interview, if you can get him, is Addison
Pound. He was one of the earlier navy pilots who actually helped write the
instrument landing and flying system for the navy. He was a naval pilot in the
R: Where does he live?
S: He lives here in Gainesville. He might talk to you.
R: Do you have a phone number or an address?
R: It's under Addison Pound, Jr. Whether or not he'll talk to you, I don't know, but
he might, and he's a fountain of knowledge. The airport is named after John
Allison; it's called the John Allison Airport. He was with the Flying Tigers and
later flew for the army, and he's one of my heros. I like him especially because
he's about my size. He flew the P-40, and he's well established in the book God
is My Copilot. You will see references to his ability there, and his activities.
R: I've read that. Yeah, there's a great story about when he crash lands his plane
in the river and how they eventually recovered that plane.
S: He would be another one that could give you information if you could get him to
tell you. That's why the field was named here. Mr. Pound, Mr. Parrish, and the
older people that set this thing up did that in his honor, because he literally was a
defender of the nation. [He] performed unbelievably as an individual to help
protect the freedoms that people enjoy now.
R: Do you know where he lives now?
S: He comes here frequently. I believe he lives in Washington D.C.
R: Does he come here to visit family?
S: Yeah, he knew most of the older people here, the Pounds and the Parrishes. He
was down for M. M. Parrish's funeral.
R: When was that?
S: That would be a year or so ago. He was recently down for [a brithday for Mrs.
Margaret Melton]. [I can not recall her] other married name before she married
[Charlton] Melton. She's still alive. General Allison came down for that affair
specifically. So Gainesville has a heritage of aviation that is really celebrated by
John R. Allison's activities, demonstrated by the fact that we named the airfield
after him. Now while on the airport board, I perceived that we should be called a
regional airport. In my youthful exuberance at the time, being a smart aleck, I
thought that we ought to name it the Gainesville Regional Airport, John R. Allison
Airfield. Well, it turned out [that] it came out as the Gainesville Regional Airport,
and I didn't make any friends over there with the old fellows around here. I wish I
hadn't done it.
R: Well, the terminal is still named for him; there's a plaque in there.
S: The field really is named after him. You can't change that. You can change the
name, but you can't change the name. What they ought to do is have a P-40 in
bronze out there, full size, with a statue of him, because none of this would be
enjoyed if it hadn't been for men like him. We're seeing that happen today again
in another foreign country, where men go forth and do things to preserve the
freedoms of the people. I kind of get a kick out of old Bush [President George
W. Bush], he's over there in England [visiting with Prime Minister Tony Blair]
saying, yeah, some of them don't like me, but isn't it nice for people to be free to
say what they think. We just liberated Iraq; they weren't free to do a thing.
People don't understand that.
R: It will definitely take some time.
S: Well, flying in Florida is highly restricted now due to the 9/11 event, which I don't
want to go on record saying a blooming thing about.
R: Do you have any memories of Alachua Army Airfield from the war years?
S: Since I was really not able to drive, I couldn't get out there except by hook or
crook. All I remember is [that] by then it was winding down, in 1945. That was
the year we moved back to Gainesville, and I remember very few airplanes out
there and very little activity.
R: Do you remember what month you moved back to Gainesville?
S: If I had to guess, it might have been December of 1944. I remember walking by
the Seagle Building [in downtown Gainesville] and hearing people talking about
the Manhattan Project. Apparently there was some concept, even though not
publically known to the guys that went to high school at Gainesville High School
down the street on University Avenue, that something was being done in there. I
remember specifically in Gainesville High School, [during my] sophomore or
junior year, that would be tenth or eleventh grade, hearing about a bomb that, if it
worked, would blow up ships for twenty-five miles. That caught my attention.
That bomb was later used to stop the invasion that would have been necessary
to secure Japan. It probably saved, easily, millions of young Americans and
other allied troops. The world really is a dangerous place, isn't it?
Aviation just didn't grow after the war. The pilots who had flown, probably a lot of
them, just never wanted to see an airplane again. If you get the fool scared of
you, sometimes you don't want to see one. I know of more than one aviator who
didn't even want to get in one. Now this is funny. When we brought the B-17
here last year, [we had a deal where] for $5 you could climb through it [and] for
$400 you could fly in it. This old duffer is out there, older than I am, and he's
standing around, and he's got a younger dude with him. The guy says, grandpa,
don't you want to get in that thing? He said, no, I don't want to get in that thing.
He said, well, why, didn't you fly in it in WWII? He said, yeah, I did. He said, it
was $.50 an hour, and half of us got shot up in that thing, I don't want to ever get
back in one. As it turned out, they offered him a ride in it for free, and he didn't
even want to get in it then. He would have been eighteen years old at 30,000
feet, with almost a snowsuit on and a tube to breath through, and fighting off
German Messerschmitts. He didn't like that idea; he didn't want to get back in
R: Did you know that man?
S: I just recall the old boy or girl [talking to his or her grandfather].
R: You don't know the man's name?
S: I don't know the man's name. There is a man here who taught flying in the B-29.
His name is Hershell Streit. He formed Streit's Bicycle and Streit's Honda
Motorcycle Company. He's still got the bicycle company. He's another
gentleman you ought to talk to. He would know more about it than I'd ever even
dream of knowing.
R: Do you know Hershell very well?
S: Yeah, [I know him pretty well].
R: I've stopped by his home, I've talked to his wife, I've called over there. He fishes
a lot is my understanding. But if there's any way I could get somebody to help
track him down, maybe we could schedule a time where I could talk to him. That
would be helpful.
S: I'll see what I can do about that. Catching Hershell would be like catching one fly
at a picnic. He can go anywhere he wants to; he's quite a pilot. In fact, he's
quite a distinguished pilot. He trained the pilots to fly the B-29, which is the one
used to bomb Japan.
R: Did you know any of the airmen stationed out at Alachua Army Airfield?
S: No, I didn't [know any of the airmen].
R: How did the community feel about the airfield?
S: [Their attitude was] ho-hum; nobody paid much attention to it.
R: Is this after the war?
S: [This is] during the war and after the war.
R: Why was that?
S: At the end of the war things were winding down. Most of us, who were fourteen
or fifteen at the time, were still not eligible to go in the service. There was not
that much knowledge being passed around. I think in those days, about the only
thing you knew about the war was at the movies, or some John Wayne movie.
We were still adolescents. We knew that Hitler was a bad dude, we knew the
Japanese were certainly difficult to deal with [because] you couldn't beat them
very easily, but that's as a child. Of course, civilian flying wasn't developed much
R: Do you remember seeing or hearing anything about accidents out at the airfield
S: The person who could tell you about that, who I think was there at the time, is
Howard Hall. He owned the insurance agency here. I think he flew a twin-engine
military airplane in and out of here. Apparently they were having a show out
there one day and somehow or another somebody walked into a prop.
R: I've heard about a guy who was a young lawyer named Clark Gorley who was
killed out there in a taxing accident playing in his car.
S: I think that's something similar to what I'm talking about. You'd have to get the
details from Howard Hall on that, he may know them.
R: Howard Hall lives here in Gainesville?
S: Yes, [he lives in Gainesville].
R: Have you heard any other stories from other people about Alachua Airfield?
S: There's supposed to be a pursuit plane out there in the middle of Lake Noonan
that was trying to land here and didn't make it; it hit the water and sunk. That
could be just a myth, but it's just something I heard. I wouldn't vouch for that one
at all. After it dried up out here, you would've found it.
R: Are there any other stories that you've heard?
S: No, you know, there's more stories about aviation that aren't true than stories
about aviation [that are true], notwithstanding combat. Combat is a mortifying
experience, [and] that's a whole different thing. But just basically landing and
taking off is a discipline, so there's not many stories to tell. It's not very exciting,
R: Do you have any memories of civil defense activities during WWII-blackouts, air
raid warnings, that kind of thing? Do you remember those kinds of things?
S: Yes, I do. [There were] not so many at the end of the war, but in Jacksonville,
where I lived during the beginning of the war, my mother was an air raid warden.
[She] had a hat and whistle. We would have air raid warnings where we would
have to pull the shades and turn out the lights, but that was in Jacksonville. As
you know, there was a submarine that actually sent a crew onshore over there,
and they caught them in the Florida Theater going to the movie. The real truth is
we were lucky that Admiral Donitz, commander in chief of all the German
submarines, didn't get his way. He wanted ten times the number of submarines,
and that would have definitely made a difference in whether we would ever have
gotten off the ground or not. As you know, [at] Crescent Beach it is not hard to
swim up on the beach or land on the beach, and there were fixtures all over
those beaches in Jacksonville Beach. Specific information on that could come
from a guy named Coleman Brown who actually lived on the beach during that
section of the war. He remembers specifically going over there, as I do, to the
towers. There was a restaurant over there called the Copper Kettle, I believe, on
the beach. I remember seeing glows off the coast, which meant that a boat had
been torpedoed. The next morning, or shortly there after, there was lots of tar on
the beach, which was literally either dumped or part of the fuel systems.
R: You said there were lots of fixtures on the beach. What do you mean by lots of
S: Well you had barbed wire, you had tires, and you had patrols on the beach. You
weren't allowed to be on the beach after a certain hour. In fact, you weren't
allowed to be on the beach at all during certain times.
R: Was there a real sense of danger?
S: Well young people don't understand danger, [but] the adults did. When you're
twelve, thirteen, [or] fourteen years old, life's a game. As one general said, no, I
want the eighteen year olds; don't give me the experienced people because they
know you get killed or hurt.
R: Do you remember who said that?
S: I wouldn't even venture a guess. It just caught my attention after I was fifty.
R: Do you think the army presence during WWII had any lasting affect on
S: Yeah, I think a lot of businesses came here as a result of that because of [Camp]
Blanding. We would have had a lot more businesses, but somehow or another
we got lost in being a university. As you know, Ocala has got more businesses
than we've got. Ocala's airports actually were active in the war, not in airlines,
but in general aviation. See that's another thing, general aviation is the
forerunner of commercial aviation. You can't have one without having the other
successfully because it's a training ground. Albeit, the military supplies us with a
lot of pilots, but the military's gotten rather jealous of people going to military
flying and then trying to become airline pilots, because it costs so much and the
equipment is so expensive today. The airfield formerly had three runways, now
we've got two. A lot of us don't appreciate the fact that we've got one less
runway. Runways are helpful in difficult wind situations.
R: When was the third runway closed down?
S: It was closed down in the early 1980s.
R: Why was it closed down?
S: The people in authority at the time thought it wasn't needed and [they thought]
they could put it to better use. So they built a fire station at the end of one of
them. Basically the runway was seldom used. I've landed on that runway
before it was closed.
R: Which runway was that?
S: Good lord, I can't remember, and I don't have the books. It seems like it ran
northwest and southeast. It's still there; it's a taxiway now.
R: You said earlier that a lot of the buildings left over from WWII were torn down.
S: Yeah, we tore them down because the young people in the training program out
there were using it to smoke dope in and do elicit things in. The best way to get
rid of that was to tear them down, and we did tear them down.
R: Somebody explained to me that the current location of that industrial park is
where a lot of the buildings were located during the war.
R: My understanding is Aeroflight has the only WWII hanger that's left.
S: Yeah, and there's a fellow named Jim Clayton who, after I was on the board,
purported that should be not only renovated but conserved, and the Airport
Authority got a grant to do that. Jim Clayton's a lawyer here in town. It would
have been terrible to tear that hanger down. Probably environmentally you
couldn't build a structure like that again, but it is the most useful hanger out
there. It can house some big airplanes.
R: When was it renovated?
S: It was renovated about three or four years ago.
R: Oh, so it was renovated recently. It looks really good from a distance, but I
haven't gone over there.
S: It looks fine; it's excellent. It was a smart move. It preserved not only history, but
specifically history for Gainesville. It's a utilitarian piece of structure that would
really cost you a lot of money, and just environmentally to put one up would drive
you nuts around here.
R: How many hangers were there?
S: That was the only hanger originally. There were no hangars.
R: So there was just that one?
S: There was just that one. Eastern Airlines would park there to pick up its
passengers before we even had a tower.
R: Why did the army give the airfield back to the city after the war?
S: They didn't need it; nobody needed it.
R: Was there any thought on the part of local government citizens to really
encourage the army to give them the airfield?
S: The Golden Knights, which are the army paratroopers, wanted to practice and
give a demonstration out there, but [one city manager] forbid it. He forbid the
United States Army's demonstration group from using the airfield. I went to him
and argued with him about it, but it didn't do any good.
R: What was his reasoning?
S: He hated airports; he hated them. He said they were a nuisance. I don't want to
name his name because it wouldn't do him any good or me, but that kind of
leadership is seldom found out until it's too late and the damage has been done
and it's permanent. [It's] sort of like tearing down the courthouse here. We had
the most gorgeous turn-of-the-century courthouse you can imagine. It didn't
need to be torn down, but after WWII everybody thought, we'll build everything
with flat tops [because it's] modern looking. But the field itself, we've gotten so
many nice grants out there from the government. The ADAT Funds have about
$8 billion in reserve to fund all the repairs that this nation would need to keep
these airports going.
R: What organization is that?
S: It's the Federal Aviation Authority's Airport Development Allowance Plan. It's
funded through gas taxes.
R: This is through aviation gas taxes?
S: [Yes], and that's what really keeps the thing running out there. Really and truly,
the airlines come where the passengers are. Passengers now have to go where
the airlines are, because there aren't that many passengers. There's only about
3,000 active airliners in the country today, planes. There may be 6,000 airliners,
but 3,000 of them are parked in the desert. [I'm] rounding figures. We haven't
built airplanes in the United States, except for warplanes, since 1982, due to the
judicial system, which ended up suing all the manufacturers. [They were] trying
to blame the manufacturers; they called them the deep pockets. Well, they put
millions of people out of jobs doing that. [They were] blaming the airplanes for
stuff that was really the pilots' fault.
R: So a lot of the companies that supplied aircraft for general aviation were put out
S: [I'm even talking about] commercial [airliners]. We don't build enough
commercial airliners here. It looks like other countries are about to beat us to
death. Now Hicks would know more about this because he keeps up with it. It's
not a career with me, I just know for a fact that we use Brazilian airplanes and we
use Canadian airplanes. When our legal system got so active about destroying
manufacturers by suing them to make big legal fees and do more courts, we did
something for sure, we just eliminated an industry. We may have even
eliminated more than we think we have, and it ain't just aviation, but that's
political. I don't want to get into that; it doesn't do me any good.
R: Do you think it would have been good if the army had stayed at the base?
S: As you know, they've closed eighty-eight bases in the past few years. It wouldn't
have done anything here.
R: It wouldn't even have made a difference in the ten or twenty years right after
S: There was no need for air cover. People became lulled into believing we did not
need air cover; 9/11 proved that. There were no jets, from what I understand,
within eighty miles of where those planes hit. They could have been activated...
[end of tape A, side 1]
R: Walter, what has been your personal involvement with aviation? You told me
about your early years. You graduated from high school, but when did you learn
S: Actually, I went to flight school in the army in about 1957.
R: What did you fly in the army?
S: I flew L-19, Otters, Beavers, and a DC-3. The army wasn't allowed to have
anything that weighed over 5,000 pounds or something [like that]. The DC-3 was
later [given] permission. The air force wanted control over all of that. [It was all]
R: How long did you stay in the army?
S: I was in a total of thirteen years including reserve time. The Congress wiped out
the unit that I was the group aviation officer for, which ended my time.
R: By that time you were working at a reserve unit?
R: What unit was that?
S: It was the 406 Field Artillery Group. It was stationed here. My famous
accountant was Colonel Ned Scott. [He] was the commanding officer of the field
artillery group. Field artillery needed spotters, which is what the L-19 was used
for. In Vietnam, you saw pictures of them with rockets, which were primarily
used to designate the target to call in a forward air strike or artillery strike. That's
what we were used for. Our only armament outside of the flat curtains, which
weighed too much because the plane wasn't very strong anyway, was a stove lid
in your seat.
R: How long were you on active duty?
S: [I was on active duty for] about four years.
R: Where were you stationed?
S: [I was stationed in] Ft. Benning, Ft. Stuart, Ft. Jackson, Ft. Bragg, [and] San
Marcos Army Airfield. I can't remember them all.
R: Where is San Marcos?
S: It's out there in San Marcos, Texas. That was a training field for army pilots. [I
was also stationed at] Ft. Rucker.
R: So you left active duty and then came back here to participate in a reserve unit?
S: That's right.
R: Who were some important figures in local aviation history?
S: I think I've given you most of them that I know of. John R. Allison is just
tremendously outstanding. If he would sit down and write [his] stories, it would
truly be real life fiction come true. He's a very delightful person, and Gainesville
is fortunate to have their airfield named after him. One of my closest friends and
I would build model airplanes and wheel them near the park. His house had a
turret; a lot of the houses in the Victorian era had turrets. So we'd get up on the
top or the third flood floor, which was basically an attic, and put firecrackers in
our model airplanes and put clay pilots in them and send them off to blow up.
Little did we know that that's what would happen to him flying into Khe Sanh in
Vietnam. He was in a 130, I believe, which you're familiar with.
R: What was his name?
S: His name at the time was Colonel Fred Hampton. He was one of the reasons I
actually stayed active in aviation. He knew Jim Clayton who helped preserve the
hanger out there. They were going to tear that big old hanger down, which would
have been economically undesirable except for whoever was going to build the
replacement hanger, whom it would have been economically desirable for. But
for the general overall scheme of things, that's the best hanger out there. I
guess that hanger was built in 1940, so that hanger is easily sixty-three years
old. It's a great hanger.
R: Did you know Carl Stengel?
S: Personally, yes. In fact, I kept a plane at Stengel Field. I think I payed him $15
a month for a lean-to that was falling down to keep my old tail dragger out there.
R: When was that?
S: That would have been in the 1960s. The people running that field out there were
Mr. and Mrs. Roy Seig One of the appetizing things would be, if I don't embellish
it too much, Mrs. Seig would have biscuits and coffee for you and buttermilk.
Well that's what a pilot would rather do, when you're not flying, is sit on the
ground and talk about it. We're all kooks. You've got to be nuts to do that all
day long and not get tired of it.
R: You mean to fly?
S: Well, just hanging around an airport looking at an airplane. It's pitiful, you
become addicted to it [and] you don't want to get away from it. I don't know Mr.
Bob Hoover, but he's a flying ace today at almost eighty giving demonstrations in
a P-51 and all that stuff. It's interesting to see young people like you taking a
real interest in trying to develop something to preserve this history because it's
literally vanishing before our eyes. When you get in a big airplane after you grow
up as a passenger, it's as dull as mud. People like us, we don't want to sit in the
back of that thing; we'd rather get in a Piper Cub to make the trip. Of course,
economically, it's good transportation. It's sad that we don't have a good air
transportation system, and we don't. Our freight system is better than our
passenger system. But when you think about it, if you read Fountain[head] and
[Atlas] Shrugged written by that lady, Ayn Rand, it's all in that book, including
aviation. Before I decided I was going to quit being an Airport Authority member,
I was forming a tri-county transportation authority to try to develop a golden
triangle manufacturing, administrative, technical, chemical complex. [The goal of
this would be] to massage the very thing that is here, and that's our technical,
engineering, chemical, medical programs at the university. We had the
knowledge and we could have developed a golden triangle right here, but people
really didn't think that was a good idea. Well, my customers got tired of me
taking time away from my business to do that.
R: The three corners of that triangle would have been Gainesville, Ocala, and what
S: Well, if you had to have three corners [it would] naturally [include] Ocala,
Gainesville, and Lake City. But you see, the supporting other fields around
would have been available, not the least of which would have been Williston.
Had that thing come to fruition and we could have gotten a lot of business in
here, Williston would be the center of aviation of North Florida. But you see,
we're not using airlines very much. There's nobody using them [because] it's too
expensive. Plus, remember now, when Eisenhower put in these super-
highways, even he didn't realize [what the significance of that would be]. Even in
1988, 1 remember one of my engineering board members, he was an engineer,
he found out that these highways were 75 percent overloaded with semi's then,
and they were wearing out. That's in 1988. If you drive on 1-75, you get the
feeling that that's a dangerous trip out there. In Florida, the thing that was hard
for people to get in their mind was [that] everybody thinks Florida is a simple
place to fly. Well you see, during certain months we have mountains that go to
50,000 feet that weren't there two hours ago. They're called thunder storms, and
you're just as well off flying into a mountain. Before radar in flying, we'd have to
fly through the bottom of them at 5,000 or 6,000 feet. You could do it, but it was
an experience that you wouldn't want to duplicate because of the wind shears
that are inside those things. The modern airliners can get up to 30,000 and
40,000 feet and never get around them, but the cost of getting up there and the
cost of getting down is an air traffic control problem. Aviation just hasn't
developed. It's easier almost to get in a car and drive to Atlanta than it is to
mess around with one of the airports. When they were doing fifty-five miles an
hour it was one thing, but if they had the highways really set up, we've got so
many cars, that the airplane has been replaced by a car. Today, with the gas
costs [it's more of a challenge]. In Europe it's $5 a gallon, here it's $3, but when
we were paying $.25 a gallon, buying a 100 gallons of gas was nothing. [But if]
you buy 100 gallons of gas today, [it's very expensive]. Most [light] jets burn a
minimum of 100 gallons an hour in diesel fuel. Seven pounds a gallon, that's
700 pounds an hour, and that could be per engine. Well, that's not economically
feasible right now. Aviation can't live without oil, [and] neither can the car.
R: You said you drove your car out there at the airport, what kind of car did you
S: Well, my daddy had it. It was a 1941 Plymouth and I could get it up to ninety
miles an hour before I had to start stopping on runway 6/24, because you could
pull right off Waldo Road and hit it and you'd be going eighty or ninety miles an
hour midway down the runway.
R: There was no fence?
S: There was no fence; of course not, there weren't any fences out there during the
war. That fence thing is basically a joke. We're finding that out in Iraq. It's
called shoulder weapons. I mean that fence thing just sold a lot of fences, that's
all. It really did help keep the deer out and the dogs out; that's really important.
A lot of people don't know it, but one of the biggest hazards of landing is a deer
running out in front of you, particularly [in] one of these big high-performance
airplanes today that have to have [up to] 8,000 feet to land a load of 150,000
pounds. If a deer runs out in front of a Concord, well, the deer didn't do it, it just
hit something and blew a tire. You ought to ask Captain Hicks about this, but
what I heard is that the Concord didn't have any passengers because the World
Trade Center bombs bumped out forty of their special passengers. That thing
only handled about sixty people. Here again, aviation just never got developed.
I mean, we're still flying equipment that was invented in 1915, the wing. Even
the rotary wing is nothing but a rotating wing that creates a vacuum and the darn
thing moves into it. So that's all interesting, but I thought in 1991 that by the year
2003 we'd have a million people using this airport, because I was up to 385,000,
and building. But there just isn't that much demand because the type of
equipment costs so much to run. Now the theater lines are coming back, which
might help us, but they're not even building those in the United States. A
concept of an airplane with 500 people on it going from here to Miami just
doesn't make any sense does it. You can see it right there. The concept of an
airplane flying to Miami four times a day with sixty people on it, or Atlanta or
Dallas or St. Louis or places like that, [makes more sense]. But even private
aviation has run into a rock. Rather than fuel up my plane to fly to Atlanta and
land at Hartsfield, which I've done many times, in the twin, which burns thirty
gallons an hour, that's $90 just for fuel for one hour, [I could just drive]. Well you
get up there in about and hour and forty-five minutes, but then you've got to drive
all over Hartsfield just to park. It can take you an hour of time just to park
because it's a hub. Of course, that's not too smart.
R: That's your plane that you're talking about, right?
S: Yeah, that one right there.
R: It's a Cheyenne?
S: No, that would be a Bonanza. That's the last plane I've got. That one was built
in 1967, and they've gotten so expensive that nobody can buy them. Those
things originally sold for $25,000 or $35,000 a piece. Now to buy a brand new
one is $500,000. [Few have] that kind of money. Fortunately, our corporate
business is bringing us bigger planes, better planes, and better jets, but we still
aren't up to the number of corporate activities that we should have.
R: Are you talking about as a fleet?
S: Right, we ought to have ten times the corporate airplanes that we do. More
corporate airplanes are coming on board, notwithstanding the fuel the costs,
through multiple ownership. It's all very interesting. But when you can buy gas
for $1.50 a gallon and drive to Atlanta on basically twenty gallons in an SUV, or
twenty-two gallons, whereas in my twin I can burn sixty gallons going up there at
$3 a gallon, [driving makes more sense]. If I jump in my old SUV at fifteen miles
a gallon, [it will be less expensive]. Then when I get to Hartsfield, which I don't
need to go to, I just drive straight to my business, [so it's sometimes more
convenient to drive]. That's why aviation and the concept of it is foundering;
there's no real leadership in the system. Certainly 9/11 indicates that we were
not prepared for any kind of an air attack. My father-in-law, who was a West
Pointer, was one of the primary designers of the Eastern Air Defense Command
back in the 1930s and 1940s. As you know, Billy Mitchell was laughed at, and
Goering figured it out. Unbeknownst to any of us, Japan figured it out. You
could talk to Mr. Pound about this [because he] flew one of the simulated
bombing attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1939.
R: Mr. Pound did this?
S: Mr. Pound did; he actually was one of the pilots. Of course, Gainesville has such
a history of aviation. I started thinking about it the other day. Those kids who
were in my class at Gainesville High School, a great number of them became
pilots, not the least of which is Dashwood Hicks, who is a world-famous pilot. He
plays with Scott Crossfield, the X-15 pilot, who is a genius in his own right. The
remnants of aviation, once it wears off, [still remain], and that's what happened in
1947, 1948, 1949, and 1950. I still wanted it, but the army lost it's air force to the
air force. That's pretty boring. Some people say, well the navy doesn't need an
air force, the marines don't need an air force, and the army certainly doesn't; but
the air force needs an air force.
The Air Force Academy is an interesting experiment. We've got to have a naval
academy, we've go to have a maritime academy, [and] we've got to have an
army academy. We've got to have those things.
R: Why do you say that?
S: Ground troops, sea troops, and attack forces are humans; I don't think we'll ever
get away from that. Remember, the Hun took the Romans out by figuring out
that they wouldn't know what to do if they were surrounded by woods and trees,
so that's where they attacked them and annihilated them. Guerilla warfare; Iraq
is trying it on us right now. [I don't mean] Iraq, but the regime that had the power
doesn't want to give it up. So they're going to shoot everyone of us they can and
create a lot of turmoil. It's particularly interesting to me because my business is
set in bonds and stocks and retirement plans. The real problem in the United
States is the retirement. There weren't enough jobs to really generate the
money to create pension funds for civilians, and the solution to that has become
be a government employee because you will get a pension. That's one of the
many things that has fueled aviation, because there are no pensions in aviation
to amount to anything. Delta, Eastern, Northwest, Southeast; those are tenable
jobs at best. Those airlines are all broke. There are no airlines making money;
they can't. Railroads could have, but we did to them just the opposite of what we
did to commercial traffic. Wasn't it Franklin who said at the end, and nobody
really put it in the books, yes, ma'am, we've got a darn fine constitution; it's the
only one we could adopt. [He said], it's a good one, better than nothing else. But
in the end, the way it's set up, we'll end up being run by despots because we'll
abuse it. That's scary. That's not in the history books, but that is in the history.
You can look right at the mutual fund industry right now; that's got to be scaring
people slap to death. [For example], 401-K; that's not a retirement plan, that's
nothing but a black hole that you pour money into. Look at the people my age
with IRAs. I thought I had so much money in it and I thought it was being
managed real well, [but] after August 2000, half of it was gone. Well, where was
the management that we were buying? Now the latest thing is the Late Trading
Act. All that is affecting aviation, believe it or not. I'm sitting here with an
airplane that was built in 1967; man, that's thirty-seven years ago. The new
airplanes that are coming out made out of plastic. Well I've flown airplanes that
had plastic dashboards, and most of them fell in. [They say], well it's a better
plastic. But you can look at the dashboard of the Spirit of St. Louis and it's still
there. Putting people in positions of authority who have no authority [is a bad
idea]. Look at the internet. Everybody thought that was the greatest answer
since bubble gum. Aviation is nothing but a form of communication to me. My
theme at the airport was communications and transportation, but they didn't buy
it. They wanted a whole different world. But when you look at the internet right
there, and everybody thinks it ought to be on the computer, well guess what, if
you have a computer you've got to feed it. [I don't mean] information. Garbage
in, garbage out; that's cute. No, they're redesigning the damn thing so that it's
worse than the cable TV; the rent goes up. Yeah, it's a great information source,
tremendous, but remember one thing about that thing, without the satellite it
wouldn't work, and without a telephone line it wouldn't work. If the lines become
overloaded here like they are in Gainesville, you'll be knocked off line more often
than you aren't. That's devastating to a business.
I'm afraid that aviation is a victim of technology that wasn't allowed to
develop. We've got to give the computer plenty of room, but guess what it is, it's
plastic. It's plastic with a lot of information and funny little gadgets inside of the
thing. What happens to that gadget when you tear it down? Where does that
information go? Boy, this is a big joke; you'll think I'm a kook. What the hell did
the Romans do for an education? They destroyed the Alexandria Library? [They]
burned it! For all we know, some of the answer to the scrolls were in that. So it's
fun to watch this, but in my little lifetime, aviation hasn't grown at all. It's gone
backwards due to the people getting involved that shouldn't be involved, and
that's sad. This isn't going in the paper, but historically people will come back
and say, you know, he wasn't totally incorrect. He was a goof ball, but [he wasn't
wrong]. Today you can't use the mails. I just turned on that blue little computer
trying to clear forty-one emails. Two out of the forty-one were real important,
twenty were a trend, [but the rest was trash mail]. Now they want me to make
the hard stuff, the paper printout, that they used to send me. Well I hate to tell
you that that ain't going to work.
R: I was curious about your own personal flying experience. Do you have any
memorable experiences or close calls?
S: None that I didn't create for myself.
R: Is there anything that you'd be willing to share?
S: If you do it right, it will work; if you do it wrong, it won't work. It's a discipline, and
the real truth is [that] when you get into an airplane, you can think of nothing but
what that machine and that communication system wants you to do. The first
rule is, fly the machine. Communications are almost secondary, which is kind of
scary, because without communications we can't stay separated. In spite of the
fact that there are fewer airplanes today than ever before, there are more
airplanes in Florida flying than we've ever had before. There are fewer airplanes
in other places, but this place is an air nest. We've got them like bumblebees
around here, and they're all old. Everything is old. We do have better radar
coverage than we used to, which is a protection, but the greatest fear that we
have in Florida right now is inner-air collisions. It's the same thing that happened
in Iraq the other day. But when you get to buzzing around, [it's easy to collide].
I've never had combat/fighter time, but I've flown when there were thirty other
army airplanes trying to do the same thing and it's harry as hell because they're
all around you. Flying and talking over the radio and looking at a map that's on
your screen in there, [that's dangerous]. I'm not so sure you can handle all that.
Somebody said, I read this, that if China had launched 25,000 MiGs, we only
have about 1,000 to combat them. Yeah, we can shoot down seven for every
one, but that's still only 7,000 out of 25,000. China would have dominated the air
with a simple MiG. So sophistication, of course, we're back to aviation again, we
are sophisticated as all get-out, but that isn't what's building aviation.
Sophistication is not building aviation. Common sense has left the ground, so to
speak. There ought to be a million people getting on and off airplanes at
Gainesville Airport, but Gainesville didn't grow either. Gainesville hasn't grown;
all we've got is a bunch of government employees here. This is 80 percent
government employees. Everybody wants to work for the government because it
is the only place you can get benefits. As my receptionist said today, Walter,
you know what it takes to put the information that I'm now having to pull out of
the computer and print fifty, sixty, and 200 pages in a clip that used to be mailed
to me and I would file it in your file. She said, somebody sits there for minimum
wage and types it in with fifteen others, and that ain't good; you'd be better off
digging ditches. What worries me is that we have so few real chances. [During]
9/11, we couldn't get to those airliners before they hit [the towers]. If somebody
had gotten to those airliners before they hit that building, yes, you would have
lost the plane, but you lost the plane and the passengers anyway. Anyway!
Anyway! Anyway! It's dumb! We knew forty minutes before those planes hit that
they were astray, and we couldn't get up to them and shoot them down, and an
F-16 costs $50 million.? Come on, something's wrong, bad wrong. Well once
again, it's putting people in positions of authority who have no authority.
[tape turned off]
R: We had mentioned Carl Stengel just briefly, and I was wondering what your
thoughts are on his contributions to local aviation history.
S: Well, he designed the Pitts Special.
R: Well, Curtiss Pitts did.
S: But Carl Stengel built it, I think, or something like that. I think the Pitts was built
R: That's what I've heard.
S: I don't know much about it. I didn't know Stengel that well. The first time I flew
out of his field was with a returned aviator who was trying to get me to be an S.
A. E. He took me up there in a damn Stearman. They had them for rent for $5
an hour. We turned that thing every which way. He said, don't eat or drink a
damn thing until after we fly. I understood it, but he put it every which way from
Sunday. [That was Frank Spain. His P51 was named after his wife "Queen
Anne" when he was fighting Germans.]
R: When was that?
S: That would be 1948.
R: What was that pilot's name?
S: [His name was] Frank Spain. Spain Construction is his kid's [business].
R: I haven't heard that name before. Was he an aviator?
S: He was an aviator. He flew P-51s over Germany, France, and Europe. Most of
them stayed drunk. Well you know, we're eighteen, you and me, [and] we're
pilots. [We're] nineteen maybe; the oldest ones were twenty-one. You're in
France and you go up and you love to fly that thing. The feeling of power in a big
machine, even like that, is unbelievable. When you get on the runway and you
shove that thing and that thing starts going [he makes sound of engine starting],
that's a thrill of a lifetime. He said, we'd be so drunk [that] the alarm would go
off, it's dark in the morning, [and] the Germans are coming to attack London
again. [He said], they'd take us out there in a truck, put us in the airplane which
is already running, strap us in, put your hands on the stick, and all you'd look for
was a green light and away you'd get off. [There were] six, eight, or ten of you at
a time in P-51s off of a grass strip. He said, we were sucking oxygen because
the crew chief, as soon as he got us on the plane, stuck it up our nose and
turned it up to 30,000 feet trying to get the head [cleared]. Because the head
doesn't work worth crap with alcohol in it. Believe me, you are one dumb thing
[when you're intoxicated]. I said, well Frank, that's unbelievable. He said, we did
it; we were in formation flying by rote memory [with] oxygen flowing through us.
He said, finally we would get up to about 20,000 feet and realize we're going to
have to go into combat and we'd want a cigarette. I said, a cigarette? He said,
yeah, your Bic [lighter] won't work at 20,000 feet, so we'd unhook the hose from
the mask, spew in oxygen, strike the Bic-because it would flick-and you'd get a
flame. You could light your cigarette and put your mask back on. He said, every
now and then you'd look over there and one of them would [have a small
explosion inside] because the oxygen exploded all over the plane, but it was
between your ears. But if you and I had been in the same bunk and hollered,
Mike, you and Shorty get your ass out of here, the Germans are coming again.
We've only been asleep about two hours and we are drunker than four coots to
hell, and we get out there and climb in that thing. But I can see it just as clear as
day. I want to go to England and go to those museums. You can tell I love
aviation, and you do too. You're worse than I am, and you're still young.
R: Walter, I appreciate it. Thank you for your time.
S: It's a pleasure.