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A Place in Florida – The Airport That Lives With History – Part 1

There is a place in Florida, near Miami, that occupies a curiously high number of chapters in the books of American aviation history. It’s probably because of the geography, but could it be more than that?

  • In 1933, the huge Navy airship Akron crashed in a violent storm in New Jersey after taking off from this airport.
  • In 1937, America’s greatest unsolved mystery – the disappearance of Amelia Earhart while attempting to be the first female aviator to circumnavigate the globe – began to unravel at this airport when she took off with navigator Fred Noonan.
  • From 1954, the CIA began to use this airport as the headquarters of its covert operations in Latin America.(/li>
  • The infamous “black flights” of exiles and CIA agents who overthrew Guatemala’s left-wing president, Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954 took off from this airport.
  • When CIA-trained Cuban exiles invaded Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in 1961, this airport was used as a staging area for the failed invasion.
  • In 1962, when the United States was planning to invade Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, this airport was going to be the invasion base until Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev withdrew the missiles.
  • When 125,000 Cubans fled to Florida in 1980 during the Mariel Boatlift, the buildings at this airport housed the refugees.
  • In 1992, when Hurricane Andrew devastated towns south of Miami, this airport became the starting point for recovery efforts.
  • And, two 9/11 terrorists trained at this airport nine months before crashing their planes into buildings in New York.

Talk about chapters! Many entire books have been written about each of these historical events. Has any other US airport had such an extensive and unusual involvement in history? Probably not.

This location in Florida is now the Opa-Locka Executive Airport, the last of many names it has had. In 1967 it was the busiest civilian airport in the world.

The airport’s history begins in 1926, when aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss retired from aircraft development and manufacturing to join Missouri rancher James Bright in developing the lands that Curtiss and his wife had purchased them in 1918. Amid Florida’s housing boom of the 1920s, they founded not only Opa-Locka in 1927 but also Hialeah and Miami Springs.

It is no coincidence that the latter two are located between Opa-Locka and the current Miami International Airport. Since their founding, the three cities have been at the forefront of Miami’s aviation history.

Curtiss and Bright chose Opatisha-woka-locka as the name for their new town, 10 miles northwest of downtown Miami. The Native American name translates to “the highlands north of the little river on which there is a campsite,” according to Wikipedia. Others say it means “hammock in the big swamp”.

Curtiss may have been a successful aviation pioneer and Bright a successful rancher, but their marketing expertise as developers is questionable. To their credit, they realized their name was a mistake and quickly renamed the venue Opa-Locka. Curtiss incorporated the city as “Arabian Fantasy”, based on the book “1001 Arabian Tales”. Sales were driven by the success of a recently released film, “The Thief of Baghdad” starring Douglas Fairbanks.

In this city, Curtiss constructed 105 buildings with an array of domes, minarets, and exterior staircases. Nearly a century later, Opa-Locka still has the largest collection of Moorish architecture in the Western Hemisphere.

Although he retired from aircraft manufacturing (remember movies showing wing walkers on Curtiss biplanes in the 1920s and 1930s?), Curtiss moved his Glenn Curtiss aviation school to his new city. Ironically, it was Nita Snook, the first woman to graduate from her aviation school, who taught Amelia Earhart how to fly in 1922.

Curtiss opened Florida Aviation Camp in 1927, two years before the opening of Pan American Field, the precursor to Miami International Airport. Curtiss died prematurely in 1930 at the age of 52, but he had laid the foundation not only for commercial aviation (think Pan Am, think East) but also for a strong military presence in this which became Opa-Locka Airport. Shortly before his death, he donated Florida Aviation Camp to the United States Navy.

It was during World War II that the airport took on the general profile of today’s facility. In 1940 the airport became Naval Air Station Miami, and during the war NAS Miami was the headquarters of the US Naval Training Command, with six training bases. At its peak, it employed 7,200 military and 3,100 civilians.

In 1959, part of the property was transferred to Dade County; in 1962 it became Opa-Locka Airport; and in 2006 the Opa-Locka Executive Airport. In 1960, Dade County established Dade County Junior College there, which today is one of eight campuses of Miami Dade College, the largest college in the United States with 167,000 students.

Today, the airport isn’t as busy as it was in 1967, but it’s still a hive of commercial and industrial activity. Nearby are two reminders of its past: Amelia Earhart Elementary School and Amelia Earhart Park.

Part 2 on this quirky place in Florida provides details on some of the historical events that shaped its history – and a theory as to why they did.

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