Air Station Clearwater, Florida

June 3, 2022

Air Station Clearwater, Florida

Formerly Air Station St. Petersburg

Air Station St. Petersburg patch

Original Location: 
Albert Whitted Airport, St. Petersburg 

Current Location:
St. Petersburg / Clearwater International Airport

Date of Commission:
1 March 1935 

Still in service 

Historical Remarks:

The St. Petersburg Air Station was built during 1934-1935 with Public Works Administration (PWA) funds and under Works Progress Administration (WPA) labor and rules.  Located at the southwest corner of Albert Whitted Airport, on land created from the dredging of Bayboro Harbor, it shared its location with the city's sewage disposal plant. 

Air Station Saint PetersburgIn December 1934, the first enlisted men reported for duty to the Commanding Officer, LT W. A. Burton, Coast Guard Aviator Number 19.  These men were Chief Boatswain Mate E. J. Morris, Aviation Chief Machinist Mate E. M. English, Chief Yeoman E. H. Lane, Aviator Machinist Mates J. J. Savola and S. S. McKeman, and, most important, Ships Cook First Class H. A. Plankitt. 

Still under construction at that time was a 100 foot by 120 foot steel framework/asbestos siding aircraft hangar and associated maintenance shops, the wooden seaplane ramp into Bayboro Harbor , concrete aprons and aircraft operating areas, and underground aircraft fuel storage facilities.  Also being built were two Spanish-style enlisted barracks, a vehicle maintenance garage, and a building containing the galley, mess hall, recreation hall and officers' quarters. 

The hangar, fueling system and seaplane ramp were completed first.  Air Station personnel were housed and fed in St. Pete at the leased two story Connecticut Hotel on Fourth Street South until the barracks and messing facilities were completed in 1935.  One of the first 10 Coast Guard air stations, the Air Station was commissioned on 1 March 1935.  Supporting Coast Guard units were the 165 foot CGC Nemesis, under the command of LCDR Lee H. Baker, and two 75-foot patrol boats, CG-100 and CG-193, which was later replaced by CG-145.  These vessels were moored in Bayboro Harbor adjacent to the Air Station. 

The first aircraft assigned was CG #131 a Douglas RD-4 "Dolphin" amphibian.  The RD-4s were named for stars, and #131 was named MIZAR.  MIZAR was a twin engine, high wing monoplane with Pratt and Whitney R-1340-10 engines, and had a search range of 775 miles cruising at 105 miles per hour.  The initial cost of the aircraft was $43,500.  There soon followed two Grumman "Duck" JF-2 amphibians, CG #168 and #171. These were single engine biplanes and had an initial cost was $45,000 each..  With their Wright R-1820-102 engines, they had a search range of 795 miles, cruising at 155 miles per hour.  

A 1936 article in the Coast Guard Magazine (September issue, pp. 1, 14) note an additional crewman assigned to the station, a ACMM R. T. "Pop" Cupples, USCG, who interestingly was also Naval Aviator No. 1.  The article continued:

TURNING to "Pop" Cupples we find a man whose name and reputation are known wherever pioneers of aviation congregate.  This quiet, smiling old-timer was actually number One pilot in the U.S. Navy and, to this day, he retains his original license which was granted back in 1906!  In 1906 the Navy had three planes; three of those old "crates" which can now be found only in historical museums. . .Remember the name--R. T. "Pop" Cupples.  He's [now] a Coast Guardsman; a Coast Guardsman with 6,000 flying hours to his credit, a Coast Guardsman who, in his Navy days, was the instructor of such peerless flyers as our own Commander C. C. Von Paulsen and the late Commander E. F. Stone!


During the years preceding World War II, as Coast Guard aviation continued to expand and additional aircraft were obtained, there were numerous other aircraft types based out of St. Petersburg. These were the 00-1 Viking flying boat, a single engine biplane with open cockpit; the PJ-1 General Aviation flying boat, a high wing monoplane with pusher engines; and the PH-2 Hall Aluminum Company flying boat, a large biplane whose advantage was a slow water entry speed for open sea landings. Landplane type aircraft assigned at various times were the NT-2 New standard and the O2U-2 Vought Corsair, both single engine biplanes; and the JK-2, a single engine high wing monoplane.

A major search and rescue effort took place shortly after the station was commissioned. The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 devastated the Florida Keys. Aircraft from St. Petersburg joined those from Air Station Miami flying many missions searching and directing the patrol boats. The settlement of Flamingo had been completely wiped out. The living were rescued and the dead were recovered and taken to Miami. 

The air station aircraft and crews flew many searches often working in conjunction with the CGC NEMESIS and the patrol boats, as they aided those in distress. Flights were flown to warn of impending storms. Landings in the open sea to remove injured crewmembers, under less than favorable conditions, took place when the situation warranted it. Navigation aids and hazards to marine shipping were checked and although Prohibition was repealed and alcohol smuggling had decreased significantly the Coast Guard as the air arm of the Treasury flew many flights looking for illegal liquor stills. The Florida moonshiner was a tough old “cracker” who saw no reason why he should not make his own liquor, sell it to whom he chose, and not pay taxes in the process.

During the first years of World War II the aircraft at the Saint Petersburg air station were part of a valiant but inadequate deterrent to the German submarine campaign. The Coast Guard aircraft were not designed for combat and initially had to be jury rigged in order to carry depth charges. US Naval anti-submarine capabilities left a lot to be desired in both tactics and numbers. During 1942 and part of 1943 the German submarines raised havoc on the east coast of the United States and concentrated on merchant shipping in and out of the Gulf ports of Houston, New Orleans and Tampa. By mid 1942 Coast Guard air stations were equipped with aircraft designed for submarine patrol duty and were supplemented by other units. Coast Guard aircraft rescued and directed surface assistance to numerous seaman from torpedoed vessels during this period. By the end of 1943 the submarine menace had abated. Patrols continued but the primary mission had shifted back to search and rescue operations.  A number of Mexican Air Force pilots were trained here during the war.  One group, under the command of LT Eliseo Martin del Campo, were trained here in March, 1943.

In November 1944 an Air Sea Rescue organization was formed nationwide. The Coast Guard was placed in charge as the control agency with authorization to direct all Armed Forces resources to respond in life saving operations. Along with the Coast Guard, the Navy and Army Air Force had both aircraft and rescue boats at various locations around the Gulf of Mexico. While any unit would immediately respond to an incident, The Coast Guard Control Center was simultaneously contacted so that all resources could be coordinated and effectively utilized. 

After the war commercial marine and aircraft traffic continued to increase and pleasure boating operation increased exponentially. So did the Search and Rescue responses at St. Petersburg. All of the old aircraft were gone. The Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina and the Martin PBM Mariner came aboard during the last years of the war and stayed to be the backbone of the postwar search and rescue missions. By the mid 1950s the helicopter, a very efficient life saving machine, was on board replacing a number of the World War II seaplanes. Air Station St. Petersburg flew the large P5M Marlins, the last seaplane the Coast Guard procured. These were replaced in the 1960s by the HU-16s (UFs). 

Air Station Clearwater patchThe addition of four HC-130 airplanes in 1976 prompted the move to St. Petersburg / Clearwater International Airport and hence, the name change to Air Station Clearwater.  Click here for a first-hand account of this transition by the then-Commanding Officer of Air Station St. Petersburg, Captain Ray Copin.

Clearwater became the Coast Guard’s largest air station in 1987 with the increase of two additional HC-130H airplanes and nine HH-3F helicopters, boosting personnel strength to 92 officers and over 420 enlisted men and women to maintain and operate the six airplanes and twelve helicopters. The new station motto, "Anytime, Anywhere" described the current operation of the air station.  Numerous missions by the C-130 "Hercules" in support of search and rescue, law enforcement, and marine environmental protection are flown on a daily basis.  During the 1980s a yearly average of over 300 such search and rescue cases were handled by the HH-3F "Pelican" throughout the coast of Florida and as far away as the Bahamas.

The Air Station was also home base for two AN/TRC-168 Emergency Communications Vans, capable of a variety of communications.  The units are normally transported by C-130 and their equipment can provide essential communications to any emergency organization . The vans are designed for continuous service under severe weather conditions and were deployed to assist in rescue relief efforts associated with hurricane Hugo, as well as other natural disasters.

In 1986 following on the success of the previous operation, Clearwater conducted operation HUNTER. This drug interdiction effort planted the seeds for what is today's OPBAT (Operation Bahamas and Turks and Caicos). Perhaps the single most noteworthy mission for the Air Station also came in 1986, during the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Air Station crews responded immediately, the initial crew arriving on scene so quickly it had to stand off while the debris from the explosion continued to fall. In all, Clearwater flew 33 sorties on the Challenger mission and was awarded a Coast Guard Unit Commendation.

The Air Station was instrumental in fighting the "War on Drugs".  It provides continual helicopter support, from two forward deployment sites, for Operation Bahamas, Turks and Caicos (OPBAT) a multi-national, multi-agency drug interdiction program throughout the Bahamas and Caribbean.  OPBAT has been the single most effective drug interdiction effort.  Air Station Clearwater’s efforts have been responsible for the seizure of over 36,000 lbs. of marijuana and 41,000 lbs. of cocaine (as of 1990).

The 1990s have been no less dramatic for the men and women of Clearwater.  In 1991 our C-130s responded rapidly to fly personnel and supplies in and out of the combat theater in support of operation Desert Storm.  During the Haitian uprising in 1992, Clearwater crews evacuated American embassy personnel and transported U.S. Special Forces into Haiti.  When south Florida and Louisiana were devastated by hurricane Andrew, Clearwater crews flew missions round the clock transporting hundreds of tons of badly needed supplies.  In March 1993 the "Storm of the Century" struck Florida leaving numerous sunken vessels in its wake.  Air station crews launched at the height of the storm and pulled 62 people from the water in what was the busiest search and rescue day in the air station history.  In the summer of 1994 air crews participated in a massive SAR effort which located and rescued 34,568 Cubans and 23,389 Haitian migrants from the waters of the Caribbean.

In 1997 President Clinton announced a renewed effort towards the War on Drugs, and Clearwater responded as part of operations Frontier Shield, Gulf Shield, and Frontier Lance.  Those operations were aimed at stemming the flow of illegal drugs and migrants and spanned from the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean to the southern coastline of Texas.  The Coast Guard set new records for both drug seizures and arrests.  Time and time again Clearwater flights crews and support personnel have risen to the challenge of the momentous tasks which they are given, and they are justifiably proud of their long history of distinguished service to our nation.

Air Station Clearwater’s flight crews and support personnel are directly responsible for the saving of over 100 lives and over a million dollars of property each year.   The stations C-130s "Hercules" continue to perform numerous missions in support of Search and Rescue, Law Enforcement, Marine Environmental Protection, and logistics.  The aircraft is a ideal platform for long range Search and Rescue, with over 14 hours of airborne endurance and large scanner windows built into the airframe side. Originally designed for DOD missions of carrying large cargo loads into short, rough landing strips, the C-130 demonstrates this ability to perfections for the Coast Guard's required support of missions in isolated areas. Clearwater C-130s have deployed to many of the contiguous 48 states, Alaska, Hawaii, the Caribbean, Central and South America, Europe, and many other parts of the world.

The 12 state-of-the-art Sikorsky HH-60J "Jayhawk" helicopters assigned to the air station have a long-range capability of 600 nautical miles to support Coast Guard ships on Law Enforcement patrols, deliver dewatering pumps to sinking vessels, evacuate injured crew members from vessels far at sea, and many other missions.  Air Station Clearwater helicopter aircrews fly an average of over 400 Search and Rescue cases each year along the coasts of Florida, the Bahamas, and beyond.

Historic Photo Gallery

Unless otherwise indicated all photos are official U.S. Coast Guard photographs.  Any original caption information is included in the text beneath each photo, along with a date, if known.  Click on the thumbnail to access a larger image.

Air Station Clearwater commissioning

Original photo caption: "St. Petersburg/Clearwater Air Station Commissioning."; 1976; Photo No. 10297601-11 (07); photographer unknown.

Air Station Clearwater commissioning

Original photo caption: "St. Petersburg/Clearwater Air Station Commissioning."; 1976; Photo No. 10297601-11 (05); photographer unknown.

Air Station Clearwater commissioning

Original photo caption: "St. Petersburg/Clearwater Air Station Commissioning."; 1976; Photo No. 10297601-11 (06); photographer unknown.

Air Station Clearwater commissioning

Original photo caption: "St. Petersburg/Clearwater Air Station Commissioning."; 1976; Photo No. 10297601-11 (10); photographer unknown.

Historical Sources:

Air Station Files, U. S. Coast Guard Historian's Office

Arthur Pearcy.  A History of U. S. Coast Guard Aviation.  Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989.

Lt. Col.  Ted A. Morris, USAF (Ret.).  The High Coast of Saving Lives: U.S. Coast Guard Air Station St. Petersburg, Florida.  Rescue Operations 1 March 1935 to 29 October 1976.  Published by the author, 1999.