Piper-Fuller field was built and dedicated in 1926 as the city’s first dedicated airport and featured three grass runways in the heart of the lower Pinellas Peninsula. Built by H. Walter Fuller as an amenity for his Jungle Club subdivision, the Piper-Fuller field saw many firsts for the city of St. Petersburg. During its dedication on Thanksgiving Day 1926, 10,000 vehicles congregated for a parade from the brand-new Million Dollar Pier to the airport, clogging Central Avenue and being described as the “greatest automobile event ever staged in this section of the south”. A Waco biplane flown by M.E. Devoe dazzled the crowds, some of whom journeyed upwards of 100 miles to St. Petersburg for the dedication.
The first air meet in city history happened at Piper-Fuller on February 24, 1929, with several events, races, formation flights, and contests being advertised by the St. Petersburg Times. St. Petersburg’s airmail service was inaugurated on 14 December 1929 with the assistance of a new, high-tech aircraft of the era. The St. Petersburg Times further reported on 15 December 1929 that the Goodyear Blimp Vigilant departed the newly-built Albert Whitted Airport and had plucked the first mail pouch up off the roof of the 12-story West Coast Title building. After hoisting the bag into the gondola, the airship proceeded directly from downtown to Piper-Fuller Field for sorting.
According to post office officials, the fetched pouch was one of 16 originating from St. Petersburg totaling 29,558 pieces of mail on the inaugural day. The Times also reported that it was the first time in the history of the South a mailbag was picked up from the top of a building. Once the mail arrived at Piper-Fuller, it was distributed to cities such as Pass-a-Grille, Clearwater, St. Petersburg, Tarpon Springs, Tampa, and Bradenton using borrowed Pitcairn aircraft. Piper-Fuller field continued to operate as a general aviation airport until the second world war, hosting air meets, training pilots, and providing a haven for early aircraft owners and bootleggers alike. According to the Jungle Terrace Civic Association, Clair Lee Chenault of future Flying Tigers fame and his “Three Men on a Flying Trapeze” aerial exhibition team performed at Piper-Fuller Field, but primary source records confirming this have been lost to history.
In 1941 the St. Petersburg Times reported that the City of St. Petersburg acquired the airport and in a surprising move approved a further land purchase to increase the field’s size to 210 acres for a sum of $7,133. By 5 November 1941, the Times reported that the sale and transfer of the tract were complete. With America entering World War II on 7 December 1941, general aviation completely ground to halt at Piper-Fuller. The St. Petersburg Times reported on 17 December 1941 that a further 80 acres were secured for $1,000, with negotiations underway for a final 40 acres. This would allow for the construction of a future east/west runway for crosswind mitigation for student pilots. However, the airport would never reopen to the public. By 1943, the airfield was marked as abandoned to aircraft traffic on USGS charts and over 10,000 cadets and trainees were camped out on the former airport and the Jungle subdivision’s golf course. Following the war, there was interest to re-activate the field, but the proposal was dismissed.
Be sure to visit the Jim Goldman Resource Center in the Florida Air Museum if you would like to research more about Florida aviation history!
Submitted by Glenn Gallagher