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    Open house helps show off airport and its aerial guests

    A free air show at Albert Whitted Airport draws about 8,000 and gains petition support.

    By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 30, 2003


    ST. PETERSBURG -- James Cash, 13, loves to fly. At least he's pretty sure he will love it, just as soon as he climbs into a plane for the first time.

    "I just like the way they spin and go fast," said James, who says he has been into planes since he was "a little kid" and hopes to be an Air Force pilot when he grows up.

    His brand of idealism -- a love of aviation, thirst for adventure and association of flight with bravery and patriotism -- is the kind of feeling Albert Whitted Airport enthusiasts hoped to bring to Saturday's Open House and Air Show.

    James was among about 8,000 people who marveled at World War II-era planes, watched mock military rescue missions and even took rides on experimental planes Saturday at the airport in downtown St. Petersburg. While the day's events focused on maneuvers by visiting U.S. Army Reserve and U.S. Coast Guard personnel, as well as planes that flew into St. Petersburg simply to strut their stuff for spectators, the airport's troubles weren't far from the forefront.

    The airport's location on the waterfront, and its 100-plus acres, have made it a target for redevelopment. The mayor and City Council have debated its fate for years and are considering taking the issue to voters in a referendum.

    The airport contingent thought the free air show was one way to share what Albert Whitted has to offer. "We wanted to give the citizens the opportunity to come down here and come beyond the fence," said Jack Tunstill, an airport advocate.

    Tunstill couldn't have asked for a better backdrop to showcase the airport: Steady breezes kept the 85-degree temperatures comfortable as families checked out the airplanes on display or sat in bleachers to watch the air show.

    The show began with the Joint Special Operations Command Parachute Team from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa jumping onto airport grounds from a UH-60 Blackhawk for a mock "downed pilot" combat search and rescue maneuver.

    The Coast Guard also demonstrated how it rescues someone stranded in the water.

    Even as spectators checked out a British Spitfire, a World War II fighter plane that completed 50 missions over Germany and occupied France, they weren't far from the "Save Albert Whitted" campaign.

    One display near an airplane hangar solicited petition signatures and featured a placard that said "Keep your airport whole" -- a message that speaks to Mayor Rick Baker's current plan to abandon one of the airport's two runways and upgrade the remaining one.

    The petition garnered 1,000 signatures Saturday, organizers said.

    Said Steve Tolliver, a pilot who stores his plane at an Albert Whitted hangar, "It gives us a chance for the local residents to see the airport and what goes on here."

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