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Florida History: The history of Florida’s airports

The Palm Beach Post logo The Palm Beach Post 9/17/2020 Eliot Kleinberg, Palm Beach Post, Palm Beach Post
a sign on the side of a building: Feb. 1976: The former palm Beach Gardens airport, before the present North Palm Beach county airport opened in 1994. (Diane Hubbard/Palm Beach Post) © HANDOUT Feb. 1976: The former palm Beach Gardens airport, before the present North Palm Beach county airport opened in 1994. (Diane Hubbard/Palm Beach Post)

Readers: Check the tag on your luggage. There's that 3-letter code telling you which Florida airport your bags will arrive in--if they don't end up in Pittsburgh. 

Here are the easy ones: MIA for Miami International, FLL for Fort-Lauderdale-Hollywood International, PBI for Palm Beach International, JAX for Jacksonville International, TPA for Tampa International, DAB for Daytona Beach International and PNS for Pensacola International. Then it gets a bit complicated. 

The Fort Myers airport was originally “Southwest Florida Airport.” When a new airport opened in 1981, along the new Interstate 75, things changed. Two years later the complex was renamed Southwest Florida Regional Airport. Eight years later, it became Southwest Florida International Airport. But it stuck with its original 3-letter designation, which incorporated the original "regional:" RSW.

Read more Florida history: Here are Florida’s top 25 stories of all time

Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport had the code of RS in the early 1940s. When codes went to three letters, it was changed to SSO. But it was too close to SOS, the international distress signal. The airport went with SR, and the Q was added as a "filter letter." Such lesser used letters were assigned when an airport had a really good 2-letter combination and needed any third letter. For example, Los Angeles' LAX.

St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport started in 1941 as the Pinellas Army Airfield. After World War II, it became Pinellas International Airport and got the PIE designation. In 1958 it was renamed St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, but the letters stayed.

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Key West begs the question of why it's EYW and not KYW. We found one story suggesting a conflict with KYW, a popular and powerful radio station in Philadelphia. The Key West airport referred us to a former director who didn’t call back.

Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, Florida's newest major airport, opened in May 2010 about 15 miles northwest of Panama City. The airport said its 3-letter code ECP doesn’t stand for anything.

Orlando’s airport began during World War II as Pinecastle Army Airfield. It was reactivated in the Korean War as Pinecastle Air Force Base. In 1957, the commanding officer of the bomber wing based at Pinecastle was testing a B-47 when two jet engines exploded and he lost control. He diverted the craft away from heavily populated areas and crashed into a pasture. In May 1958, Pinecastle was renamed for Col. Michael Norman Wright McCoy.

In the early 1960s, when commercial air travel "took off," the local municipal airport's runways were too short. So in 1962, McCoy Air Force Base agreed to have part of the property become Orlando Jetport at McCoy. The military moved out in 1975 and the new all-commercial operation got its current name: Orlando International Airport. But the "McCoy" designation, shrunk down to the 3-letter "MCO," remains.

In the early 1960s, when commercial air travel "took off," the local municipal airport's runways were too short. So in 1962, McCoy Air Force Base agreed to have part of the property become Orlando Jetport at McCoy. The military moved out in 1975 and the new all-commercial operation got its current name: Orlando International Airport. But the "McCoy" designation, shrunk down to the 3-letter "MCO," remains.

READER REWIND: What airport memories do you have? Share yours with us by leaving a voicemail at (850) 270-8418. 

Next week: Lake Kissimmee Cow Camp/Cracker Cowboys

A reader asks:  Hello Eliot, your story about the Barker gang was very interesting. It reminds me of a possible mystery here in Jupiter, FL. I moved to Jupiter in 1970. There was the "Farms" area out west on Indiantown Road west of the Turnpike, like now, but there was no Publix shopping center, and no stop light. The road leading south at that point is called Jupiter Farms Road now but I seem to remember in 1970 it was called "Italian Farms Road.” Is there an interesting story behind this? - Robert C., Jupiter, Fla

Eliot answers: Mr. Cannon: Thanks for the heads up! I'll put that in my file for a future column.

Eliot Kleinberg has been a staff writer for the past three decades at The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, and is the author of 10 books about Florida (www.ekfla.com). Florida Time is a product of GateHouse Media and publishes online in their 22 Florida markets including Jacksonville, Fort Walton Beach, Daytona Beach, Lakeland, Sarasota and West Palm Beach. Submit your questions, comments or memories to FloridaTime@Gatehousemedia.com. Include your full name and hometown. Sorry; no personal replies.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Florida History: The history of Florida’s airports

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