Readers: The terminal at Palm Beach International Airport turns 25 this week. Here’s an update of a column we did for the 20th anniversary in 2008:
It started in 1929 as a field with a windsock called Lightbown Municipal Airport.
On Dec. 13, 1932, John Demarest of Hypoluxo sold 440 acres of land to an association formed to build a new air terminal. Six weeks later, runways were staked out. The total cost of the “modern” airport was estimated at $180,000.
It was named for Grace Morrison, secretary to glamorous Palm Beach architect and weekend flier Maurice Fatio. She’d championed the creation of a Palm Beach County airport, contacting local officials, and when that failed, the federal government.
On Dec. 19, 1936, Morrison Field was dedicated. It had expanded to 598 acres and was paid for by the county, the state and two federal agencies. Morrison was not there. She had been killed just months earlier, on Sept. 5, near Titusville, while driving her brother to college.
The first plane to depart, an Eastern Airlines DC-2, carried 14 passengers. The first official landing at the airport carried three men, among them Morrison’s boss.
The airport was a military base during World War II and the Korean War. Returned to the county for good in 1961, it became home in 1966 to a $2.39 million, five-building terminal four times the size of its predecessor.
But in the next dozen years, air traffic went from 153,700 passengers in 1965 to 785,000 in 1977.
Leaders wondered whether PBIA’s location pinned it in from further expansion. They looked to a 30,000-acre tract in far southwest Palm Beach County. It just wasn’t inconvenient; environmentalists cried foul, as well. A 1974 study said PBIA should stay put.
By the end of the 1970s, PBIA traffic was increasing faster than at any of the state’s major airports. Soon, the 22-year-old terminal was as outdated as last year’s luggage. A new $150 million terminal rose along Belvedere Road.
Supporters wanted it named for Lake Worth’s David McCampbell — a Medal of Honor winner and World War II’s ace of aces with 34 kills. The county, wanting to keep “Palm Beach” in the airport’s name, named only the terminal for the ace.
On Oct. 23, 1988, McCampbell — who died at 86 in 1996 — cut the ribbon. The Star-Spangled Banner played. About 6,000 balloons fell. And a taped voice announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, your airport is now open.”
At 560,000 square feet, it was triple the size of its precursor and had double the gates, 24, with the potential for 25 more. It was built to handle 7 million passengers a year. In the 12 months ending in August — the most recent period for which figures are available — it handled more than 5.6 million.