A Place in Florida – The Airport That Lives With History – Part 2May 5, 2020
There’s a place in Florida, Opa-Locka Executive Airport, that just can’t stay out of the history books. So many historic events have gotten their start there since this airport took off in the 1920s that historians could be asking, ‘What’s next?’
Part 1 of this story of Opa-Locka Airport told of its beginnings and subsequent development amid a myriad of changes in aviation and geopolitics. It also recounted nine instances that students of history could point to and say, ‘Why Opa-Locka?’
I don’t have a crystal ball that answers ‘What’s next?’, but I can offer a theory that might explain ‘Why Opa-Locka?’ But first…
Let’s take a closer look at those nine historic events – and why Opa-Locka’s airport seems to have been in the thick of things for almost a hundred years.
Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
As noted in Part 1, this is America’s greatest unsolved mystery, and it began at this place in Florida, Opa-Locka Airport.
By the time she took off in a Lockheed Electra 10E on June 1, 1937, Amelia Earhart was an international celebrity, known first as ‘Lucky Lindy’, then as ‘Lady Lindy’ as a result of her 1932 first-ever nonstop solo flight by a woman pilot across the Atlantic. Five years after Charles Lindberg’s historic flight, she was now ‘Queen of the Air’.
Before that, she had been a successful and heavily promoted writer who had served as aviation editor of Cosmopolitan magazine – a position that catapulted her into the publishing scene and a marriage – some said “of convenience” — to George P. Putnam, who published two books she wrote.
She also promoted women in aviation by competing in the ‘Powder Puff Derby’. And her high-profile endorsements of such products as luggage, cigarettes and women’s clothing and sportswear (enhancing her tall, thin look that some said emulated Charles Lindbergh’s appearance) endeared her to American women.
When she and navigator Fred Noonan took off at Opa-Locka June 1, 1937, they headed first to the Caribbean, then made multiple stops in South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, arriving at Lae, New Guinea June 29. Only 7,000 miles of their 29,000-mile flight remained – but it was the most difficult part. Almost all of it was over the Pacific.
The plane took off July 2, headed northeast for Howland Island, just a dot on a map. It disappeared in the vicinity of Howland, never to be heard from again. The Navy and others’ vessels searched a 150,000-square-mile area for six to seven days without success. The disappearance spawned many theories, but the mystery was never solved.
Bay of Pigs Invasion
It’s no secret now, but the 1961 disastrous invasion by Cuban exiles of the Bay of Pigs was planned by the CIA at Opa-Locka Airport, troops were trained here, and 20 B-26s were prepared for battle here. The troops’ final training, and the launching of the invasion, took place in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Fidel Castro’s band of 80 rebels had overthrown Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and turned Cuba into a Communist state. The goal at the Bay of Pigs was to overthrow Castro.
E. Howard Hunt (later a Watergate conspirator), aided by friends in Miami’s Cuban exile community, spent time at Opa-Locka drawing up plans for a new Cuban government. The plans were tossed in File 13 when Cuban troops defeated the invaders – destroying Hunt’s reputation as a master spy. The invasion was conceived in the Eisenhower administration, but Hunt blamed the new Kennedy administration and the state department for the defeat, which helped to solidify Castro’s power.
Cuban Missile Crisis
When a U.S. U-2 spy plane discovered Soviet missiles in Cuba aimed at the United States in 1962, it resulted in a confrontation that was the closest the world has come to nuclear war. Opa-Locka Airport, rundown and struggling to find new tenants after being on the losing side of the Bay of Pigs invasion, was hurriedly prepared for battle again.
President John F. Kennedy reclaimed Opa-Locka for use as the Peninsula Base Command for an invasion of Cuba. Fourteen days after the crisis began, Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev agreed secretly that the U.S. would remove its missiles in Turkey (it didn’t) and the Soviet Union would remove its missiles in Cuba (it did). Opa-Locka Airport could return to its commercial ways. In 1967, it was the world’s busiest commercial airport.
The CIA and Opa-Locka Airport
With leftists agitating in Latin America’s Banana Republics in the early to mid-1950s — posing a perceived threat to the 1823 Monroe Doctrine designed to keep European powers out of the Western Hemisphere — Opa-Locka became a convenient and available place in Florida to mount and execute covert operations against them. The CIA continued to use Opa-Locka for this purpose until the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
The Infamous ‘Black Flights’
One Banana Republic (a term coined by O. Henry in 1904 to denote a country exploited by large-scale agricultural plantation companies ) was Guatemala. When leftist President Jacobo Arbenz began flirting with Communists in 1952, then brought about land reform opposed by United Fruit (which had ties to the new Eisenhower administration), red flags went up in the United States, if not in Guatemala.
The U.S. decided to depose Arbenz, and Hunt says he did much of the covert planning from a ‘safe house’ in Miami, with more than a little help from Guatemalan exiles at Opa-Locka Airport. In fact, as the coup attempt drew near, there were almost nightly flights from Guatemala to Opa-Locka, bringing anti-Arbenz people in for training. Thus, the term ‘Black Flights’, which to this day officially never happened.
Though no invasion was necessary, the operation was successful. Arbenz was deposed without bloodshed. But that led to decades of unrest in Guatemala and its neighbors.
In 1980, prodded by 10,000 asylum-seekers demonstrating at the Peruvian Embassy in Havana, Castro said, okay, leave Cuba if you like – and 125,000 did. Most of them headed for Miami, and Opa-Locka airport again was available for any historic event that came along. The U.S. Coast Guard – significantly challenged at the airport to process wave upon wave of the refugees – discovered Castro had opened the doors of prisons and mental health facilities, and 2% of the refugees were criminals. They were denied asylum.
Destroying or heavily damaging 117,000 homes south of Miami with 165-mile-an-hour winds, Hurricane Andrew displaced tens of thousands of people in 1992. Opa-Locka Airport was the only relatively unscathed place in South Florida from which to mount a massive recovery effort.
The Demise of a Dirigible
Partly because of its spaciousness, Opa-Locka Airport was an important stop-over for ‘blimps’ during the 1930s. The huge airships had had a prominent but checkered role in World War I, so few people questioned the City of Miami’s purchase of an old World War hangar at Key West to dismantle it, move it to Opa-Locka and set up shop as a blimp station in 1929. The U.S. airships Akron and Macon and the German Graf Spee all made well-publicized visits to Opa-Locka. It was not unusual back then to see a blimp in the skies over Miami.
The U.S. Navy’s Akron was an accident-prone flying aircraft carrier – it launched Curtiss Sparrowhawk biplanes – that in retrospect probably should never have left its Goodyear christening hangar in Ohio. It was overhead in Washington on March 4, 1933, when President Delano Roosevelt took the oath of office. Little did anyone know then, but the Akron was an accident waiting to happen.
Seven days later, the Akron headed for Opa-Locka, bound for Panama, looking for a potential airbase site. On the airship’s return trip, it again stopped at Opa-Locka so her gun crews could get some target practice, among other reasons. Leaving Opa-Locka on March 22, she returned to her home base at Lakehurst, NJ. On April 3, loaded with VIPs interested in airships’ commercial potential, she unexpectedly ran into a violent storm off New Jersey and crashed into the sea, killing 73.
Training of the 9/11 Hijackers
In months preceding 9/11, the terrorists moved about freely in South Florida, as well as in the United States. Few places they visited were more important to their mission than Simulator, Inc., at the Opa-Locka Airport. That’s where Mohammed Atta, the leader, and a sidekick, Marwan Al-Shehhi, paid $1,500 to spend 90 minutes a day for two days learning how to fly a Boeing 767. The simulator, which has controls similar to a 767, has the topography of New York City stored in it. Investigators think the two practiced crashing into the World Trade Center.
So… Why Opa-Locka Airport?
So, why does the Opa-Locka Airport fill the history books? Here’s my theory. Some of these historic events put Opa-Locka Airport in the history books for the same reason some people climb mountains: just because it’s there. But it goes beyond that:
- The Cold War. Although it began life in the 1920s, the airport is mainly a child of the Cold War. Sure, it had a prominent role in World War II, but it was not until after the war that Opa-Locka Airport became almost a household word.
- Its location. Think of Florida as an index finger of the United States sitting out in the middle of a vast sea of change, with Miami and Opa-Locka on the fingernail. The fingernail of the index finger always is in the thick of the action, isn’t it?
- Geopolitics. The winds of change often give birth to extreme measures. Opa-Locka Airport gave the United States a haven for combating what it perceived to be dangers to its political health – in Cuba, in Central America and indeed the rest of Latin America.
Training of the 9/11 hijackers? Why did they choose this place in Florida to learn to fly big planes? I think Opa-Locka Airport was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.