Florida's first airport came about for the same reason as the world's first sustained speed tournaments – the hard, level sands of Ormond-Daytona Beach.
These days it seems improbable that our beach was ever used as a landing strip. What about the tides? The strollers and sun bathers?
By the time the beach was first used for an airport, the sand was already filled with automobiles. Somehow the large wing spans and huge propellers were dealt with and the beach served as a viable airport from 1911 until the early 1940s.
It all began during the winter speed tournament of 1906 when Israel Ludlow, a New York lawyer, brought his big glider down to serve as a sidelight to the auto event. It was towed down the beach by a car and went airborne for about 150 feet. The bamboo and cloth contraption looked like a large box kite with Ludlow seated within. Not much of a flight, but a harbinger of things to come.
By 1911, both Glenn Curtiss and the Wright Brothers were selling airplanes. You may recall Curtiss was very familiar with our beach having set a motorcycle world record here in 1907. Both Curtiss and the brothers had to teach people how to fly in order to sell their planes. The beach would serve as an early training field.
As time passed and air traffic on the beach became more common, hangers and repair facilities would be built on the sand near the Clarendon Hotel on Daytona's central beach.
Aside from the constant crosswinds and the other problems mentioned above, the sand airport did thrive. And why wouldn't it?
In the early days of flying, aviation was a scary thing for the passengers, pilots and even the people on the ground. Across the nation landing strips were always constructed well out of town and away from any residential areas. People could not feel safe in their homes with low flying aircraft popping and sputtering overhead.
With the airports out of town, transportation had to be arranged to get pilots and their passengers to a hotel or restaurant.
Aside from providing a free landing strip, there was no maintenance. The tide did that work each day. At the Volusia County beach, airplanes could approach from over the Atlantic Ocean and land right in front of the finest hotels. Just across the dunes was bars, restaurants and the famous Daytona Beach nightlife. By coming in over the ocean, the planes would not frighten the people, their children or the livestock. It was the perfect airport!
Soon sightseeing flights left the beach to take visitors to view the grand St. Johns River and perhaps scout a nice piece of land to buy. Daredevils would perform all sorts of feats, including flying under the Main Street Pier or transferring a person from a moving car to a low flying airplane.
In 1911, a Curtiss Pusher plane raced a Welsh automobile on the sand. (The car won.) It was all so much fun and when one of those events took place, the entire town would shut down while everyone went to the beach to watch.
As the 1920s came to an end, the air traffic had become too much and Daytona Beach built its first inland airport. The beach would continue to serve for another decade, but by then the glory years had passed for the world's strangest airport.
Now we here in Volusia County are able to watch from our front yards as rockets are shot into the heavens from Kennedy Space Center just down the beach. It is pretty much forgotten that it all began here with Mr. Ludlow's glider in 1906.
Dan Smith is on the board of directors for the Motor Racing Heritage Association and is the author of two books, “The World’s Greatest Beach” and “I Swear the Snook Drowned.” Email questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (386) 441-7793.