In the 1920s, Fort Lauderdale swelled from a population of 2,300 to nearly 9,000. Toward the end of that decade, a young aviation enthusiast named Merle Fogg brought locals into a brave new transportation age.
Fort Lauderdale had seen nothing like Fogg and his twin-winged biplane – similar to the one the Wright Brothers piloted into history. With the plane parked in a makeshift hangar along Las Olas Boulevard, Fogg barnstormed the state with high-flying daredevil maneuvers. He also operated a flying service, documented damage from a brutal 1926 hurricane with aerial photography and trained dozens of first-time pilots. But Fogg’s life came to a premature close: Aviation’s biggest local promoter died tragically in an air crash at the age of 29, with one of his student pilots at the controls.
His life and death spurred a groundswell of support for the city’s first airport. Merle L. Fogg Municipal Airport, two criss-crossed strips of unpaved runways, opened in 1929. It was built on the ninth hole fairway of a defunct golf course that Fogg had purchased for the purpose.
The airport kept that name until shortly after war was declared in 1941 and the Nazis began attacking Allied shipping along the coast. Broward cities were blacked out at night, and the Coast Guard patrolled the waters looking for submarines.
Thus, the sleepy municipal airport underwent a massive transformation. The U.S. Navy took it over, giving it a new name and mission: Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale.
It was a boon for the city in more ways than one. At the time there was widespread gas rationing, which cut back on tourism and real estate development. But with the Naval Air Station came lots of wartime activity, including new facilities and thousands of American and British men and women training to be flight crews, ground crews and maintenance support workers.
The air station soon mushroomed to 200 buildings and became the home of the TBF and TBM Avengers, the largest single-engine planes used in the war. Made by Grumman, the torpedo bomber was capable of taking off from aircraft carriers and featured folding-wings technology perfect for saving space on carrier decks.
Some of the air station personnel were trained and housed in the Lauderdale Beach and Tradewinds hotels. And, as hard as it is to imagine today, a gunnery range preceded today’s resorts along the beach in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea. (It’s unlikely, however that the trainees had much time to enjoy the sand and surf.)
In addition to the air station, where some 14,000 personnel were housed, several satellite airfields known as NOLF – “Naval outlying landing fields” – were commissioned nearby. One became Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport.
In 1946, the devastating war over, Broward County – which had contributed 5,536 citizens to the armed forces, with 76 of those lives lost – would reclaim and rename a much-enhanced facility, calling it Broward County International Airport. It eventually grew into the modern facility we know as Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
But before the international airport era, history was made at Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale. Among the pilots trained there was a future president, George H.W. Bush, class of 1943.
And in 1945 came one of the more infamous chapters in aviation history, the subject of dozens of books and documentaries. Five Avengers and their crews mysteriously disappeared on a training mission near the Bahamas. No remains or wreckage were ever found. Thus began the saga of the Bermuda Triangle.
The squadron left from none other than the Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale.