Adventuring businessman Joseph C. Mackey’s air travel legacy is still felt today in Fort Lauderdale.

Joseph C. Mackey, an early pioneer in aviation and founder of Fort Lauderdale’s first air carrier in 1953, did not mince words. When a city official with whom he had often sparred on civic matters asked for his opinion on whether an airport should be built along Alligator Alley, his response was one word. “Idiotic.”

“That’s what I thought,” said the official, and hung up. Of course, that airport was never built. Mackey tells this story and others in an oral history from 1975 on file at the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society.

On another occasion in the 1950s, state and local officials were poised to launch a major expansion of Executive Airport on Commercial Boulevard. They were leaning away from expanding Merle Fogg Municipal Airport, which was carved out of a golf course in 1929 and named in memory of the city’s first pilot. This was located several miles south of downtown.

But Mackey was leery of expanding air traffic smack in the center of homes and businesses. With the prevailing east and southeast winds, he argued, the airport expansion would be better suited to Fogg, which had become a Naval Air Station during World War II.

It was perfect, Mackey argued: “Make your approach over alligators and take off over the fish.” And so our major airport is where it is.

Born in 1909, Mackey grew up in Ohio. As a young man he worked for a pittance as an air mechanic’s assistant, in exchange for half an hour’s flight instruction a week. After finally getting a license and flying transport planes around the country, he settled in Fort Lauderdale.

He became a daredevil stunt pilot in the 1930s. But in 1936, Canada came calling, enlisting Mackey to ferry American bombers to Britain before the United States entered the war.

On one of these runs in 1941, Mackey was asked at the last minute to take a special passenger along. It was Sir Frederick Banting, who had won a Nobel Prize for his role in the discovery of insulin.

But over Newfoundland, Mackey’s B-24 encountered engine trouble in bad weather. He turned around to try and make it back to Canada. He was the lone pilot.

“I had to keep my eyes and hands on the controls and shout out instructions over my shoulder to the passengers,” he said in the 1975 interview. On board were Banting and two crew members. He told them to prepare to parachute out over an area he was approaching, giving directions to the nearest known settlement. The plane crashed in Newfoundland wilderness. No one had parachuted. Only Mackey and Banting survived. The scientist told Mackey that he had never parachuted and was too afraid to make the jump. Banting died on the third day after the crash. Mackey was rescued on the fifth day.

This part of the story can be found in most accounts. But in the oral history, Mackey is on record as saying he believes the plane was sabotaged. According to him, a newspaper article had appeared shortly before the flight indicating that Banting was on the verge of creating a new type of fuel that would give the Allies the advantage. A mechanic investigating the wreckage agreed there was sabotage, according to Mackey.

Soon after, the U.S. joined the war effort, and Mackey advanced to colonel, becoming commanding officer of the Army Air Corps bases in Miami and in West Palm Beach. In 1943, Colonel Mackey also flew for the famed Fireball Express, then known as the world’s speediest, longest-distance, air freight line.

With the war over, Mackey, who had bought a house, land, and two filling stations in Fort Lauderdale, acquired three Lockheed Lodestars for a new venture. This would be the first of four air companies he either founded or helped to expand. They were:
• Mackey Air Transport, a charter airline with flights to the Bahamas and Cleveland (1946).
• Mackey Air, our city’s first regular air carrier, flying to the Caribbean out of Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Miami (1953).
• The merging of Mackey Air with Eastern Airlines, for $19 million (1967).
• Mackey International, flying to the Bahamas and Haiti from 1969 to 1981.

Mackey was often involved in civic affairs after the war. He thought the development of Bahia Mar was the city’s biggest step, since it would draw the wealthy down here via their yachts.

They’d love the place and invest.

There was another side to the aviator. After the 1941 crash, he was offered money by a major magazine for his story. He at first refused because it didn’t feel right. But he reconsidered when he thought about the wife and children of his radio operator who perished. He’d do it if and only if the payment went to that family.

Months before Mackey died in his Flamingo Road home in 1982, he was inducted to the National Aviation Hall of Fame. He was 72.

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