Merle Fogg wouldn’t recognize the international airport that began as a swampy municipal airport bearing his name.
Tens of millions of passengers come through today’s expanded and expanding Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. The complex dwarfs its humble beginnings – built on a golf course fairway in 1929. But when it opened, Merle Fogg Municipal Airport was a big deal for Fort Lauderdale.
“A floral motorcade, composed of hundreds of automobiles and led by the drum and bugle corps of the American Legion, the Fort Lauderdale High School Band and motorcars decorated with tropical flowers and American flags, filed south on Andrews Avenue to the 100-acre airport where thousands of residents were waiting,” reported the Miami Herald front page on May 1, 1929.
The account went on to name the dignitaries and tell of five planes performing aerial maneuvers before showering flowers down on a memorial for the airport’s namesake. That would be Merle Fogg, pioneer aviator of Fort Lauderdale.
In the ceremony, Fogg was called “an intrepid airman, a man of noble character, magnetic personality and Christian ideals” and “a friend of all with whom he came in contact.”
Born in Enfield, Maine, in 1898, Fogg served in World War I, returned home to earn a degree in engineering and – much to the dismay of his parents – cultivate an interest in the brave new world of aviation. He came to Florida in 1922, learned to fly in Okeechobee and settled here in 1925.
Tales about the dashing airman were legion. In his biplane – the same design as the Wright Brothers plane, with two main wings stacked one above the other – Fogg earned a living barnstorming throughout the state with wing walker George “Daredevil” Sparks. At home, he’d fly low over the swamps, flush ducks out and herd them toward hunters waiting on land. Once he flew over the house of a sick friend, shut off the engine so his friend could hear and asked what he wanted for lunch. Taking the order, he restarted the engine, landed and made the delivery. He was even said to have roped an Everglades deer.
On land, he drove a roadster convertible with Oscar, a collie puppy, in back.
He also had his civic side. He campaigned for a city airport. He operated the first flying service, giving thrilled residents their first taste of soaring like the eagles. He also performed aerial surveys and taught others to fly. In 1926, he returned from a Maine trip, volunteering to help record the extent of the devastating hurricane that had just ravaged South Florida.
At one point, Fogg also was hired to fly a seaplane owned by land developer Tom Bryan. Seaplanes then could land in the Intracoastal. When Bryan became a state representative, Fogg flew him to sessions in Tallahassee.
For his own plane, Fogg built a makeshift airstrip and hangar alongside Las Olas Boulevard where it meets the Intracoastal. When he was outside working on his plane, motorists would honk their horns and wave as they went by.
Not that his chosen career wasn’t fraught with peril, according to various accounts. At a stunt show he and his partner, “Daredevil” Sparks, were nearly killed when, at an altitude of a thousand feet, Sparks walked out to the wing tip, lost his grip and almost catapulted from the plane. As he toppled over, Sparks wedged his ankle to a strut and hung suspended from the wing. Fogg dove toward the ground and made a sharp turn, flipping Sparks so he could grab a flying wire and pull himself aboard. Just before crashing into the ground, Fogg managed to pull out of the dive.
Then there was his attempt to set down the first land plane on Andros Island in the Bahamas. Fogg and his passenger, R.G. Mills, had to make a forced landing, flipping the plane’s nose in the island’s mud flats. For four days the pair tried to free it. With no provisions, they subsisted on water drained and strained from the plane’s radiator. Finally, a sponge fisherman in a boat rescued them and helped right the plane. After some propeller repair, Fogg was able to bring it home.
Tragedy struck in 1928, and it’s the reason Fogg himself was not there to inaugurate the airport. A last-minute decision to accompany a couple of his student pilots on a quick trip to West Palm Beach proved fatal. On the landing approach, the plane, piloted by his student, went into a spin and crashed in an orange grove east of Military Trail. One of the student pilots was the only survivor.
Merle Fogg, pioneer aviator and original namesake of the airport, was 29.