Opa Locka Airport
Date of Commission:
Dinner Key: June, 1932
Opa Locka: 20 November 1965
Still in operation
A sign hangs above the entrance to the operation center at Coast Guard Air Station Miami. It is small, unobtrusive and would probably be missed by the casual observer. Painted in black letters on a white background it reads: "Busiest Air-Sea Rescue Facility in the World." Those eight words on that small sign tell the big story of an air station that has historically proven to be the hotbed of Coast Guard aviation.
The Coast Guard planners-of-old first commissioned an air-wing in Miami in June of 1932. Miami was selected because of its geographical location as aircraft operating from Miami could reach the Bahamas, Cuba and had access to the Gulf of Mexico. This site selection would prove to be all-important in the years ahead. Dinner Key was originally an island in Biscayne Bay which was connected to the mainland with fill in 1914. In 1917 the Navy chose this site to become a Naval Air Station. The base was commissioned the following year and conducted flight training with 12 seaplanes and a dirigible. The Navy vacated the base after the end of WWI but the seaplane facilities were utilized by commercial operators. The New York, Rio and Buenos Aires Airline began operations from Dinner Key in 1929. This airline merged with Pan American which initiated an extensive route structure from Dinner Key during the 1930s. Pan Am completed an elaborate passenger terminal building in 1934.
The first of the PJ Flying Life Boats were the first aircraft assigned to
the station. These aircraft were radio equipped and had radio direction
equipment. They could land and take off in the open sea and did so, when the
situation dictated, on numerous occasions. It was from Dinner Key that
LT Olsen flew in the darkness and storm to evacuate a critically ill crewman
from the USA Transport REPUBLIC. Wind direction for his take-off was
indicated by the ship’s searchlight and the Arcturus lifted out of the sea
in total darkness completing a seven hour mission and saving a life.
In 1935 a Labor Day Hurricane with winds of over 150 miles an hour struck the Florida Keys. LT Clemmer flew over the Keys prior to the storm reaching them and dropped more than 100 message blocks warning people of the approaching storm. After storm passage all available station aircraft deployed to the ravaged area and commenced an evacuation of those hurt badly. During one flight LT Clemmer took off with sixteen victims on board, the largest number of people ever carried in a FLB, and flew them to Miami for medical attention. Both LT Clemmer and Lt. Olsen continued the operation for several days. Miami was assisted by aircraft from the newly established air station at Saint Petersburg. The operation was well conducted and provided considerable public awareness of the Coast Guard mission. The operation also illustrated the potential and capabilities of aircraft in this type situation.
A considerable increase in Coast Guard Air stations would take place over the next two years. Additional aircraft were being purchased but a temporary aircraft supplement was required at Miami. Two confiscated New Standard NT-2s obtained from US Customs and two former Navy O2Us were based out of a hangar at the 36th Street Airport which was rented from the city. By 1938 the air station had three PH-2 Hall boats and three SOC-4 seagulls on board and the number of SAR related missions had increased significantly.
With the outbreak of World War II, the Coast Guard aviators at Dinner Key flew anti-submarine warfare patrols and convoy support missions. Attacks were made on enemy submarines but no kills were recorded. They did however save many survivors from torpedoed merchant ships by directing surface vessels to the location and landing in the open sea when situations dictated that a landing should be made. LT James Schader, while patrolling in a Vought OS2U-3 Kingfisher sighted the remains of the torpedoed tanker SS Gulfstream and observed three groups of survivors. He landed in the water and took the three men in the first group on board. He then taxied to the second group and gave them a life-raft for support and carried on to the third group; one of which was badly burned. Taking this man on board the already overloaded aircraft he radioed for other Coast Guard aircraft to assist and stood by until help arrived. All survivors were then transported to shore.
With the war’s end Air Station Miami literally stayed in the cockpit. Better airplanes and more equipment broadened the area of routine operation. By the mid 1950s air crews at Dinner Key were flying the amphibious HU-16 Albatross and a new type of rescue aircraft, a Sikorsky helicopter, designated the HH-19.
The South Florida area, Miami in particular, experienced a rapid growth in population beginning in the mid-forties. By the end of the 1950s the area was literally teaming with pleasure boaters. This increase in populace and boating is reflected in the statistics of the time. From 1952 to 1959 the station’s search and rescue flying hours increased a whopping 214%. By 1960 the station was flying three amphibians and three helicopters. Together they totaled more than 2,000 hours of actual search and rescue flight hours. Ironic as it may seem, the real action was about to begin.
Shortly after the communist takeover of Cuba a small but ever increasing number of Cuban nationals began to make their way across the Florida straits. By April of 1962 the numbers had increased so dramatically that Coast Guard emphasis began to focus on South Florida. Crews from Miami began flying routine patrols in search of exiles lashed to inner tubes, rafts or anything else that could float. Literally thousands of lives were saved; the number of lives lost is unknown.
During this period the station replaced its aging reciprocal powered helicopters with the new turbine powered HH-52A. The increased range and versatility of this amphibious aircraft added new dimensions to the helos’s search and rescue capabilities. With the ability to deploy on the backs of Coast Guard cutters the Miami helo crews were instrumental in rescue operations. The station also moved during this time to the Opa Locka Airport. The "new" station was commissioned on 20 November 1965.
As the flow of exiles from Cuba began to ebb another problem for the Coast Guard began to surface. South Florida has thousands of miles of uninhabited coastline. Additionally, it is in close proximity to the Bahamas and South America. These two factors combined to make the area a prime target for the importation of illicit drugs. Once again Air Station Miami with it’s fixed wing aircraft and deployable helos became a prime mover for the interdiction effort.
Despite the high levels of activity caused by the larger operations, Air Station Miami was on hand to respond to the thousands of local distress calls. The largest of such calls came at midnight on the 30th of December 1972. Easter Airlines flight 401, a jumbo jet with 167 passengers smashed into the everglades west of Miami. The first rescue asset on scene was an HH-52A from Miami. Ultimately, a total of 42 survivors were air-lifted to area hospitals by Miami helicopters and crews.
The 1970s saw an increased awareness for the need to protect the environment. Illegal dumping of oil by commercial shipping began to threaten Florida’s coast. Air Station Miami became actively involved in the detection of spills and locating the offenders. In March of 1977 the ancient HU-16 was replaced with an interim medium range search and surveillance aircraft, the HC-131A Convair. Nicknamed the "Samaritian" these work-horses were the backbone for "Miami Air’s" fixed wing operations for the next five years.
In early 1980 the station was involved in a routine of search and rescue, law enforcement and marine environmental patrols. On 23 April 1980, the government of Cuba opened the Port of Mariel to any Cuban national who cared to depart the island. Thus began a massive civilian boat lift. In two months, and in every conceivable boat, over 100,000 refugees crossed the 100 miles of open sea to Florida. Air Station Miami became the focal point for the Coast Guard’s air-sea rescue response. Coast Guard aircraft and crews from stations all over the country were repositioned in South Florida. Miami crews flew endless rescue missions while Miami ground support personnel were tasked with not only servicing Miami aircraft but also those brought in for the operation.
1981 saw the start of another boat lift, this time from Haiti. The U. S. Government entered into and agreement with the Haitian authorities to stop the influx. Air Station Miami has been an important cog in the success of the current Haitian Migration Interdiction Operation. Helo crews on a year round basis are patrolling the waters off Haiti, interdicting and returning the illegal aliens before they reach our waters. This operation has undoubtedly saved hundreds of lives. In February 1982, Vice President Bush announced that a joint federal task force would be formed in South Florida to combat the increasing flood of narcotics. This beefed up effort would once again involve the air station in increased law enforcement patrols and deployments. In October of the same year the station replaced it’s HC-131s with six HU-25A Falcons. This sophisticated twin turbine jet is presently highly involved in the interdiction effort.
In the years between 1992 and 1995, Coast Guard Air Station Miami remained in the national spotlight, responding to the extreme destruction in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, and by rescuing thousands of Cubans and Haitians from death on the high seas.
Unless otherwise indicated all photos are official U.S. Coast Guard photographs. Any original caption information is included in the text beneath each photo, along with a date, if known. Click on the thumbnail to access a 300 dpi image.
Image scanned from page 18 of the March, 1935 issue of the Coast Guard Magazine. The original caption stated: "Wings of the Coast Guard: Coast Guard Air Station, Florida, Lieut. C. B. Olsen, Commanding Officer. The plane in the picture is the flying boat Arcturus."
Original caption reads: "'General Muster' at Coast Guard Air Station Miami, Florida. 1-31-35 (2) N."; no photo number; photographer not listed.
Original caption reads: "Photo A C. G. Air Station, Miami, Fla. 10 November 1956."; no photo number; photographer not listed.
Station Patch, circa 1980s
Air Station Files, U. S. Coast Guard Historian's Office
Arthur Pearcy. A History of U. S. Coast Guard Aviation. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989.