One needs to look no further than Aerospace Discovery at The Florida Air Museum to learn about the significant contributions made by National and Piedmont Airlines in the development of not only the state’s rich commercial aviation history but to the educational growth of SUN ‘n FUN.
Many have said Florida could not have had a more perfect ‘Airline Ambassador’ than National Airlines. Operating from 1934-1980 and headquartered at Miami International Airport for the majority of its life, National was close to Florida’s heart for many reasons.
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National Air Lines
At its height, the airline had a network of “Coast-to-Coast-to-Coast” flights, linking Florida and the Gulf Coast with cities along the East Coast and large cities on the West Coast. In addition, the popular ‘Buccaneer Route’ was established in 1939 and carried passengers from Miami to New Orleans and to the Caribbean. Because of its immense popularity the ‘Buccaneer’ image was synonymous with the airline for several decades.
Headquartered at Miami International Airport for most of its existence, National was dubbed as the “Sunshine Airline” because of its monumental success at marketing the state as a vacation destination. Airline officials even went so far as to build a luxurious and extravagant glass walled terminal at JFK in New York City naming it the Sundrome in an effort to entice customers to fly to the state and enjoy the warm, sunny climate.
Some say this marketing maneuver was instrumental in making the state a year-round destination rather than a seasonal travel option. When the airline merged with Pan American World Airways in 1980, many felt a Florida institution was lost forever.
Piedmont Airlines System Schedule (Sept. 1980) featuring the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Museum Collection
The presence of Piedmont Airlines and its founder, Tom H. Davis, who passed away in 1999, continues to loom large on the SUN ‘n FUN campus. Known simply as “Boss Tom” by his 22,000 employees, Davis enjoyed a flawless reputation as a humanitarian and philanthropist during his lifetime and was a longtime friend and supporter of the Aerospace Center for Excellence.
His interest in aviation began at an early age when his father took him to watch barnstorming pilots fly and by the time he was 16, he was spending his allowance on his own flying lessons. The first airplane he ever flew was the Taylor E-2 Cub and it is one of many on display at the Aerospace Center for Excellence.
In 2006, the Davis Education Center opened on the SUN ‘n FUN campus making it possible for young adults to explore, learn and enjoy the field of aviation through a variety of programs offered during the year. The center was made possible through a joint venture between the Tom Davis Fund and the State of Florida.
Today, the 6,000 square foot building continues to be a tribute to Davis’ legacy as a pioneer in Florida’s aviation history and the part he played in its growth.
*Top photo, First scheduled service between Miami and Key West by National Airlines. 1944. (State Archives of Florida)