A small sparkling white, silver, and black striped jet lowered altitude into the endless spectacular multi-green colors of the mangroves of the 10,000 islands, seemingly disappearing, but landing on the 5,000-foot runway harboring a large nest of American crocodiles at the far end.
At the end of Mainsail Drive, less than eight miles from the center of the island and nestled in the middle of the mangroves, is the Marco Island Executive Airport. It was constructed in 1976 after the original Landmark Street “runway” became too busy. At the time, the Mackle brothers of the Deltona Corporation, the men who designed the original masterplan for Marco Island, planned to build another resort deeper in the Everglades just off the island. After initial being approved, the Army Corps of Engineers vetoed the new community, and the airport was all that remained. For the next ten years the facility thrived, and I still remember the scheduled service between Marco Island and Miami aboard the blue-striped, white Martin 4-0-4 48 passenger aircraft with the distinct Deltona logo. At one time the roundtrip fare was 30 dollars and there were three flights daily. During the heydays around 1975 over 54,000 passengers used the service annually. But when Deltona began to run short of money due to the discontinuance of the second resort project, they sold the airlines to Provincetown-Boston in 1986. Unfortunately, that airline was grounded on safety regulations and ceased operation in 1989.
Move forward another 32 years and it has been about a week since a brand-new multi-function terminal had its soft opening for those arriving by private airplane to visit our beautiful island. An official opening will be planned sometime in April and will no doubt include our extremely popular former Collier County Commissioner, Donna Fiala. Donna used to fly in and out of the airport as a flight attendant on the scheduled services many years ago.
Walk from the aircraft across a new and enlarged apron towards a somewhat unassuming two-story building. Wow! That impression changes drastically upon entering the 18,150 square foot tastefully decorated terminal and welcome center. The soft ceiling and wall lighting accentuates the wide-open lobby filled with natural light. There is a stunning open lounge offering every comfort and technology on one side with a larger reception area and offices on the other side. A grand open staircase and a secured elevator ascend to the second floor. The conference room with glass walls features views into the lobby and out to the airfield. Airport Authority offices are guarded by digital security panels. SchenkelShultz Architecture created an impressively artistic welcome for visitors to the island. The Department of Transportation paid 80 percent of the approximately nine million dollars for the new terminal and the extended tarmac, and 90 percent of another three and a half million dollars is paid by the FAA to demolish the old terminal as its location was too close to the runway. The rest of the funds come from local airport taxes and county tax.
I met with Collier County Airport Authority Interim Executive Manager, Andrew Bennett, and Connie Deane of the Community & Media Relations of the Collier County Growth Management Department. Andrew, originally from Calhoun, Georgia, has a long background with Collier County airports and one can immediately sense his bubbling enthusiasm for the new facilities. I made the mistake of asking him if this was built for those who come on vacation by private jets and immediately got a lecture on the use of the airport.
From an impressive 150 to 200 estimated airport operations daily, Andrew quoted only a very small percentage are private jets. Obviously, traffic has increased significantly during the pandemic, as many have used private transportation over the last year. Between Christmas and New Year, when the airport was filled to capacity, I counted 19 parked jets in one day. However, during normal operations most of it is local people operating their own or renting small aircraft for fun. One building houses the Marco Island Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol, and according to Andrew, probably the most exciting feature at his airport is education. Alan Davies spent 23 years in the military as a pilot and had one dream: teach kids to fly! Alan has his flight school and rental operation at the airport. For many years he has been an East Naples resident and has offered his expertise not only to adults, but to “young adults” as well. Formerly an algebra teacher, he became an adjunct professor running Project Aviation. Today his favorite pastime is teaching the Aviation Academy at Lely High School that actually began as a way to reward students with “One Time Recovery Flights.”
Alan’s passion has helped students achieve their goals. So far 36 pilots have graduated, 2 have become airlines pilots, 2 are aerospace engineers, 17 have graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and one has become an aircraft traffic controller. Due to their training and assistance at Marco Island Executive Airport, most of them received substantial scholarships. The high school classes offer eleven hours of college credits. The school now offers a drone course as well. And all this creates a wonderful and youthful energetic atmosphere at our airport.
Airport Manager, Andrew, added with pride that most of his staff at the airport have pilot licenses. Operations Manager and long-time Marco Island resident, Kate Whitson-Alves, is a graduate of the Aviation Program at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Andy Miller, who runs the airport reception part-time, is one of the pilots who graduated from the Alan Davis school. She offers her knowledge and experience to guests at the airport and has proven herself in many ways that make everyone proud to work with her. After hurricane Dorian in 2019, at the young age of 17 and in cooperation with the Big Cypress Animal Clinic, she flew a single engine airplane full of pet supplies to the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas.
In spite of its proximity to Marco Island, I am sure many readers have never been to our airport. It is certainly worth a visit. The airport staff will proudly show you their beautiful new work venue that serves as a superlative showcase entry to Marco Island.
Ewout Rijk de Vries is a photographer and journalist who has lived full-time on Marco Island since 1984. He travels to the far-out corners of the world in search of the best photos and stories. He and his wife, Jill, also own America Travel Arrangements Inc., a travel company on the island with clientele in six different countries.