Touching Bases: Lantana built from a rich tradition

 - July 30, 2008, 11:05 AM

Lantana Airport (LNA), named for the nearby town outside West Palm Beach, Fla., was intended as a reliever from its conception in 1941. In fact, the airport played a starring role in a government film, “Our Town Airport,” meant to spur other communities to get behind building their own municipal fields. Sixty-two years later the facility is flourishing in its role, largely due to the efforts of Owen Gassaway. The owner and operator of FBO Florida Airmotive, Gassaway is the fuel that has fired development of LNA to its current status. With up-to-date repaving, lights and an ILS to its 3,489-foot Runway 9/27, LNA is home to more than 400 aircraft (up to turboprops and turbine-powered helicopters) and 60 privately owned hangars–25 of which house independent aviation-related businesses.

The airport started as a municipal project, with fill from nearby swamps and sand dunes used to level the ground. Cost to build the airport just before the U.S. entered World War II was the princely sum of $199,000 (about $2.1 million today), and Lantana quickly became a humming hub of training for future military pilots under the ubiquitous civilian pilot training (CPT) program. During the war, Lantana was a base for Civil Air Patrol submarine spotters, including light aircraft such as the 1940 Stinson 10-A that Gassaway has restored, complete with a dummy 100-pound bomb slung under its belly. Zack Mosley, author of the comic strip “Smilin’ Jack,” was based at Lantana and reportedly drew many of his fictional characters from people he knew at the airport.

Gassaway began working at Lantana in the late 1940s and in 1957, took over Florida Airmotive, one of four FBOs then on the field. Due to lack of interest from the local government, the airport languished during the next decade, with all the other operations dropping out of business by 1964. Gassaway persisted, however, and his efforts allowed the airport not only to survive, but to prosper. One county aviation official said, “Owen Gassaway is Lantana Airport. He’s been there as long as the dirt.”

Today, the three-runway field has 250,000 sq ft of hangar space, 350 tiedowns and industrial development on some 40 acres on the 304-acre site. Tenants include charter operators, cargo haulers, helicopter operators, aircraft sales and rental businesses, flight schools, avionics shops, aircraft refurbishers, banner-tow operators and even a real-estate office. Florida Airmotive is a Phillips 66 fuel distributor and pumps mostly avgas–215,000 gallons annually–but the operation does uplift 62,000 gallons per year of Phillips pre-blended jet-A. The airport buildings are valued at $4.1 million and airport businesses account for an estimated $6 million in annual payroll. The airport generates gross cash flow of $25 million per year.

In the mid-1980s Gassaway helped form the Aviation and Airport Advisory Board to plan for aviation growth at the airport. He formally meets twice a year with local business associations, which are invited to come see how the airport benefits the community.