Kissimmee Airport: Celebrating 80 years of Aviation History
Kissimmee Gateway Airport is celebrating 80 years of aviation history in 2020.
The first airplane landed in Kissimmee in 1912 and by October 1918, a landing field was in place on the shores of Lake Tohopekaliga near Kissimmee. Pilots would fly in from various areas to make stops before proceeding to other cities.
Plans for a Kissimmee airport began as early as 1933. A May 14, 1933, article in the Orlando Sentinel mentioned the Kissimmee Chamber of Commerce was working to find a suitable location for the airport. The article stated: “Kissimmee will be the southern terminal of the famous St. Johns Airway route, according to plans, and from there airways will radiate to Miami, St. Petersburg, Ft. Myers and other points.”
A May 24, 1935, report in the Orlando Sentinel stated a new beacon light was being installed at the airport. The article described the airport as “one of the finer inland Florida stations erected within the past two years and has been built at the expense of the city with FERA help.”
When the Works Project Administration was implemented, 5,000 men were put to work on 56 airport projects in July 1935; the Kissimmee airport was among the sites selected. A newspaper article in August 1935 stated Osceola County had six WPA projects in progress, including the airport, which had received a $10,000 appropriation. In February 1936 additional funding was awarded to improve lighting and landing conditions at the airport.
Even as work progressed on the airport, flying enthusiasts were already enjoying the new airfield. Air shows were popular events as early as 1934, as told by an article in the May 1, 1934, edition of “The Orlando Sentinel”: “First big thrill witnessed at Kissimmee’s new airport was enjoyed by throngs of people watching the stunt flying and parachute jumping Sunday afternoon of Roger Den Rae in his 300 h.p. taper wing plane.”
As the 1930s came to a close, plans for the airport evolved as the U.S. Army Air Forces began eyeing Kissimmee as a possible location for a military airfield.
Military aviation in the United States began with balloons, used for surveying, signaling, and reconnaissance in the Civil War. A civilian organization, the Union Army Balloon Corps, was the first official aviation unit in the US military. World War I (1913-1918) would be a turning point with the use of airplanes to drop bombs over the enemy. The pilot had to fly low and straight making him vulnerable to “anti-aircraft” weapons.
Eventually, pilots started fighting each other in the air by throwing grenades or shooting from the cockpit. They soon realized the best way to shoot each other down was with machine guns mounted on the front of the plane using the German-invented “interrupter” which helped sync the gun with the propeller. “Dogfights” began to take place in the air. Pilots who shot down the enemy planes were known as “aces.” Possibly the most well-known ace, a German named Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron,” defeated 80 pilots. The most victorious American ace was Eddie Rickenbacker, with 26 victories.
By the onset of World War II, airplanes were faster, had better weapon control and used advanced technology. The US Army Air Forces formed in 1941, needed more air bases for the new force.
News articles from July to September of 1940 relate details on plans for a $6,000 60 ft x 60 ft hangar to be built at the Kissimmee airport. Efforts were being made to get the airport certified as “essential to national defense.”
The City of Kissimmee was granted government funds to prepare land for an airbase for the training of military pilots in 1941. By 1942, the US Army began putting in barracks, runways, and taxi strips.
A January 1, 1943 headline in the Kissimmee Gazette announced, “Army To Take Over Airbase This Weekend.” The first mission assigned to the Kissimmee Army Air Field was to look for Nazi-boats in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Soon after, night fighter squadrons were being trained at the base. When these squadrons moved to California, the Kissimmee AAF was used for testing tactics, equipment, and techniques.
With the end of the war, the Kissimmee AAF was closed July 7, 1945. The city was given the opportunity to purchase back the land in November 1945 to turn it into an executive airport.
The 1960s brought another period of growth for Kissimmee Airport. Throughout the decade, improvements were made to the facilities including new runway lighting, hangar updates, and installation of a wind signal.
A July 1961 newspaper article stated the airport had invited Martin Co. in Orlando to use the Kissimmee Airport which offered “5,000 foot runways, a unicom system, a lounge and the nearby Osceola Golf and Country Club golf course. The airport, it was pointed out, operates seven days a week.”
The airport planned a celebration for the opening of the improved Kissimmee Airport on June 16-17, 1962. It was hoped 10,000 people would attend the two-day event called the “flyin’ iron days of Kissimmee.”
Marathon Aviation Corporation operated the airport in the 1960s. In a February 1, 1963, newspaper article, Marathon owner Terry McCuiston is quoted as saying the future is bright for the airport. “We are making corporate people aware we have this fine field in Kissimmee, and the more we do that, the more they will think of Kissimmee.”
In the mid- and late-1960s, airport and city leaders were also discussing how the development of nearby Disney World would impact airport business. On December 30, 1969, a long-range plan was presented for $1 million in renovations.
In a 1986 newspaper article, Airport Manager George Hoagland is quoted as saying the airport is “one of the world’s best kept secrets.” Hoagland was preparing to present a new master plan detailing airport expansion plans through 2004. The plan included a bigger runway, more taxiways more ramps and a perimeter road.
In April 1987, the city received a $396,000 grant from the Federal Aviation Authority for a new taxiway. The state Department of Transportation and the City agreed to each pay a marching share of $22,250 toward the project.
When Hoagland presented the new master plan in 1986, it was projected 84,200 aircraft would take off and land from the airport that year. In 2019, 156,927 aircraft landed or took off from Kissimmee Gateway Airport. In 2020, the consistent high volume of traffic earned ISM a National Airport designation by the FAA. The FAA upgraded the designation from regional to the highest designation as a national asset general aviation airport in 2019 due to the increased traffic and based aircraft information.
2000 and Beyond
Kissimmee Gateway Airport (ISM) accommodates general aviation air service 24 hours a day with two paved runways at 5,000 and 6,000 feet. The airport offers flight training schools, new T-hangars, box hangars, a new aerospace park and recreational activities. Kissimmee Airport is home to vintage World War II planes as well as the most modern private jets.
Click here to view special Memorial Day 2020 flyover in memory of World War II Veteran Roger Swanson.