12344970061?profile=RESIZE_710xABOVE: A private jet taxis past part of the 135-foot-long mural that shows air traffic control and a burrowing owl. BELOW: The toothy expression on the front of a fighter plane pays homage to the years the airfield was a military training ground. It opened as a general aviation airport 75 years ago, and the Boca Raton Airport Authority is celebrating that anniversary this year. Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

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By Rich Pollack

Before there was the thriving Boca Raton Airport, and even before there was the secretive Boca Raton Army Airfield, there was the small grass airstrip that helped bring tourists to a luxurious hotel in the town that was less than 20 years old at the time.

Built in the mid-1930s, when commercial air flight was still in its infancy, the airstrip served as a magnet to attract guests from far away to the Ritz-Carlton Cloister Inn, now known as The Boca Raton.

“Aviation in Boca Raton predates the war effort,” said Clara Bennett, executive director of the Boca Raton Airport Authority, which operates the airport.

For the past year, the history of flight in Boca Raton and the role the airport has played in it have been front and center as the Airport Authority celebrates the 75th anniversary of the day that a huge chunk of what had been the air base was turned over to the city to operate as a public airport.

The celebration, highlighted last month with the reveal of a 135-foot-long mural illustrating the airport’s past, present and future as well as a proclamation presented by the Boca Raton City Council, will continue Jan. 19 with a 75th anniversary reception and dinner.

“I hope this mural brings people joy and also that some of the story of the airport comes across,” said Craig McInnis, the artist who created the mural, which he painted along with several other artists. “You see it when you take off and land.”

12344973261?profile=RESIZE_710xMural artist Craig McInnis

Throughout a yearlong celebration of the Dec. 28, 1948, transition of the air base to a public general aviation airport, a focus has been on the impact the facility has had over the years as well as on how the airport will be a vital part of the region in years to come.

“Any anniversary is an opportunity to reflect, and this campaign focuses on the airport’s role in the development of the local community,” Bennett said.

Much of that impact is depicted in the mural, which captures a series of snippets portraying the airport’s evolution while highlighting current successes and illustrating the use of technology that will be integrated into airport operations down the road.

Planned for over a year and painted in just 12 days, the $30,000 mural may be the start of a much bigger work of art that will stretch farther north on the concrete security wall that separates the airfield from entertainment venues including Boomers.

McInnis’ mural artistry also adorns a beach tunnel at the city’s Spanish River Park and a wall at Red Reef Park.

Today the airport handles more than 83,000 aviation operations a year, bringing in visitors from across the country as well as from South America, the Caribbean and as far away as Europe thanks to a U.S. Customs facility that opened in May 2018.

The airport is estimated to have an economic impact of about $693 million and is credited with creating 4,800 jobs directly or indirectly that are related to airport activity.

It also had a major economic impact on Boca Raton during the war years with an estimated 16,000 troops and 1,200 civilians on the Army Airfield every year from 1942 to 1947, and hundreds of jobs being created outside the field to support the population.

At its peak, the airfield included about 800 buildings on about 6,000 acres where Army Air crews were trained to use the recently developed radar technology. The mission was so secretive at the time that the airfield never appeared on aerial photographs.

A large portion of the airfield was turned over to the city for the airport and to the state for educational purposes and led to the creation of Florida Atlantic University.

Education is also a focus of the Airport Authority’s community outreach, which in conjunction with Lynn University helped West Boca High School create an Aviation Academy that helps students learn about careers in aviation. The airport also provides scholarships to students in the program.

Understanding that general aviation is constantly evolving with technology, the leadership of the Airport Authority created a master plan that addresses the demand the airport will face in the future and how to meet it.

The airport has earmarked $80 million in its long-term capital improvement plan to address the changing industry.

“We’ll be revitalizing and modernizing to better address the aviation needs of the community,” Bennett said.

At the same time, the airport is looking for ways to continue building connections that will benefit the overall community.

“Our role in the future is to continue serving as a catalyst for innovation and education,” Bennett said.

 

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