There are not many FBOs that could fill a stadium with the youngsters they’ve introduced to flying. But that’s exactly what Florida AirMotive has done in its quest to keep general aviation thriving. In the half-century since Florida AirMotive’s founder Owen Gassaway Jr. signed on as a branded Phillips 66 Aviation dealer, some 40,000 people — most of them kids — have been introduced to general aviation by the West Palm Beach FBO.
“You got to bring new people in and expose them to the possibilities of a career in varying industries,” explains Owen Gassaway III, who now runs Florida AirMotive at Lantana Airport (LNA), officially called Palm Beach County Airpark. “It’s really nice to see some of the kids we’ve flown come back and learn how to fly small planes, learn how to fly corporate jets, and learn how to master jet mechanics.”
While Florida AirMotive was busy cultivating the future of general aviation over the past five decades, it was also carving out a celebrated legacy of its own. Over the years, Florida AirMotive built branches in Boca Raton and the Caribbean, developed a substantial on-demand charter service that transported 1 million passengers in 23 airplanes, and was once one of the country’s largest distributors of Beechcraft aircraft.
Today, some three dozen aviation businesses call the Lantana field home, overseen by Florida AirMotive. “We’ve gone from one or two operations on the field to 35 and significantly improved the cash flow into the county,” explains Gassaway. “The operations here put an estimated $35 million contribution into county.”
When Owen Gassaway Jr. passed away in 2007 at the age of 83, he was recognized as an aviation legend. He’d been awarded the prestigious Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award for 50 years of continuous aircraft maintenance. He’d won the Phillips 66 Aviation Leadership Award for his seemingly inexhaustible efforts to introduce children to flight through the EAA’s Young Eagles program. Palm Beach County had even named Lantana’s airport terminal after Gassaway.
But all that didn’t compare to just being on the airfield every single day. For a boy who grew up flying model airplanes at nearby Morrison Field — now Palm Beach International Airport — running Florida AirMotive seemed to be Gassaway’s ultimate reward.
“Dad showed up at the airport literally seven days a week,” says his son. “It was his dedication to aviation. But he also enjoyed every aspect of it. And he liked the old fixed-wing airplanes.”
The senior Gassaway opened a sparkling new FBO at Boca Raton in the 1960s. “After a while Dad decided that he just didn’t like that fancy chrome and glass atmosphere,” says Owen III. “He said ‘I’m just going to sell this thing’ and that’s what he did.”
It’s no accident the roots of general aviation run deep at Florida AirMotive.
There’s an active Civil Air Patrol on the field. The group is part of a heritage that began in 1942 when the civilian “Puddle Jumpers of Lantana” risked their lives and their Stinson planes to patrol for well-armed German U-boats. The Axis submarines were closing shipping lines and scaring residents from Maine to Mexico. Owen Gassaway Jr., returning home from a World War II stint as a tank mechanic for General George Patton, joined the CAP to keep the aircraft running.
By war’s end, the nation’s CAP crews had patrolled more than 24 million miles over water, sighted 173 enemy submarines, and even sunk two. Nearly 100 of those CAP planes would be lost, taking nearly two dozen civilians with them.
For years the Gassaways maintained and regularly flew a vintage Stinson A10 used by the CAP during the war. “It was to remind people about the importance of the Civil Air Patrol,” Gassaway explains.
In 2007, the senior Gassaway donated his “Proud Old Bird” to the New England Air Museum in Hartford, Conn. As a salute to the civilian air crews, his son flew the 67-year-old Stinson on its final journey, with fly-bys or landings at a dozen historic CAP fields.
Not surprisingly, the Stinson was joined on its final flight by Florida AirMotive’s own Cessna 172, an aircraft dedicated solely to Young Eagle flights, its fuselage emblazoned with a graphic tribute to the program.
“I want to interest people in the history of the CAP, but equally important is promoting the Young Eagle program,” Owen Gassaway Jr. said in 2007 before the commemorative flight.
Phillips 66 Aviation is a long-time supporter of the Young Eagles, providing fuel rebates to thousands of pilots who have taken kids flying as part of the program.
Owen Gassaway III intends to keep AirMotive’s legend growing. And that means inspiring more people with the wonders of general aviation. It’s important, he says, because the challenges to GA are real.
“Unfortunately, the aviation business as we knew it is changing,” says Gassaway. “Politics are certainly involved in its future…9-11 didn’t help either. It’s important that we get people inspired about aviation.”