June 05--Readers: On May 22-23, this writer made the annual pilgrimage to the meeting of the Florida Historical Society. This year's event was just down the road in Fort Lauderdale -- a shorter commute and no hotel room -- and featured tours of historic sites in our neighboring county that you might want to check out.
One such visit led us to Merle Fogg, whose untimely death not only changed the course of South Florida aviation, it has a Palm Beach County angle.
In 1922, the Maine native told his parents he planned a winter escape to Florida. Instead, he went to Okeechobee city to take flying lessons. Fogg returned to Florida around 1925, this time to Fort Lauderdale, to take advantage of the South Florida land boom.
He opened a base in a spit of land just north of Las Olas Boulevard at the Intracoastal Waterway, now the site of some prime real estate. Motorists could spot Fogg's primitive wood hangar, its big letters proclaiming "Merle Fogg Flying Service."
On May 1, 1928, two student pilots, Thomas Lochrie and C.S. Nelson, showed up at Fogg's hangar. Their destination: a West Palm Beach landing strip that would a year later would become Lightbown Municipal Airport, in 1936 would become Morrison Field, and eventually would become Palm Beach International Airport.
With Nelson at the controls, the plane was flying at 800 feet when it went into a spin. The plane dropped into Lothar Hoffman's orange grove, about 150 yards from Military Trail between Belvedere Road and Okeechobee Boulevard.
Fogg and Lochrie were crushed by the plane's engine and died in a matter of hours after being rushed to Good Samaritan Hospital. Fogg was 29. Nelson, the only survivor, told doctors he'd dreamed two weeks earlier of being in a crash.
Thousands mourned Fogg in Fort Lauderdale. In one of the earliest aerial tributes, seven biplanes flew overhead, dipping their wings and dropping hundreds of roses.
A year to the day after his death, 5,000 people attended the dedication of Merle L. Fogg Airport, built at a municipal golf course that had closed down.
During World War II, Fogg Field became Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale. Among the aviators: George Herbert Walker Bush, whose training included bombing practice over Lake Okeechobee.
After the war, Broward County acquired the site. It's now Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
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