Manatee County has lots of grassroots pilots
BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) — You could call Airport Manatee the opposite of Sarasota Bradenton International Airport.
Instead of passenger jets and miles of tarmac, Airport Manatee has a turf runway and an assortment of taildragger aircraft.
It’s home to an eclectic mix of antique, modern and experimental aircraft, where flight instruction, fuel sales, airplane repairs and restoration, and hangar rentals are available.
Airport manager Tom Reeder calls its a grassroots, blue-collar airport.
“We promote the joy of flight,” Reeder says of the general aviation airport 10 miles north of Palmetto on U.S. 41 near Port Manatee.
“We encourage and support those who are learning to fly. We see that as a real personal achievement,” he said. “This is for the little guy with the dream of flying.”
And so it has been since 1976, when Reeder Farms plowed up a pasture and planted Bahia grass for what became Airport Manatee.
From the beginning, the airport provided a base of operations for aspiring pilots.
Last month, United Airlines pilot Gerry MacKinnon, a certified flight instructor, watched as his son, Alec, 23, soloed for the first time from Airport Manatee.
“I live in Parrish, it’s close to home and I like the fact that it’s a grass runway. It’s a good, safe airport,” MacKinnon said.
Alec MacKinnon soloed in a 1963 Cessna 150, a plane that was manufactured the same year that Gerry MacKinnon was born.
“You get up there for the first solo and it’s pretty quiet. You look around and it hits you that you’re alone and flying. But then you settle down and it’s fun,” Alec McKinnon said of his first solo experience.
The MacKinnons then refueled the Cessna 150 and went up for another flight.
While the McKinnons were getting back into the air, Ed Sweeney, also of Parrish, was working on the starter assembly of a 2005 Russian twin-engine pusher aircraft.
“It was made for patrolling pipelines and power lines,” Sweeney said of the yellow-and-blue aircraft with the engines mounted to the rear of the cockpit.
Asked why he flies out of Airport Manatee, Sweeney, a certified airframe and power plant mechanic and licensed pilot with a multi-engine certification, said it is in large part because of the camaraderie he enjoys there.
“It’s friendly. There is nothing about it that is overwhelming. We are all friends and share the enjoyment of flying,” Sweeney said.
Mark Penell likes to pop over on his lunch break from nearby Sysco to work on his Cessna 140A, or perhaps, like on this day, fly 20 minutes of touch-and-goes.
Penell moved to Bradenton from Syracuse, N.Y., and flew his plane to Airport Manatee.
“It has a beautiful runway and the hangars are fantastic. You can pull in or pull out of the hangars with no problem,” he said. “The manager is always here, always answers my phone calls. This airport is a gem.”
In 2011, Tom Reeder leased Airport Manatee from Reeder Farms.
“The mission of Airport Manatee remains the same — to promote general aviation and support the flying community,” Reeder says.
Reeder calls Airport Manatee a “limenal space” — a place where people can get out of their everyday routine.
“It’s where they can get away from everything and experience a sense of freedom,” Reeder said.
Typically, 70 to 80 aircraft are based at Airport Manatee.
Flight instructor and airframe and power plant mechanic Bill Burton moved to Manatee County from Homestead, after his son, a New College graduate, started a business in Palmetto.
Burton paused from working on a 1946 J-3 Cub, restoring it to original specifications, when asked about Airport Manatee.
“It will be a little better than new when we’re done,” Burton said of the J-3 Cub.
“Tom Reeder is a good guy and does a very good job as airport manager,” Burton said.
Burton enjoys working not only with Reeder, but working at a rural country airport.
“I am a back-to-basics guy. I teach flight instruction the old-fashioned way. I teach on all taildragger aircraft,” Burton said.