Before construction of McKinnon St. Simons Island Airport, small craft commonly took off and landed on beaches near the St. Simons Pier and on Sea Island.
In the early 1930s, as Howard Coffin and Alfred W. (Bill) Jones Sr. began creating their vacation paradise on Sea Island, Coffin was convinced that the future growth and prosperity of the area depended on staying abreast of transportation advances. A well known industrialist and engineer, Coffin felt strongly about the need for an airport for tourism and for national defense. He lobbied Glynn County officials, but there were no funds available for construction of an airport. Yet, he found an ally in County Commission Chairman Malcolm McKinnon.
McKinnon worked tirelessly to secure Works Progress Administration and other federal funds. In 1933, Coffin and Jones donated a sizeable tract of land for the new airport. The major portion of the Sea Island Co. land was once part of the Retreat Plantation. Glynn County purchased adjoining tracts, fragments of the old Kelvin Grove Plantation, and other privately owned parcels for the new airport. As land was being cleared in 1935, workers discovered evidence of a Native American settlement beneath the soil that had grown famed Sea Island cotton in the 19th century. Work was halted to allow archaeologists from the Smithsonian Institution to evaluate the site. They named it one of the most significant archaeological sites in the eastern United States. Exploration of the area was designated a WPA project, and excavation lasted from May 1936 to March 1937.
Sadly, McKinnon died just seven months before the new facility opened on May 28, 1938. To honor him, the new airport was named Malcolm McKinnon Field. Some 100 prominent Georgians flew in on 50 aircraft for opening festivities.
The onset of World War II ushered in a new era for McKinnon Field. The Civil Air Patrol was based there in the first months of the war, protecting the coast from U-boat assaults. Obtained by the U.S. Navy in July 1942, the airport was renamed NAS St. Simons and housed the Navy Radar Training School for members of the Navy, Army and Marines. In 1947, the Navy returned ownership of the airport to Glynn County, along with numerous improvements to the facility.
At the end of the war, records showed that 440 officers, 595 enlisted personnel, 535 students and 131 civilian employees were assigned to the base. A contingent of German prisoners of war ran the commissary, preparing meals for base personnel.
Scheduled passenger air service remained under government contract for the duration of the war, providing one flight per day for approved military and very limited civilian passengers.
The years since have been ones of change and growth for the airport, which was renamed McKinnon St. Simons Island Airport in 2003. Today, the facility welcomes aviators and visitors from around the world.
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