Sunday, December 28, 2014

Showalters took care of Elvis, Howard Hughes and Walt Disney at Orlando Executive Airport (KORL), Florida (with video)

From a flaming White House helicopter and Hurricane Charley-spawned tornadoes to Howard Hughes and Elvis, Bob Showalter has just about seen it all at Orlando Executive Airport.

Showalter's father, Howard, and two cousins took over operations at Orlando Executive Airport in 1947, and Bob was born a few months later. It seems he has been hanging around the landing strip and environs just north and east of downtown ever since.

"It's been a really good ride. I wouldn't trade places with anyone," said Bob Showalter, who recently agreed to sell the family business for an undisclosed price to Atlantic Aviation of Plano, Texas. The transaction should be complete in January.

That means Showalter, 67, no longer will run Showalter Flying Services with his wife of 43 years, Kim. They've overseen the fueling of planes and providing rental cars and concierge service to pilots and their passengers for the past 41 years.

And it is the people who have come through their doors that have provided some of Showalter's most unusual and treasured memories.

Like the time Howard Hughes landed at executive airport in his turboprop Conair plane around 1960.

"Need to make some phone calls," announced Hughes, who was wearing a fedora and overcoat even though the weather was balmy.

Hughes closed himself off in Howard Showalter's office for hours, then left without saying a word to anyone else.

On the desk, Showalter said, were three $100 bills to cover the numerous long-distance calls Hughes made.

"He [Howard Showalter] clearly made a profit," Showalter said.

Showalter's father also noticed another distinguished visitor in the early to mid-1960s when a fellow with a thin mustache and a traveling companion flew in and rented a car. He produced a paper California drivers license that said Walter Smith.

In reality, it was Walt Disney, who was with his brother Roy. They were in town scouting out land where they would build Walt Disney World.

"We watched Disney every Sunday night. There was no wondering who he was," Bob Showalter said.

Howard Showalter, Bob recalled, hopped in his car and followed the Disneys a couple of hours as they drove around before losing them in Kissimmee.

Sadly, Howard Showalter died in 1965 saving a drowning boy in the surf off New Smyrna Beach. He was posthumously awarded the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission's bronze medal. Showalter Field in Winter Park — where the family operated a landing strip before going to Orlando Executive — is named in his honor.

Bob Showalter started working at the executive airport when he was youngster, sweeping out hangars. He moved into management in 1973.

He remembers taking care of another famous customer a couple of years later: Elvis Presley, who called the airport first.

Showalter thought someone was pulling a prank at first, then realized it was Presley, saying, "I recognized his voice."

Presley flew in on a Learjet and showed up at Showalter's office in sunglasses and a baseball cap.

"He was puffy and pasty and kind of sweaty," Showalter said. "He just looked tired."

Showalter rented Presley a yellow Chevrolet Impala and did not see him for a few weeks. When Presley returned, he said, he had lost weight and was tan.

"He looked far more fit and healthy," said Showalter, who suspects Presley went to some sort of rehabilitation center.

Perhaps the most tumultuous times at the airport came in 1996 and 2004, when a helicopter assigned to the White House burned up after a rotor collided with a light pole, and tornadoes on the leading edge of Hurricane Charley damaged or destroyed 50 airplanes and 10 buildings, respectively.

When the helicopter, which was part of a support team in town for a visit from then-President Bill Clinton, clipped the pole, Showalter said debris shot all over the airport and tore holes in the tails of several planes. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Charley cost an estimated $3 million in damages, not including customer-owned airplanes.

The Showalters rebuilt, he said, but it is difficult for a small company such as his to compete with large chains, making this a good time to say goodbye.

But he intends to continue hanging around the field by selling airplanes with his son, Sandy.

"We'll be off in the corner," he said.

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