ST. PETERSBURG — Two aerial advertising companies both want to operate at Albert Whitted Airport, and their dogfight is now headed to court — with the city as the defendant.
The fliers' feud involves multiple plane crashes, fights with the Federal Aviation Administration and a freewheeling competitor who may or may not have sold his business the day before he died.
At stake: hangar space at Albert Whitted and a strip of land where slow-flying propeller planes can snag banners that advertise everything from seafood restaurants to drink specials at local bars.
For nearly 20 years, Advertising Air Force has been the sole banner-plane company with hangar space at Albert Whitted, a waterfront airport that provides easy access to frequent ad targets like Tampa's sports stadiums and the local beaches.
To understand the current fight, a bit of history is required:
Advertising Air Force was founded in 1978, by a former used car salesman from Atlantic City named Tom Merrifield.
Back then, his sole competition came from Florida Aerial Advertising, which was operated by pilot Bill Bruckner. Until they both ran afoul of authorities.
In 1986, the FAA revoked Bruckner's pilot's and medical certificates because the agency said he did not report that he was seeing a psychiatrist and taking lithium, a prescription drug used to stabilize mood swings.
While he was still unlicensed, Bruckner took to the skies with a banner accusing the FAA of covering up plane crashes involving Merrifield's company. For that illegal flight, the FAA seized Bruckner's airplane.
But he had a point about Merrifield's safety record. Merrifield's planes had been involved in so many crashes that frustrated city officials banned both companies from Albert Whitted.
Nine months later, at the FAA's insistence, city officials lifted the ban, and Merrifield was back in business. Meanwhile, though, the city evicted Bruckner, leaving Merrifield's company the sole survivor at the airport.
Bruckner moved to an airfield in Manatee County, and again took to the skies in protest. He used his banners to assail judges, lawyers, governors and the FAA, some of whom he also sued. At one point he settled a suit, only to file a motion a few days later seeking to have it overturned. He contended his own attorney had drugged him.
One of Bruckner's planes crashed in 2002, killing the pilot. Meanwhile, Merrifield's planes continued crashing, too — although to Merrifield that was not really a problem.
"We've had some bumps and bruises, but nobody has been killed," Merrifield told a Times reporter in 2004. "You know, we fly so slow you can usually land pretty softly if you have to."
The current battle started on Oct. 25, when Merrifield died of cancer.
City records show that on the day before he died, Merrifield sold his lease at Albert Whitted to a company called Aerial Banners North. The new company sought to finish the last two years of Merrifield's lease in Hangar No. 3, as well as a strip of land near one runway for the banners, for about $1,400 a month in rent.
City officials anticipated little controversy in approving the transfer.
"What we had before us was what appeared to be a valid assignment of a lease," said Assistant City Attorney Mark Winn.
But last month Merrifield's old rival, Bruckner, sued the city, seeking an injunction to halt the vote. His attorneys sent the City Council a letter calling the transfer "illegal."
In the letter, attorneys J. Christopher Robbins and John J. Kozak questioned how a man "literally on the verge of death" was able to sell his business.
They contend that the city should let everyone — including Bruckner — bid on the hangar space. Despite his past clashes with the city, they wrote, Bruckner is "fully prepared to put all this behind him."
They also pointed out that Aerial Banners North was incorporated by Robert Benyo, who runs another company that had its permit revoked by the FAA because of too many crashes.
But Benyo's new company isn't the one occupying the hangar. Instead, a new version of Merrifield's company, Advertising Air Force, has sublet the space from Benyo.
That company brought in newer airplanes. "I plan on running a tighter ship," promised new owner Kevin Wilson.
Bruckner's request for a temporary injunction failed, and council members voted Dec. 18 to approve the altered lease. But when it expires in 2010, the council will put it out for bid, Winn said — and Bruckner, even though he is still suing the city, has as much chance at getting Merrifield's old hangar space as anyone.
All that previous rancor, Winn pointed out, "was a long time ago."