1. Archive

Dashing flier tasted glory and humility

A "town hero" had several firsts, but he was never quite the same after government accusations in 1924.

A boy playing in aviator Johnny Green's garage in 1924 discovered guns. He told his mother. The Secret Service responded.

So did Green: "Government officials have nothing on me. I have a license to sell both guns and ammunition and I intend to."

Green continued flying, but historians say the incident destroyed him emotionally and darkened his achievements.

In 1910, Green completed the first night flight. He was first to fly over Lookout Mountain in 1913. Green also is credited with saving 43 lives before the U.S. Coast Guard arrived here in 1928.

"He was a town hero," said Ed Hoffman, 81, who as a boy met the pilot.

But Green's cavalier attitude mirrored that of some of our early astronauts and today's athletes. "He wouldn't be welcome at Sunday school parties," Hoffman said.

Born in 1888, John Crittenden Green was a poor boy who raced cars and motorcycles. The Tennessee native embraced flying and barnstormed for money to build his own plane about 1912.

While studying hydroplanes at the Glenn Curtiss School a year later in Miami, Green bought his first Curtiss Gull seaplane and named it Betty, after his wife. Green assumed a St. Petersburg Air Boat Line hangar in 1915. Historian Karl H. Grismer called him "the first aviator who established a permanent base at St. Petersburg."

Green later had a hangar near where the Vinoy Hotel sits today.

While instructing cadets at Chicago's Great Lakes Naval Training Station about 1916, Green crashed and fractured his skull. Several years before, the daredevil had suffered a concussion and broken bones after falling 500 feet into the Tennessee River. After returning from Great Lakes about 1918, Green purchased another Curtiss Gull, Sunshine. Betty had burned at a Tampa warehouse while he was away.

"Sunshine looked as though it might fall apart at any moment," Grismer wrote. In 1919, Sunshine's gas tank spouted a leak when Green became the first pilot to clear a port carrying commercial cargo. "We carried 60 pounds of (soap)" to Cuba, Green told writer Frances Martin Reed.

After repairs, Green dodged five waterspouts and reached Cuba one hour and 47 minutes later. Green was refused clearance to land _ it was a Cuban holiday _ but he set down his plane, losing some of his cargo in the process.

"Great throngs swooped down upon us and took the soap we had," Green recalled. "The tiny cakes had been labeled in Spanish "free sample.' "

For landing, Green was fined $200. "(Cuban) President Menocal thought the situation so humorous . . . he suspended my fine," Green said.

In the mid-1920s, Green operated the Green Lantern, a Prohibition-era nightclub behind his hangar. Ironically, the aviator once flew a customs agent to an island in search of moonshiners.

After photographing the Gandy Bridge construction from 1923 to 1924, Green said flying "was becoming an old thing."

When the 1926 hurricane destroyed Green's downtown hangar, he moved to Piper Fuller Airport, near the Jungle Golf Course. He eventually had his own airport on Gandy Boulevard near 94th Avenue.

Green taught flying and gave sightseeing trips. He purchased two Eagle Rock biplanes in 1928 and established a mail express that served St. Petersburg, Pass-a-Grille, Clearwater, Tarpon Springs, Bradenton and Tampa.

Green wasn't quite the same after the government accused him of running guns to Cuba in 1924. "This episode, among others, was to leave Johnny a broken man," Warren J. Brown wrote in Florida's Aviation History.

In February 1924, federal agents confiscated six machine guns and 12,000 rounds of ammunition from Green's garage at Ninth Street N.

Agent M.H. Hollingsworth called Green a "slacker" in the St. Petersburg Times. Hollingsworth told everyone a woman paid $400 so Green could avoid military service.

Agents would return again in May.

Another 850 rounds of ammunition were found, and Sunshine was seized. Hollingsworth subsequently seized three more of Green's planes in Ocala.

Green received $1,000 a month from Cuban revolutionaries and made two trips to Cuba between September 1923 and the federal seizures in May, the Times reported.

"I have made no attempt to assist in the various revolutions," Green said in his defense.

The American Legion forbade Green to participate in its Memorial Day celebration.

The government returned Sunshine and dropped the charges but kept the arms and ammunition. "Green always managed to escape justice," aerial historian Thomas Reilly said in a recent interview.

Green, who spent time in Corrections Mental Health Institution in Chattahoochee, often used mental illness and his dashing nature to gain forgiveness, Reilly said.

In 1933, Green was hospitalized for mental fatigue. He died at his mother's home in Scottsdale, Ky., one year later at age 46.

Johnny Green studied hydroplanes at the Glenn Curtiss School in Miami in 1913. Green bought his first Curtiss Gull seaplane and named it Betty, after his wife. His first hangar was in St. Petersburg in 1915. He later had a hangar near where the Vinoy Hotel sits today.

Johnny Green and passenger Frank Westcott prepare for a flight on Betty in 1916. That year Green would crash and fracture his skull. And the seaplane burned in Tampa. But Green was soon flying again.