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San Diego Celebrates 100 Years Of Naval Aviation


The U.S. Navy is celebrating 100 years of naval aviation this year, and San Diego is its birthplace. It all began on North Island, where Glen Curtiss taught Navy personnel how to fly. We explore San Diego's place in the history of naval aviation and what the navy has meant to San Diego.

This weekend, San Diegans will get an opportunity to be eye-witnesses to the Navy's history of flight. In honor of the centennial of naval aviation, there will be an aerial parade over San Diego Bay. The fly-over will display exhibits from just about every decade of Navy planes.

It's fitting that this year-long celebration of Naval aviation begins here, because here is where it began, way back in 1911 at North Island.

Guests: Abe Shragge, professor, KDI School of Public Policy, Seoul, Korea

Karl Zingheim, staff historian, USS Midway

Wallace Peck, military historian

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. There are weekend, San Diegans will get an opportunity to be eyewitnesss to the Navy's history of flight. In honor of 100 years of naval aviation, there will be an aerial parade over San Diego bay. The fly over will display exhibits from just about every decade of Navy planes of it's fitting that the year long celebration of naval aviation begins here because here is where it began way back in 1911 at north island. Joining us to talk about how means became a standard part of Navy equipment, and why San Diego remain ace hub for naval aviation are my guests. Abe Shragge is a history professor at UCSD, and Abe, good morning.

SHRAGGE: Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Wallace peck is a military historian here in San Diego. Good morning, Wallace.

PECK: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: We're hoping to hear from Karl Zingheim, he's staff at the USS [CHECK AUDIO] museum. Let me start with you, and may I call you Wally?

PECK: Certainly.

CAVANAUGH: I believe we have a gentleman by the name of glen Curtis, for getting aviation started here in 1911. Tell us a little bit about him.

PECK: Well, he was a remarkable individual. Both as a developer and as an entrepreneur. He started in eastern -- western New York as a bicycle manufacturer just like the wright brothers.


PECK: He went on to become a motorcycle racer, fastest man on the earth in 1903 or 4. And then he got into aircraft design and building. And he was -- he built this june bug, as they called it, in 1908, and set a record of 55 miles an hour. And he travelled a whole kilometer. So he was in -- at the beginning of naval aviation and aviation gentlemanly.

CAVANAUGH: Aviation generally. He had a little bit of a spat with the wright brothers and decided the west coast was gonna look a lot better, department he?

PECK: No, he -- well, not because of a spat with the wright brothers of that was an ongoing spat that went on for years and years and years, and the wright brothers finally won. But he came out to the west coast because he liked our weather.

CAVANAUGH: Ah, ha. What happened when he saw north island?

PECK: Well, he -- he was looking for a place to set up his flying school. And north island was introduced to him, and he took one look at it, and he said this is great, and besides, if I really do it right, I might be able to sell aircraft to the Navy and to the army.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the ideas, Abe, of selling aircraft to the Navy, that isn't sort of like an instinctive thing that normally comes to mind. How did that idea actually start?

SHRAGGE: Well, there was a lot of resistance to naval aviation at first. And the blackshoe Navy, the battleship advocates were very sure that air aviation and aircraft were just a dream, something that had nothing to do with that. However, as battleship technology had improved, and the size and the reach of battleship guns that could now shoot over the horizon, they could no longer aim their guns properly, and needed something up in the air that was going to help them do that. And it was a couple of young men in the Navy who dared to argue against the battleship advocates, John towers, who was an artillery gunnery officer on a battleship. Who really promoted this idea of getting the Navy into the air.

CAVANAUGH: That's fascinating. So what did glen Curtis [CHECK AUDIO] what kind of aircraft did he introduce?

PECK: Well, at the beginning he really didn't have any to speak of. But he wrote a letter to the Navy department and the war department business which was in charge of the army then, and he said, I will train some payments for free.


PECK: And of course that was a big incentive back in those days. So the army assigned three young lieutenants, and the Navy assigned one to come to North Island, where he would train them for free in hopes, again, that he could develop aircraft specifically aircraft that would be amphibians and could go on the water, in order to sell them to the Navy.

CAVANAUGH: I see. And what kinds of aircraft did he develop?

PECK: Well, I can't give you the name of them again, but as soon as he got here, he started working in developing -- he had -- the aircraft I was talking about earlier, the june bug that he set the records on, he was modifying that, tried to figure out how he could put pontoons on it, so it could go out in the water.


PECK: And he worked with the naval lieutenant that was with him, and they finally, after making about 50 changes, they mad an aircraft that could take off and land on water. And then he went ahead and figured out how he could make an amphibian out of it, and so it could go on both land and water. And that became known as the triad.


PECK: Then the Navy said, well, if you can fly a plane out to you a ship and we could get it aboard the ship, we'll think about buying it. So he took off, flew out, landed alongside the USS Pennsylvania, which was a naval cruiser in the bay. They put a hoist on it, lifted it onto the ship, lowered him down again, he took off, and that's how satisfied the Navy.

CAVANAUGH: That satisfied the Navy. How, he was actually -- Curtis was actually given some land on north island, right? To use?

PECK: Well, he got a lease, it was owned by the Spreckles company, the Coronado beach company which was really John Spreckles. And they gave a three-year lease to Curtis without any payment to operate a school.


PECK: And a flight school there.

CAVANAUGH: And so we're seeing the beginning of north island because when Curtis left, he basically gave the army and Navy an invitation, right?

PECK: Well, he gave an invitation earlier, he said, why don't you put your flight schools in here?


PECK: And the Navy responded first, and they showed up with, I think, 2 or 3 men, and 2 or 3 airplanes, and that was in 1912. But the Navy only stayed about three -- or six months, I guess it was. Then they went back to Annapolis.


PECK: Then the army showed up, and the army came in with, I think, four planes of and that was the start of the army. And the army was there for 26 years of the Navy didn't come back for another 5 or 6 years.

CAVANAUGH: Let me tell everybody that I'm speaking with Wallace peck, he's a military historian here in San Diego. My others guests are Abe Shragge, history professor at UCSD, and Karl Zingheim is with us. He's 1256 historian at the USS midway museum, Karl, good morning. You upon, I do want to move to the idea of north island becoming something very big for San Diego. Abe, that was the scope of this early naval installation?

SHRAGGE: Well, after 1916, the Navy did become very interested in making a permanent aviation establishment there. They had been trying -- the Navy had been trying to get ahold of the property for its own properties as early as 1908. Spreckles was not especially interested in selling to them. But the Navy, as it built up after 1916, its school, and then its base for patrol planes, and then as the United States became involved in World War I, after 1917 the Navy's interest only increased. And over the next few years, the Navy tried to negotiate a purchase from speckles. They ended up going through condemnation proceeding and acquiring the island once and for all after 1921. The sharing part of it with the army, this was clearly going to be the military center of aviation in Southern California for some time to come.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. And from what I understand, the city fathers at the time here in San Diego were very supportive of this.

SHRAGGE: Oh, absolutely. The Chamber of Commerce was a group that behind this four square. They tried to negotiate with Spreckles. In fact, their prime representative member of the board of directors, and U.S. Congressman, William Ketner, was instrumental throughout these negotiations, wanted to make sure that Spreckles' interests were proper he protected. He got -- Spreckles got a lot of money out of the deal in the end. But the Chamber of Commerce saw this as an opportunity to help put San Diego on the map, as they put it.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Now, when we talk about the history of naval aviation in San Diego, and of course across the United States , one of the things that comes to mind most readily are aircraft carriers. And while, I guess, we would like to think of San Diego as the start of the aircraft carrier. It's not exactly that way, Karl Zingheim, is it? Where did the aircraft -- the idea of the aircraft carrier come from?

ZINGHEIM: Well, basically it was a dire necessity in the heat of combat. Naval aviation actually Laing wished between 1911 when the first purchase was made in [CHECK AUDIO] in 1914, so it was really -- the situation faced by the royal Navy in having to contend with a high flying German Zeppelins that were both providing useful reconnaissance [CHECK AUDIO] and the problem that the royal Navy faced, of course, was it had sea planes. And the problems with sea planes involve one trying to get off the water, and as they found out to their disgust, potential certain sea conditions are favor believe for having a sea plane lift off from the water, and then once in the air, the pontoons severely restricted the airborne performance of the sea plane. So trying to intercept a high flying Zeppelin [CHECK AUDIO] and operating them from ships. And so through fits and starts over the course of the 50 world war, they [CHECK AUDIO] aircraft like sop with fighter, to climb and engage Zeppelins, and then, of course, that led to the extension, well, how about dropping bombs and launching strikes?


ZINGHEIM: But unfortunately, the thinking was simply on getting the planes in the air, and some hazy notion about getting them back. Of they attempted to put a landing plat form on a large battle cruiser that already had a large launching platform forward, but they had a massive super structure, and a large smoke stack in the middle. So when the aircraft was attempting to land from behind, this platform, the turbulence was just too much for those early aircraft. And even experience pilots were constantly putting in the wake. So they settled -- all right, we can at least get them launched with confidence, and we'll just have them ditch in the water at the end of their mission. They put floatation bags on the special variant, and hopefully a destroyer can pick up the pilot.

CAVANAUGH: Was that the zenith of technology when the first aircraft carrier arrived here in 1924?

ZINGHEIM: I guess you could say it was cutting edge. Because the British eventually produced a ship that had a continuous flight deck, and -- which arrived and joined the grand fleet a day before the armistice was sign indeed 1918, but that certainly caught the attention of American and Japanese naval observers. And so they won't back to their respective navies and produced similar ships for each of their fleets, and our example, of course, was USS Langley.

CAVANAUGH: Langley arrived in San Diego in 1924, the captain was Joseph Mason reefs, and he really took this a step further, the whole idea of what an aircraft carrier could do. Tell us about that.

ZINGHEIM: Well, Joseph Mason reefs arrived in 1925 in San Diego as a newly appointed commander of the aircraft squadron battle force. Which is really a fancy way of saying he was in command of all naval aviation for the fleet. And the timing was interesting too, because by 1920, the U.S. Navy had bodily shifted to Southern California from its Atlantic ports because their -- the German fleet was no more, and there were no theoretical enemies for the fleet to fight over there, but there certainly was one with the emerging empire of Japan. So he arrives about five years after the fleet establishes itself in Los Angeles and San Diego and discovers that with this newly arrived aircraft carrier, a lot of progress had been made. He -- they were specifically developing way was having more effective arresting gear, for example, or trying out different cat put technique, and it was really an easygoing nuts and bolts equipment evaluation stage, and he really wanted to ratchet things up. He had just come through ray course at the naval war college, and he was seriously concerned about the shortfall in the battle line that we had because there were international treaties coming about that would ban new battleship construction for considerable periods, so he wanted to find out for himself if aircraft, which had shown combat potential, certainly, in the proceeding war, could be an effective extension to the gun line, and so to do that of course he basically pushed the aviators with the Langley in figuring out how many aircraft can you possible put on this ship?


ZINGHEIM: How many aircraft can you launch and recover within a given amount of time? What's the best way of forming a scouting line? What are the best ways of intercepting enemy scouts? He was really moving it into the realm of the tactical application, and fortunately, thanks to his dynamic leadership issue he was able to get the enthusiastic backing of the aviators themselves. And a whole sting of new records and milestones were being established by the Langley, and her air groups here in San Diego in the coming months.

CAVANAUGH: So Karl, moving this forward a little bit, when does the aircraft carrier become the kind of machine, the kind of incredible ship that we know now with its capabilities, with the tail hook with all of that. Is that post World War II or was that developed during --

ZINGHEIM: No, it's surprising. It actually established itself as early as the rate 1920s believe it or not.


ZINGHEIM: The progress the aviators were making under Mason reefs' tutelage was so profound that the fleet in those days had an annual exercise. And they would divide the fleet into opposing groups, and nay would say, okay, let's launch an innovation the Panama canal or something like that. And the Langley, of course, participated as an aircraft carrier, and the performance was -- and the transformative performance of the air group was so profound that fleet commanders were actually employing other ship types as theoretical carriers because the larger Lexington and Saratoga were still being converted at that time. So in lieu of the arrival of these two giant carriers, they actually employed theoretical carriers to further the ideas of what air power could do. And then, of course, when Lex and Sara did arrive by 1930 in the Pacific, it was off to the races. And carriers were a integral part of every fleet exercise up until the beginning of the second world war.

CAVANAUGH: And certainly, Abe, we think of the second world war and aircraft carriers almost simultaneously. I'm wondering we could talk about another major component in San Diego's naval history, that's the production of aircraft during World War II. Tell us a little bit about Ruben fleet and consolidated, and what the company meant to San Diego.

SHRAGGE: Well, the Ruben fleet was the -- become the owner of the consolidated aircraft corporation in Buffalo New York right after World War I. He had been in San Diego in 1911, again in 1917, in the army when he learned to fly. And the city had wooed him and his company for years. And finally by 19 -- 1930s, the city and the fleet got down to serious business. The fleet was negotiating a deal in San Diego, also in Los Angeles, and it was finally -- the deal offered him next to -- what became Lindbergh field, that settled him here. Fleet and his company became the first heavy industry in San Diego outside of the Navy, which before this had been the main stay of the local economy. Fleet brought thousands of workers with him, most of his aircraft production and design had to do with military contracts. And after 1935, as the United States and the rest of the world found their way toward World War II, his designs and production became ever more important, not only to the coming war itself, but to the city itself.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, Karl, is San Diego still a major port, home port for the Navy and carriers? I know automatically we say yes. But I know that we've lost a couple recently. San Diego diminishing in its purpose as a home port for Navy aircraft carriers?

ZINGHEIM: Oh, not at all. Basically they like to rotate the units around so we're just in the middle of carriers being sent to one port and then shuffled back to another. In fact, San Diego is of such prime importance that even in the 1990s with the series of base closures that were going on known as brack, San Diego actually had a net gain in bases throughout that period. So I would say that San Diego is as prominent as ever, if not more so.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Wallace, I started out by talking about the celebration that's going to be lawned here in San Diego this weekend. In fact, tomorrow, it's a year long celebration of the centennial of naval aviation. And can you tell us a little bit about this celebration that we're gonna see here at north island and, about this fly by?


PECK: Well, it's going to be [CHECK AUDIO] 200 aircraft from various eras, all naval related, are going to participate in a procession going from south bay right up the center of the channel over the Coronado bridge, passed the embarcadero, and then around to Point Loma. The blue angels will do a brief fly by to officially start it off. And then beginning with the biplane trader known as a naval trader, N2N, and all the way up through the modern F 35 fighter, we're going to see a largely chronological procession of naval aircraft both past and present, and then the culmination will be a mass formation fly over of the carrier air wing, which will come in from offer the Coronado roads, and then straight up over our heads right into downtown.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Karl. Now, Wallace, I hear that this is the biggest fly by since World War II; is that right?

PECK: Well, since World War II, yes. I think they were going to try to top the fly byes that occurred right after World War I when 212 planes, supposedly, were in the air over San Diego, including a hundred and 41 from the army and 71 from the Navy. Then there was another massive, even greater fly by when we dedicated Lindbergh field in 1928, and supposedly they put up 222 planes, this time the Navy with a hundred and 40, and the army with only 82. Now, those numbers are always suspect. But that's --

CAVANAUGH: Why are they suspect?

PECK: That's what history says, anyway.

CAVANAUGH: Because we don't know if they were actually -- that was just their wishful thinking or there were that many.

PECK: Well, you see different figures at different times. But I think it was a big show, and I'm sure this one on Saturday will be a big show too.

CAVANAUGH: And it's gonna be a big show at north island naval air station as well. And I'm wondering, Abe, do you think that most San Diegans are aware of now deeply San Diego is engrained in the very beginnings of naval aviation.

SHRAGGE: Oh, probably so, but not as much so as in recent years of I think we Hughes sight of our history from time to time. The Navy has been so important in the up building of the city, as the Chamber of Commerce used to say. The fact this there is this large carrier base at North Island is large low responsible for the development of San Diego harbor as we know it, and a number of stages over the years, and I'm not quite sure many people know that story very well. So the -- the fact of the Navy and its aviation in San Diego, the -- its roots, its development, its importance to the city are something that I firmly believe in promoting.

CAVANAUGH: And they're gonna be putting on quite a show this weekend.

SHRAGGE: Oh, yes.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you all. Thank you, my guests, Abe Shragge, Karl Zingheim, and Wallace peck, thanks for joining us this morning.

PECK: You're very welcome Maureen.


ZINGHEIM: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know the centennial of naval aviation celebration kicks off tomorrow at north island. A parade of flight over San Diego bay, which ask being called the largest Navy fly over since World War II, takes place this Saturday at one. You can go to our website for links to this and many other event business celebrating the centennial of naval aviation. And you can go on-line if you'd like to comment, days.

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