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Sunday, Sep 25, 2022
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Rarefied Air

A would-be government contractor, a sympathetic landowner and a skeptical U.S. Navy all came together 100 years ago this month to make San Diego the birthplace of naval aviation.

Humanity had cracked the secret of powered flight eight years earlier.

Hungry for a deal, early aircraft builder Glenn Curtiss felt “the key to selling airplanes was to sell them to the government,” said historian and Navy Capt. Richard Dann.

Curtiss offered the Navy free flight training and free use of his aircraft. Businessman and Coronado landowner John D. Spreckels offered North Island as a place for the training.

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Navy officials were cool to the idea. A Curtiss employee flew an aircraft off ships as early as 1910, but the brass didn’t like makeshift runways cluttering up the decks. Maybe it would be better, someone suggested, if sailors used a boat crane to hoist seaplanes on and off ships.

So Curtiss brought out a floating, pontoon-equipped craft and on Feb. 17, 1911, flew to a ship moored near the Embarcadero. Sailors hoisted the aircraft aboard. Curtiss had lunch with the captain, the story goes, then sailors hoisted the aircraft back into the water and Curtiss flew away.

The demonstration prompted the Navy to appropriate $25,000 for aviation, and soon it was the owner of two airplanes.

A Day to Remember

The next century saw Curtiss’ spindly aircraft evolve into stealthy, jet-powered, supersonic, fixed-wing machines, not to mention helicopters.

With the centennial of naval aviation looming, Rear Adm. Patrick McGrath — a 30-year naval aviator and deputy commander of Naval Air Forces — cast about for an appropriate way to celebrate.

Scores of aircraft flew in formation over San Diego Bay in 1918, 1928 and 1932. A day with a massive flyover “would be a day I would definitely remember,” said McGrath. So, the admiral said, he and downtown restaurateur Jimmy DiMatteo and the Navy’s air boss, Vice Adm. Thomas Kilcline, set out to do it again.

Three years of planning will culminate Feb. 12 at 1 p.m.

San Diegans will be able to see 175 aircraft of various vintages fly in formation over the bay. At the same time, Naval Air Station North Island will hold a free open house with ship tours, aircraft and auto displays, live music and other activities. Gates open at 9 a.m.

The local event will kick off a year of celebration, including remembrances at the nation’s major air shows. Also being celebrated are the aviation programs of the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Marine Corps — though the official centennial of Marine aviation is 2012.

As the young science of aviation matured, the aircraft carrier “turned into the decisive naval weapon of the 20th century,” said Karl Zingheim, historian for San Diego’s USS Midway Museum. The region became home to aircraft carriers, squadrons and aircraft manufacturers. There has been a “symbiotic relationship” between naval aviation and business, said McGrath.

Birth of an Industry

Vendors, parts dealers, fabricators and other subcontractors grew up with the Southern California-based industry, said Ron Lewis, historian for the Flying Leatherneck Historical Foundation, which operates an aviation museum at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

In the early days of flight, Navy brass and aviation firms found they preferred the warmer climates of the southern United States, Lewis said. Advantages included year-round training and the ability to work outside.

Warm weather drew aviator and industrialist Reuben H. Fleet to move his Consolidated Aircraft Corp. from Buffalo, N.Y., to San Diego in the mid-1930s. Consolidated’s products included the Navy’s PBY Catalina seaplane. Consolidated also produced the B-24 Liberator bomber as well as its Navy counterpart, the PB4Y Privateer.

Production boomed during World War II and employment soared. In 1943, Consolidated had record employment of 45,000 people. Some 40 percent of employees then were women, according to a history of the corporation available on the San Diego Air & Space Museum Web site. Consolidated ended up producing 6,700 B-24s in San Diego. Other manufacturers, including Ford Motor Co., joined the effort, turning out 18,500 copies of the B-24.

Consolidated merged with Vultee Aircraft, later changed its name to Convair, then merged into General Dynamics. Its plant near Lindbergh Field now serves as headquarters of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, aka Spawar.

A New Era

In the 1950s, Ryan Aeronautical Co. contributed its unmanned, jet-powered Firebee target drone to naval aviation. It was the start of a significant new push for military aviation and for San Diego. As the century came to an end, unmanned aircraft would come to dominate San Diego’s aircraft business, with the entry of companies such as Northrop Grumman, which bought Ryan and built on its foundation.

The county’s unmanned aircraft cluster is now concentrated in Rancho Bernardo and Poway (home to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., an affiliate of General Atomics). It’s a key part of the defense industry, which generates nearly $30 billion annually for the local economy, according to a study sponsored by the San Diego Military Advisory Council, a civilian booster group.

The Navy eventually embraced the jet aircraft, albeit first with caution.

Today, Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet is the standard fighter and attack aircraft for the Navy and Marines. And though Boeing does not loom large in San Diego, the Chicago company and other aircraft suppliers station factory representatives on area bases to serve the customer when needed.

Naval aviation is turning the page with the planned introduction of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II jet. A Navy version will be able to land on carriers, while a Marine Corps version will have short take-off and vertical landing capability. The latter program, however, is running late and over budget. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently suggested giving Lockheed a two-year probationary period to fix the program.

Unmanned Systems

Jim Zortman, a retired admiral who is site manager of Northrop’s unmanned systems center in Rancho Bernardo, said the Navy is only now warming up to unmanned systems. The Navy is introducing Northrop’s unmanned Fire Scout helicopter to the fleet, as well as a naval version of the Global Hawk high-altitude surveillance aircraft. Zortman said he expects the first flight of Northrop’s unmanned carrier-based fighter to happen this month.

Eventually, he predicted, the Navy will fly unmanned aircraft.

The executive will even wager that when local leaders organize a parade of flight marking the 125th anniversary of naval aviation, there will be unmanned aircraft in the formations.

“I don’t think that that’s a far-fetched prediction,” Zortman said.

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