or Ely, of the California National
by Colonel Norman S. Marshall
At the turn of the century, San Diego
was a fascinating town. It saw border strife, international labor
disputes, and as a base of operations, helped to quell civil
rebellion in Mexico. The Great White Fleet visited San Diego
in 1908 just five years after the Wright Brothers had first flown.
The subjects of aviation, insurrection, labor disputes, and civil
war is attractively treated in a book called Gold in the Sun
by Richard F. Pourade.
Because of the unique, warm climate of San Diego, Glenn Curtiss,
a pioneer in aviation, established one of the first aviation
training schools at North Island in the winter of 1910-1911.
His principal test pilot was Eugene E. Ely, who had landed on
and flown off of the U.S.S. PENNSYLVANIA in San Francisco Bay
on January 18, 1911. That story is another in this series. This
feat, though daring, did little to impress the powers in the
The Secretary of the Navy, George Von L. Meyer, had remained
skeptical despite that singular accomplishment and had a different
concept of the possibility of naval employment of airplanes in
scouting at sea and informed Curtiss, "When you show me
that it is feasible for an aeroplane to alight on the water alongside
a battleship and be hoisted aboard without any false deck to
receive it, I shall believe the airship of practical benefit
to the Navy."
Enough said, just one month later, the PENNSYLVANIA had been
sent from San Francisco to San Diego and on February 15, Curtiss
maneuvered his newly equipped float airplane alongside the PENNSYLVANIA,
it was hoisted aboard and was then lowered into the bay from
where he lifted off for a return flight to North Island.
One month later, in March 1911, the Naval Appropriations Act
provided $25,000 for developing Naval Aviation. Foreseeing aviation
sales opportunities in both government and civilian applications,
Curtiss then set about staging aerial circuses in San Diego.
On January 28, 1911, the first over-fly of group airplanes took
place which has been described as a "covey of giant birds".
Among those at the controls was Eugene Ely, who, after executing
a spiral turn in which "it seemed the machine would lose
its intangible grip on the upper ether", he landed and was
reprimanded for his daring by Glenn Curtiss. The climatic event
of the day was an aerial race in which the "terrific"
speed of 60 mph was attained.
Among the first aerial races was one between Glenn Curtiss and
Eugene Ely at the Coronado Air Show early in 1911.
North Island was the training center for both the Navy and the
Army from 1911 through the end of the First World War. The first
aerial courier service came from North Island's Curtiss School
also. A Captain in the New York Division of the United States
Aeronautical Reserve, Harry S. Harkness, flew instructions from
North Island to Lieutenant George Ruhlen, then along the Mexican
border and returned to base at fully 60 mph for the round trip.
It marked the second military application of aircraft in a real
military function. (The first was in 1910 when the Italians used
aircraft on rebels in Tripoli.)
Sometime later, the Aeronautical Reserve proposed to the War
Department that Aviator Eugene Ely be, together with other pilots,
engaged to reconnoiter along the international boundary on scouting
missions. The accompanying excerpts from the book are a good
read on the history of one of the major air centers in the country.
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