Historic California Posts, Camps,
Stations and Airfields
Air Station, King City
(King City Airport,
Mesa del Rey Fight School)
by M.L. Shettle, Jr.
The Army and the Navy rarely saw eye to
eye on the same subject -- this included primary training. While
the Navy performed the training in-house, the Army contracted
the training to civilian operators that formed Contract Pilot
Schools (CPS). In 1940, Palo Alto Airport Inc. won a contract
and located a school at King City. An agricultural community,
125 miles south of San Francisco, in the San Antonio Valley,
King City had a population of 1,800 in 1940. The airfield was
built on a 249-acre tract owned by the Spreckels Sugar Company
and leased to the City that in turn subleased the property to
the school. Construction took place during the winter of 1940-1941,
the wettest in 25 years. The school, named Mesa del Rey, welcomed
the first cadets in March 1941.
By May 1941, five barracks, a hospital,
administra tion building, mess hall, and two hangars were completed.
In the fall, a hangar was added -- the investment totaled over
$500,000 with an initial annual payroll over $100,000. In October
1941, the City passed a $16,000 bond issue, bought the property,
and renewed the flying school's lease. Mesa del Rey accommodated
280 cadets with a staff of 555 civilians and 35 Army personnel.
Ryan Recruits and Boeing Stearmans flew 700 hours a day at the
peak. In October 1944, the school closed after putting 10,000
cadets through the primary training course. The Army had 59 other
CPSs across the U.S. and paid the contractors approximately $1000
for each cadet that completed training.
The airfield had an unusual layout with
a dispersal area and revetments. Perhaps the airfield was intended
as an alternate fighter base. At any rate, the cadets played war
games and every night the trainers were moved into the revetments
in case of a possible Japanese air attack!
In the spring of 1945, the Navy was attracted
to the area by the good flying weather and its nearness to Alameda. The Navy took over the field
and commissioned the station on April 6, 1945, as an auxiliary
of Alameda. The new Navy C.O., impressed by the facility's well-appointed
greenery and rose gardens, proclaimed the station "the prettiest
NAAS in the Twelfth Naval District." Four days later, VC-10
arrived from Ventura. By the end of the month VC 20 replaced VC-10
that moved on to Holtville. VC
20's 31 aircraft consisted of Avengers, FM-2 Wildcats, and one
SB2C. A detachment of Watsonville's CASU 64 supported VC-20 and
operated three FM-2s, two Avengers, and one J2F Duck. The station's
aircraft was one GH Howard hospital plane. During the summer of
1945, Navy planes encountered problems with the facility's 4500-ft.
runway, taxiways, and ramps when the asphalt sur face became soft
On September 15, 1945, the Navy placed the
station on caretaker status and on December 15, 1945, returned
the airfield to the City. In 1997, Mesa del Rey, remains as King
City's municipal airport. A few of the former base's buildings
are in use by a commercial onion and garlic dehydrator.
Mesa Del Rey was one of 62 Army Air Corps
primary training fields run under contract to a civilian organization.
Plans for a school at King City Airport began in December 1940.
Flying instructors were hired from all over the country. They
began arriving on January 1941. The post commander, Captain H.
Schmid, arrived in February to supervise the construction program
for the Army and to organize the instructor's school, teaching
the pilots the Army curriculum. His assistant was Lieutenant
Richard Alt. Mickey Muzinich was Group Commander.
Buildings began to emerge from the flat farmland in March. As
with other bases at the time everything was built from "scratch".
Up went the barracks, administration, PX, mess hall, the schoolrooms,
and the aircraft hangars as well as the needed runways and aprons.
The first set of cadets arrived on March 15, and the first class
of 50 started on March 21,1941, Class 41-II. The School began
operation with two Stearman PT-17s airplanes borrowed from the
Rankin School in Tulare. These were replaced with Ryan PT-21
and 22s used between 1942 and 1944. The Stearman trainer returned
with Class 44-H and remained until the School was transferred
to the Navy in 1945.
The School had about 500 cadets at any one time. The number of
trainers quickly rose to over 120 aircraft. The School's staff
was 20 military officers and 35 enlisted men, 20 civilian flight
commanders and 100 civilian flight instructors each flying five
cadets daily. The support staff consisted of 260 civilian men
and women who included the 120 aircraft mechanics, ground school
instructors, office employees, mess hall attendants, PX, flight
line and grounds keepers. Hired guards and cadets provided security.
All the flight instructors had to undergo military training,
wore military uniforms and were sent to flight schools elsewhere.
There was no control tower. Aircraft were signaled to land or
go around again by an instructor with a light on the ground -
green for land and red for go around.
At any one time some 100 Ryan PT-22 aircraft were in the air.
There were four flights in the morning of 60 airplanes with instructor
and cadets, and 60 upper-class cadets soloing and in the afternoon
60 lower class cadets soloing. In the afternoon there were four
flights of 60 airplanes with cadets flying dual. Each airplane
flew 3½ hours morning and afternoon for a combined total
of 700 hours daily. Mesa Del Rey Cadet Charles Watry, author
of Washout! stated the following: "We would be flying the
Ryan PT-22 Recruit, which had tandem open-cockpits, low wings,
metal fuselage, and was powered by a five-cylinder radial Kinner
R-540-1 engine of about 165 horsepower. Dubbed the "Maytag
Messerschmitt," the PT-22 had a fighter-plane look about
it and handled as well as a fighter, too. The engine had a distinctive
"pockata-pockata" sound to it, giving the impression
of a slow-turning engine, which it was.
Even on takeoff, the engine sounded as if it were not turning
up enough revs to get the trainer off the ground." Numerous
auxiliary fields were developed to provide space for pilots to
practice landings and take-offs. Each cadets' class was nine
weeks long. With this intensive training schedule, the School
trained 10,000 Army Aviation cadets between 1941 and early 1945
as well as numerous ground crews. Many cadets went on to distinguished
careers in the Army Air Corps during the war and after.
In the spring of 1945, the Navy was attracted to the King City
Airport for the good flying weather and its nearness to NAS Alameda.
As a result the Navy took over the field and commissioned the
station on April 6,1945 as an auxiliary of Alameda. Four days
later, the composite squadron VC-10 arrived from Ventura. By
the end of the month VC-10 moved on to Holtville and was replaced
by VC-20. VC-20's 31 aircraft consisted of Avengers, FM-2 Wildcats,
and one SB2C Curtiss Helldiver. A detachment of NAAS Holtville's
Carrier Aircraft Service Unit 64 supported VC-20 and operated
three FM-2s, two Avengers and one J2F Duck.
In a short five months some 800 fighter and torpedo bomber pilots
were trained at the Naval Station. Navy blue replaced the Army
khaki uniforms during those last months of the war.
In September 1945, the Navy placed the
station on caretaker status and on December 15, 1945 the Mesa
Del Rey Palo Alto Airfield was returned to the City of King City.
In 1957, 35 acres of the airport were sold to Basic Vegetable
Products for $55,000.