Tuesday, June 21, 2005 | “It was June 16, 1894, when I was brought, kicking and bawling, into this world – in San Diego, a California city of only 17,000 people in a state then of barely a million population. It was a time when wonders were about to unfold. There were few telephones and fewer electric lights. Steam trains connected cities, and there were the new (Sprague) trolley cars in towns. Horses – over 25 million – provided basic transportation, unaware that their final decade was at hand. The ‘safety’ bicycle was the craze for millions, the automobile but an inventor’s curiosity, and balloons were the only flying vehicles. There were no radios, television or computers, let alone even the remotest thought of satellites or space travel, and Coca Cola had just been put into bottles. Work was hard and lowly paid, and there were no such things as labor-saving appliances. Very few went to college and fewer yet traveled much beyond 20 miles from their birthplace. Medicine was primitive, medical training spare, and the great killer was tuberculosis. It was truly a time of birth both for me and the modern age.”
– from “Waldo: Pioneer Aviator” (the life of Waldo Dean Waterman)
Then, on Dec. 17, 1903, in a windswept, barren seafront, Wilbur Wright was the first to fly an aeroplane, not a jump (as shown in his brother’s famed photograph) but a true flight of 852 feet in 59 seconds.
But in 1907, the Wright’s secrecy prompted Alexander Graham Bell to form the Aerial Experiment Association with partners Glenn Curtiss, maker of America’s best lightweight internal combustion (motorcycle) engines; Army officer Tom Selfridge; and Canadians Jack McCurdy and Frederick Baldwin. On July 4, 1908, their endeavors paid off with Curtiss flying the June Bug in America’s first official flight – the first time Americans would see an aeroplane fly. For this, Curtiss was awarded American Aviator License No. 1 (the Wrights were Nos. 4 and 5).
In 1909, at the world’s first air meet in Reims, France, Curtiss was the only American entrant (Orville Wright was in Berlin). Curtiss beat Louis Bleriot to win the coveted Gordon Bennett Trophy and in Europe was awarded Aviator License No. 2 after Bleriot (Wrights were Nos. 14 and 15).
Then, in 1910, America held its first air meet – in Los Angeles – and young Waldo Waterman was there, an “aviator” without an airplane. Worshipfully, he met and worked without pay for Curtiss and told him about San Diego’s ideal flying conditions.
Then, after being honored in Pasadena’s Rose Tournament and Carnival, Curtiss arrived in San Diego where he established the Curtiss Aviation Camp for training and development on North Island.
That first winter and spring at North Island, Curtiss perfected the first practical seaplane, demonstrated the utility of the seaplane for shipboard use, invented the amphibian, trained the U.S. Navy’s first aviator (“Spuds” Ellyson). This was followed by the Navy ordering its first airplane, the Curtiss A-1.
In 1912 at North Island, Curtiss trained a wide-ranging group of aviators, including a military contingent. In 1913, Curtiss continued student training in landplanes, seaplanes and flying boats. The next year was climactic. The Army stopped using Wright airplanes because eight of 14 Wright-trained aviators were killed that year at North Island where all training then was held. They chose the Curtiss JN-1, the famed “Jenny.” Thus, both Naval aviation and the modern Army Air Corps were born at North Island.
Jack Carpenter, an aviation buff, is the author of “Pendulum, Pendulum II,” and co-author with Waldo Waterman of “Waldo: Pioneer Aviator.”