previous arrow
next arrow



Californians Take to the Air

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines


By Bill Betten, Co-Director of the California WW1 Centennial Task Force


early morning flight over north islandEarly morning flight over San Diego Bay's North Island (Contributing institution: California State Library)The movie Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines from 1965 may have been a humorous jab at the early days of flight, but it did point out the struggles, and how actually dangerous the idea of propelling oneself into the air at truly break-neck speeds was. But, if you were going to do it, California was the place.

The sunny and generally balmy skies of Southern California had already attracted the attention of aviation enthusiasts before the outbreak of war. California’s climate tended to remain favorable for aircraft production, testing, and training. For production, companies could work with the rather dangerous fumes of early hand-made aircraft construction outside practically year-round. Testing near the ocean offered the opportunity for both water and hard surface landing tests, and as far as training went, everyone wanted to fly in good weather, and California offered plenty of that. 

Besides the Southern California based Loening Aeronautical Engineering and Glenn L. Martin Companies (See: How Much Did California Contribute to Aviation & Naval Assets During WW1?) there were numerous airbases and training fields constructed for the war.

 U.S. Army Air Service

crissy field from aboveSoon after the end of the war this aerial shot looking southeast at Crissy Field shows the tight configurations the small airfield required. A large H-shaped building on the middle right was the enlisted men's barracks. The administrative headquarters sits just to the west. Notice the large hangars at the west end. The houses in the foreground were the pilots quarters. (National Archives photo).According to the California Historic Military Buildings and Structures Inventory prepared for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers in 2000, “The introduction of the airplane as an instrument of war was arguably the single most important factor in the development of California as a central focus of American military strategies.” In other words, California was very favorable to early military aviation. During this period due to the sizes and number of aircraft and their low-powered engines, small airfields could be built at numerous locations across the state. These smaller landing fields like Crissy Field at the Presidio of San Francisco could be “sandwiched into” spots unsuitable for the typical military installation.

That isn’t to say that there were not larger airfields. A large base built near Riverside was remarkably similar to another built near Sacramento. Reactivated over and over, both March Field in Southern California and Mather Field in the north provided operations for super-sized military aircraft well into post Cold War years, March still operates today hosting the largest air mobility wing of the Fourth Air Force.

curtiss and army pilots poseGlenn Curtiss offered free instruction to Army and Navy officers. His first class (from L to R): , Lt. Theodore Ellyson; Navy, Capt. Paul Beck, Army; Glenn Curtiss; Lt. G. E. Kelly, Army; and Lt. John C. Walker, Army.(Contributing Institution: San Diego Air & Space Museum)But the grandfather to all of these was Rockwell Field, in San Diego, originally The Curtiss School of Aviation, founded by Glenn Curtiss. The Army had established a permanent flying school on what was then still a real island in the middle of San Diego Bay. North Island, just to the northwest of what was then Coronado Island (City of Coronado) would in years to come become the northern half of the single man-fashioned land mass of North Island-Coronado, but at the time of WW1 there were two Islands. Though established in 1912, the Signal Corps Aviation School on North Island, as the Army referred to it, was the first U.S. Army school to provide training for military pilots. At that time the Army didn’t even have housing for their few pilots training there. They had to rent planes and hangers from the Curtis Co. and live out of tents.

In July of 1917, just three months after the declaration of war, the Signal Corps Aviation School on North Island was named Rockwell Field in honor of 2nd Lt. Lewis C. Rockwell who had been killed in an airplane accident at College Park, Maryland in 1912. During World War I, the school at Rockwell Field provided trainingaerial shot of north island for many pilots and crews sent to France and the Pacific. But, as the United States government had not exactly jumped on the aviation bandwagon since the Wright Brothers first flight, American fliers were few. 

All of this meant that in the beginning for the Air Service, it was a scramble to ramp-up an active air corp from basically nothing. In fact, the U.S. Army Air Service was barely recognizable at the time the United States declared war. Fewer than a dozen Army pilots had any real training at all. The Navy was not far off from that. (The U.S. Navy had only bought its first “aeroplane” from Curtis in 1911.1) In functioning Army aircraft, or “flying machines” as the pilots called them, only a handful existed and those actually flying over military maneuvers were dwindling in number instead of increasing. In reality, it was not until six years after the end of WW1 that the Army Air Service became something other than a sub-branch of the Army Signal Corp.

 To rapidly boost the pilot corps, the Air Service began utilizing existing universities and approximately 23,000 volunteers entered cadet flight training. With military support, eight universities across the country offered preflight or ground school training. Included in the list was the University of California.

Established 21 May 1917 with a capacity of 1,020 students (sic). On 27 June 1917, a contract was entered into between the Signal Corps, U. S. Army, for and in behalf of the United States of America, and the University of California, whereby the University of California agreed to provide, properly equip and maintain a School of Military Aeronautics for giving ground training to officers and enlisted men of the Signal Corps.2

The School of Military Aeronautics established courses of from eight to twelve weeks, as the Chief Signal Officer directed.

U.S. Naval Aviation 

curtiss seaplane being taken aboardDetermined that seaplanes could operate effectively for the Navy, on February 17, 1911, Glenn Curtiss demonstrated his Model D-III from San Diego Bay and landed alongside the USS Pennsylvania. His “machine” was then lifted aboard with a boat crane and placed on deck. This demonstration was instrumental in showing the Navy the feasibility of operating aircraft in the fleet. Soon afterward the Navy announced the first purchase of a Navy aircraft.(Contributing Institution: San Diego Air & Space Museum)In San Diego the Navy had some similar experiences as the Army, such as sharing instruction and history making events with Glenn Curtis. Though they shared the same island, prior to the war the Navy had been looking specifically at whether or not an airplane could land and take off on the water, either directly from it, or to and from a ship. Early experiments in attempting to sink a submarine only proved that larger bombs were necessary, which meant a larger wing-span. Developments were also hampered by the fact that most naval officers of the day were unconvinced that an aircraft was at all able to sink any ship, let alone a submarine. Of course, this was not proven until 1921 by Billy Mitchell.

In a 1930 U.S. Navy Department Bureau of Aeronautics report called A HISTORY OF U.S. NAVAL AVIATION, the first chapter tells that when first begun, the Navy found it necessary to divide flight training into three phases: ground school, elementary flight training, and advanced ground school and fight training.

“The first ground school was established at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in September, 1917. The aim was twofold, to give students academic instruction in aeronautical matters, and to inculcate in them the conception of strict military discipline. Additional ground schools were opened in the summer of 1918, at the University of Washington, Seattle, and at the naval training school at Dunwoody Institute, Minneapolis. Elementary flight training was carried on at Bay Shore, Miami, Key West, and San Diego.”3

 The Navy Department planned for additional elementary schools of flight, but the unexpected end to the war ended their need.

victory flyouver of san diego nov 1918 resultVictory Flyover of San Diego  - November 1918Only one naval aviation station--the station at Pensacola--was in existence on April 6, 1917, when war was finally declared. At the time of the armistice, November 11, 1918, of the Navy’s twenty-three stations and schools in operation in the United States and Canada, only the San Diego, Calif. Elementary flight school was listed in California.

In his article, Five Ways WWI Changed San Diego, freelance San Diego writer Randy Dotinga explains, "World War I brought navy pilots to San Diego and boosted its reputation, built on a boon of early aviation activity, as ‘The Air Capital of the West.’"4

He tells how extensive this was when he reports that at the end of the war 212 pilots participated in a “spectacular” flyover of San Diego.

Another spectacle in the air occurred almost daily at Ross Field in Arcadia, CA. Though here it was not airplanes that flew over. At the front, balloons were used daily to conduct observations and coordinate artillery fire from above. It was at the Ross Field Balloon School that airmen were taught how to launch, retrieve and handle the exceptionally large observation gas bags.observation balloons ross field balloon school 1918

It has been argued that being an Observation Balloonist was one of the most dangerous, if not the most dangerous, job during WW1. Though never intentionally behind enemy lines balloonists risked more than just the threat from aircraft. Like their brothers in the bomber and pursuit (fighter) squadrons balloons took fire from anti-aircraft, infantry rifles, and even God from lightening strikes. Unlike those in the cockpits of fixed-wing craft, Balloonists, being mostly stationary, also took fire from heavy artillery. But, what made this job particularly more dangerous, and made these men that much braver however, was that they sat like a huge target, easy to see, out in the open, with no defensive protection. Their job was to see the enemy in such a way that the enemy would likely see them first. Their only escape if their balloon was shot down was by parachute.parchuting from a balloon

“Well that’s good,” you might think. Unfortunately, not when you realize that the flaming balloon you just jumped from is falling on you faster than your very flimsy parachute is allowing for your descent. This was the disastrous fate of Lt. Cleo Jepson Ross.

On the first day of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, September 26, 1918, Lt. Cleo Ross and fellow balloon officer, Lt. Hudnut had been called into action again. They had been up observing since before the sun came up. Today would be the 8th Balloon Division’s ultimate challenge. The infantry pressed through the trenches below and over the top to rapidly attack Montfaucon. In the sky above were thirteen observation balloons spread out along the front. 

balloon going downAt 2 p.m., Lt. Ross and Hudnut reported increased enemy traffic on the road to Nantillois. At that point, a German Fokker D-7 pursuit plane dropped upon them and shot incendiary rounds into the balloon which started to burn.

Ross delayed parachuting to insure Hudnut had not been snagged by the basket or its cable.

Hudnut parachuted clear and he watched as Ross jumped. His parachute opened, but the balloon was falling faster than Ross. The slowly burning mass caught Lt. Ross’ parachute on fire as the balloon fell onto it and then a thousand feet to the ground. Thanks to Lt. Ross’ valor, Hudnut made a safe landing. Twenty-two-year-old Lt. Cleo J. Ross of Titusville, Pa., was the only member of the A.E.F. Balloon Corps to die in aerial combat. The bloody Meuse-Argonne Offensive, claimed over 26,000 American lives, but forced the Germans to the Armistice table on November 11.

He was buried near Brabant, France, near where he fell. In honor of Lt. Ross, the Balloon School at Arcadia was named Ross Field. It is unclear if the Balloon School was named for Lt. Ross before the Armistice or after, but reports say that it did happen in November of 1918.5

For an in depth look at all of the military units of WW1 in California check out the California Military Department’s Military History and Museums web page on WW1 at


Other Minor California Military Air Facilities during the war included:

  • East Field, Otay Mesa, San Diego, California, Gunnery Range, Axillary of Rockwell Field
  • Ream Field, Oneonta, California, Axillary of Rockwell Field
  • Additionally, there were two Aviation General Supply Depots. One was in the north in Sacramento. The other in Los Angeles supplied March Field, Mather Field, Rockwell Field, and Ross Field (the Army Balloon School at Arcadia Ross Field.)


Museums to visit today:

Castle Air Museum

Castle Air Museum is a military aviation museum located in Atwater, California, adjacent to the site of the former Castle Air Force Base. It is one of the largest aerospace museums displaying vintage aircraft in the western United States. The now closed Air Force Base had been named after the son of  WW1 pilot Captain Benjamin Castle. Following World War I, Capt. Castle was detailed as Air Attaché at the American Embassy in Paris. He was honorably discharged in 1919 and left the Army as a Lt. Colonel.

The museum has a few WW1 vintage pieces, but the extensive collection and variety of aircraft is well worth the drive to go see. Visit Castle Air Museum to learn more about Capt. Castle and his son at:


March Field Air Museum

Originally operated by the Air Force as one of the many United States Air Force Field Museums and Heritage Centers, the March Field Air Museum (in Riverside County) proudly lists an extensive number of military aircraft on display. The list includes history making jets such as the Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird, the North American F-100 Super SabreBoeing and the F 14 Tomcat made popular in the movie Top Gun. The museum is well_known for its rare World War Two B-17 Flying Fortress and Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers. Their hangers also house scale replica of a WW1 Nieuport 11.The museum's operation was transferred to a nonprofit organization in 1996. Visit :


San Diego Air & Space Museum

No trip to San Diego should be without a stop at the San Diego Air & Space Museum. Without a doubt the quality of this museum sits on a par parallel to that of the Smithsonian in Washington DC. It truly is a world-class museum and institution. The collection of WW1 craft is very impressive and is accompanied by displays that express the period and knowledge of WW1. In other words, "The planes are eye-candy enough, but the appurtenances are fascinating." 

To visit a seven part: Online Exhibit  see 100th Anniversary of The End of the First World War

For a fine article on the Top Aces of each Nation of WW1 see: World War I


1) 100 Years of Naval Aviation The Navy’s first pilot and 10 more milestones. Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine By The Editors, Air & Space Magazine, March 2011


 3) U.S. Navy Department Bureau of Aeronautics report called A HISTORY OF U.S. NAVAL AVIATION , TECHNICAL NOTE NO. 18, SERIES OF 1930, BY Capt. W. H. Sitz, USMC, UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE, WASHINGTON: 1930.

4) Five Ways WWI Changed San DiegoHow the Great War turned us into a military powerhouse and much more. Voice of San Diego Randy Dotinga July 4, 2014



 Bill Betten is one of the Co-Directors of the California WW1 Centennial Task Force and the author of the WW1 historical novel series Doughboys. [See his biography here. ]codirector bill betten cww1ctf