Reading a photography/guide book about San Diego I stumbled on a reference to Joe Boquel who tried, on November 5th, 1915 , to do a "corkscrew" by the Cabrillo Bridge, the entrance to Balboa Park. He crashed and died five minutes before he was supposed to be awarded the Panama-California Exposition Gold Medal. He was not the first, or the last aviator to die in San Diego, a city that once billed itself as 'The Air Capital of The West.' This photograph was taken just before the fateful flight.
Excerpt from Harbor of the Sun—The Story of the Port of San Diego
By Max Miller, Country Life Press, 1940
Someday, perhaps a century from now, North Island and what it represents to our baffling span on earth will be explained. Our period through the childhood of aviation will be dissected by professors. And mankind will know then whether we were another Children's Crusade speeding the way to our own finish, or whether our period was another Renaissance, or whether we were merely out for a good time learning better ways of bombing one another.
North Island, occupying the center stage of the harbor, is a body of land completely surrounded by planes and submerged under planes.
A condensed history of flying was enacted there, is still being enacted there, and the patron saint of North Island is Glenn Curtiss.
He arrived in San Diego in 1910 with an exhibition team. What little flying was being done elsewhere in those days was being done in the morning, the afternoons being considered too windy. But to his surprise he found the San Diego afternoons rather calm and the mornings ideal for his work.
Instead of hauling his exhibition team out of town that night, he made a formal request to be granted the use of North Island for three years and the privilege of erecting the necessary plant for conducting a school.
Since that day North Island has not seen a moment without planes, be they the old pusher type, the tractor type, civilian, army or navy until today all the planes of the aircraft squadrons of the battle fleet are serviced there and housed there.
Because of North Island the current generation of San Diego (this is, those born within the past thirty years) has been deprived of that thrill which comes with seeing one's first flying machine land in town.
But the current generation has not been deprived of watching adults sneaking up on sea gulls, then frightening them at close range, the better to study the mechanics of wing structure and quick take-off. North Island has not had its day: North Island is still having its day. But North Island is no longer the home of fanatical individualists like that wild-eyed Swede, Ivar T. Mayerhoffer, with his home-made contraption, "The Flying Whale"; nor the home of the world's first loopist and the world's first upside-down flier, Lincoln Beachey.
North Island no longer has those day-long arguments over which method of instruction is the better, the "Wright Method' with its dual control, instructor and pupil riding side by side until the student could pilot the ship himself maybe or the "Curtiss Method," in which the student alone in the plane hopped and hopped and hopped until he could hop without crashing maybe.
For that was North Island.
That was the North Island of 1910 and of 1911 and of 1912. That was still the North Island when Glenn Curtiss made from there (in 1911) the world's first seaplane flight.
And when Major T. C. Macauley from North Island made the world's first night flight. Both the army and the navy already were represented among the students. But it was up to Curtiss to interest the navy even more. This he did with the seaplane. For until he actually took a plane off the water, the admirals in Washington remained convinced that aviation was an army game.
Today, of course, all of North Island, once held by the army for flying, is now held by the navy exclusively. The army is out. And such is life.
But if Curtiss, flying off North Island, showed the navy that planes could be taken off the water, Eugene Ely in the same month went one better by showing the navy that a plane could be landed on a deck. He landed on the deck of the cruiser Pennsylvania. Lines and sandbags were used as arresting gear on a wooden platform over the quarter- deck and after-turret. This was the beginning, during the January of 1911, of the modern aircraft-carrier equipment.
During the early flying days on North Island the saying was prevalent that no flier ever lasted more than three years. There seemed reason for this remark, for the year 1913 was an especially ugly one for accidents.
Lieutenant L. E. Goodier, the first army man to have made a flight on North Island, also was the first army man to crash there. He was badly injured while attempting to turn too close to the water in a flying boat.
Two months later during the same year of 1913 Lieutenant Rex Chandler, Coast Artillery Corps, was killed after falling into the bay. The next month Lieutenant J. D. Park was killed. And then Lieutenant E. L. Ellington, cavalry, was killed. And then Lieutenant H. M. Kelly, infantry.
Considering the few planes in use, these army deaths on North Island during one year seemed such a frightful price to pay that a study of the accidents was made a study which resulted in the belief that some of the fatal accidents would have been merely forced landings had the engines not been in the rear of the pilots. In the case of a bad landing, the engine was knocked loose from its supports and fell upon the occupants of the machine.
This hoodoo year of '13 was the year when Sergeant William C. Ocher coined the phrase that has stuck to North Island all these years. He said he would rather be "the oldest pilot in the army than the boldest." Apparently he lived up to it, for, twenty years later, while still on duty, he was awarded a thousand dollars by the government for safety inventions used in blind flying.
In the same manner that the phrase is an heirloom on North Island, so too is the copy of the first army flying rules posted over there. The rules included:
- Do not take up aviation if you expect to be married soon or are in love.
- Horses will be tied to the picket line provided for private mounts and not to trees, fences, water pipes or buildings.
- Dogs without collars and muzzles will be shot.
- Do not enter this branch of the army lured by hopes of increased pay. Expenses are high and there is no use trying to conceal the fact.
- If you are the sort of person who likes to keep his hands clean, don't take up aviation.
- If you are a bluffer, don't take up aviation. You cannot expect to bluff the atmosphere, etc., etc.
The reason for the fourth item was illustrated by the case of Captain B. D. Foulois (later a major general and head of the Air Corps). When funds on the island were low, he fished from his own pocket $150 to maintain the upkeep of his army plane.
Another sad case was that of "The Old Forty-niners," so named because there were forty-nine of them. They comprised a North Island detachment sent to Honolulu to establish an army aviation school there. In Honolulu their hardships were increased because for two years this detail had no planes, and the infantry in Hawaii would not let the fliers forget the fact. They were called the "Walking Aviators."
The saying goes that North Island though today so complicated, so machinelike, so guarded, so serious, so tremendous has furnished more news stories to the world per square foot of land that any other island. It is just a saying. And yet, like all sayings, there is something in back of it, certainly.
Civilians, in glancing across the bay at North Island today, see a baffling land of hangars, shops, factories, run- ways, landing fields. All is complicated, all is secret, and all is beyond a lone man's comprehension.
Records perhaps are being broken, but we know nothing about them, and are not supposed to know anything about them. Individual fliers have been swallowed into what it takes to make The Whole. Even they, the best of them, are but part of some- thing else. Even they today are machines, and over them today giving orders are other machines. North Island is still North Island, but the personalities on it have been transfixed into A Personality. Cameras are not wanted, or crowds, or headlines or volunteer aid from the little boys around town.
But how different it all was on North Island when, on March 28, 1913, Lieutenant T. D. Milling, flying a Burgess tractor type, created a new world's record for two- seater by remaining aloft four hours and twenty-two minutes.
How different when, on Christmas of that same year, Lieutenant J. E. Carberry and Lieutenant W. R. Taliaferro established a new American altitude climb for pilot and passenger. They climbed to seven thousand feet.
How different when, in 1911, Galbraith Rogers arrived from New York in a Wright Model D, the first trans- continental flight. Forty-nine days.
Or when, in 1912, Lieutenant (later Rear Admiral) John Towers established above North Island a new world's endurance record for seaplanes. He was aloft six hours and ten minutes. He was, incidentally, one of the first students on North Island, arriving for the class of 1910-11. In one of his early flights he was thrown from his plane when it hit a "bump." The plane at the time was at two thousand feet, but he caught hold of the landing- gear framework. Although his legs were swinging in mid- air he pulled himself up and climbed back into the pilot's seat.
And, too, the excitement on North Island when R. E. Scott, formerly an army officer, showed a device with which he said he could drop bombs with "an approach to mechanical precision." He was asked to prove it. He did, for the world's first time, on that April morning of 1914. He made four hits out of five from an altitude of eight hundred feet.
His pilot over North Island was Lieutenant T. F. Dodd, who, with Sergeant Marcus, already had been headlined for having just completed a cross-country record by flying 246 miles in four hours and thirty-three minutes.
And that same year from North Island, Lieutenant H. L. Muller, flying a Curtiss tractor, established the altitude record for "all future time" by reaching 17,441 feet. But what does remain permanent about the record today was his finding that the air above San Diego after he had reached ten thousand feet was warmer than on the ground. This feature of San Diego's air still holds true, naturally, the peculiarity being due, it is said, to the heat waves circulating from the desert back to the ocean.
The civilian students on North Island included the first Chinaman to learn to fly. He was Tom Green, who later became a captain in his home country. And there was Miss Tiny Broadwick, the first person to show San Diego a parachute jump. She flew over the San Diego exhibition and, after jumping, landed far beyond sight of the exhibition grounds. Next day she did it again but better.
Yet long before this, among the earliest, was the Swede, Ivar T. MayerhofFer, and his creation, "The Flying Whale."
Perhaps every town at some early time has had a Mayerhoffer. Perhaps he is no exception. For a Mayerhoffer creates no records, he originates no lasting stunts to be duplicated by a school of fliers. Yet each time a Mayerhoffer takes off he produces a miracle; each time he lands he produces another one.
San Diego's Mayerhoffer operated his ailerons by a contraption fitting over his shoulders like a yoke. "I can't get used to it," he would say. He would say this ahead of time even to prospective customers. He did not have many, but he had the whole town for his gallery. He charged his passengers "five dollars a throw" the phrase at the time being more accurate than slangy.
His craft was the first commercial seaplane to be operated on the Pacific Coast. For his power he used the remnants of a Roberts two-cycle, six-cylinder motor. The hull, made out of boards, had so much suction that even the harbor was hardly large enough for a take-off. But once he managed somehow to get off he would fly over North Island against strict regulations. The year was 1914-15.
"Swede's going to fly today! Swede's going to fly to- day!" The information had a way of spreading, and the ambulance would come down to the waterfront.
To curb him, a patrol boat was stationed at the narrow entrance of the first of his runways between two piers. This bottled him up for a while, but not for long. He changed his runway. These piers have since been torn down, but in the days of Swede Mayerhoffer the rickety piers were always crowded with spectators. For he was always around there, either repairing his craft from a crash or taking off for another one.
Merely to land on the water shook the seaplane up enough, but he had a bigger ambition. He began landing his seaplane on land. He built a landing runway of greased boards, and he would try to shoot the ship up these.
In one of his crashes a woman passenger was drowned. In another crash he plunged from four hundred feet, striking the bay. The plunge seemed to have been straight down, but it could not have been, for he lived, and he managed to keep his motor afloat.
The Swede told Joe Boquel, whose name at the time was surpassing Lincoln Beachey's, that Joe was a fool not to get more money for his stunts, as he was certain to be killed.
Joe answered: "Who in hell are you to tell me I'll be killed? You're due next, you know."
The Swede, however, was right. Joe Boquel did go first. He was killed a few weeks later while stunting for the San Diego exhibition. Mayerhoifer lasted another year, eventually being killed near Los Angeles, struck by his own propeller.
For San Diego, though, the name of Lincoln Beachey will never die not after that Sunday afternoon when off Point Loma he made the world's first upside-down flight, the world's first loop, then returned and did them again. The people of San Diego, crowded on every hill that Sunday afternoon, cannot forget.
Or perhaps the age of mellowness at last is descending. For, surely, it can descend on a city the same as on a person. So many of us around here already are thinking fondly of aviation's past instead of concentrating on its present or its future. But that is the way it will have to be.
What formerly would make a front-page story, and get us all running over to North Island, today would not be mentioned, or enjoyed, or watched, or argued about or noticed. Nothing short of a hundred planes colliding all at once could compete today with San Diego's aviation stories of yesterday. A squadron of planes leaving San Diego this week for Honolulu receives less than three paragraphs, third page. Besides, the squadrons from San Diego are now making such flights all the time. And to Panama nonstop, also. The novelty is over.
Yet some of these old names in aviation on North Island deserve a trace of permanence, for the editions carrying some of their obituaries have long ago been used for wrapping fish, we shall say- Yet all these old-timers are not dead. Far from it. Some are still flying. Even they perhaps secretly cherish those old memories of North Island like some veteran trouper remembering the night so long ago when his juggling act was billed second instead of being the opener in the Palace,
All this accounts in part for the subsequent tossing of so many names at random into this bushel basket. For what these early men did on North Island for aviation at the risk of their shoulder blades in those rickety craft has not been exactly forgotten, although laurels since then have had a peculiar habit of drenching some fliers too much for their own good while forgetting others completely.
Lieutenant W. R. Taliaferro, during the August of 1915, established from North Island a new American endurance record of nine hours and forty-eight minutes. His fuel exhausted, he landed with a dead stick. Next month he was killed by a fall into the bay.
Next year, 1916, Captain C. C. Culver, in a plane near Los Angeles, sent radiotelegraph signals which were received on North Island. A month later he sent radio messages from his plane to a plane piloted by Lieutenant W. A. Robertson. These were the first instances on record in which radio was demonstrated as an absolute success in sending and receiving messages in the air.
The death of Lieutenant H. B. Post, who was killed while attempting an altitude record from North Island, February 9, 1914, is responsible for the pusher-type plane definitely being condemned by the army. He lost control of his plane. And the motor, being in back of him, fell on him.
This was one death too many of this sort for the army. But the condemnation of the pusher types left the school on North Island with only two planes.
But it is doubtful if any North Island class quite equaled that of 1915-17 in students who later became celebrities or who already were civilian celebrities before starting to fly.
This class included Major J. P. Mitchel, the one-time mayor of New York, after whom Mitchel Field, on Long Island, is named; Captain Roscoe Fawcett, of the Fawcett Publications; Norman Ross, then the world's swimming champion; Major W. R. Ream, one of the first flight surgeons of the army, who now has a landing field named after him close to San Diego;
Colonel T. C. Turner, who later became chief of the Marine Air Service; and there was Captain Henry H. Arnold, later Major General and chief of the Army Air Corps.
The list of that class could go on and on, but others among the class will be mentioned later, especially those who stayed with flying.
But the next world event occurred in 1918-19 when Major A. D. Smith attempted a transcontinental flight to New York and return with five planes. These five planes, a record number at that time for such an attempt, flew from North Island to New York by way of Texas, Louis-iana, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and the two Carolinas. The fliers remained in New York a week and were the talk of the country.
Their return trip to San Diego went well until they reached El Paso, Texas. Here the planes, after landing, were struck by a violent wind. All except one were over-turned and damaged beyond repair. However, this was the first time in history that a formation of planes had flown from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
Another job handed North Island in 1919 was the formation of an aerial forest patrol. As radio communication still required too expensive an equipment and was not dependable, carrier pigeons were carried in each plane and released whenever a fire was sighted. This accounts for the pigeon lofts which remained for so long on North Island.
Lieutenant James H. Doolittle on September 4, 1922 flew from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Diego in twenty-one hours a record which stood for eight years.
The world's first refueling in midair was successfully attempted above North Island in 1923. The pilots in the plane were Lieutenant Lowell H. Smith and Lieutenant J. P. Richter, who thereby broke records for the combination of speed, duration and distance.
But this is getting ahead a little, for in 1917 the navy was granted authority to move in on North Island and occupy two old buildings and the Curtiss school hangar for seaplanes. This, of course, was the beginning of the present Naval Air Station and the beginning of the end of the army there. For the army on North Island is no more.
This was a hard gulp for the army, and it has never quite overcome the irony of the thing. But as a final fling, and to celebrate the Armistice, the army put into the air from North Island in 1918 the largest number of planes aloft at any time at one place in the United States. The planes numbered 212. They did not fly in the tight formations of today, but rather spread all over the sky, which made their number seem four times larger than that used in such flights today. This first big flight which brought newspaper correspondents to San Diego from all pointswas under command of Lieutenant Colonel H. B. S. Burwell
To attempt the first nonstop transcontinental flight, Lieutenant Oakley Kelly and Lieutenant John A. Macready had on North Island, in 1922, a thick-wing monoplane with a wingspread of ninety-six feet. But the gigantic ship (certainly gigantic for then) was powered by a single Liberty motor. The ship had never taken off with a full capacity, so the moment of take-off was something to see, and all of San Diego came out to see it.
After covering a half-mile of North Island before it could lift itself, the ship then was headed straight for the bluffs of Point Loma. The pilots were forced to bank at an altitude of a hundred feet. They circled North Island twice, then aimed for the mountains only to find the pass blocked by a fog.
The fliers then decided to circle back over North Island and try to break the endurance record. When they were again above the field they dropped a message to the com- manding officer requesting that he make necessary arrange- ments to authenticate the world's record if they should succeed. From then on they circled North Island for thirty-six hours and eighteen minutes, with the whole country following the news about them. But all for nothing.
For, despite the fact that the plane was watched by thousands during the thirty-six hours of circling, the record was not authenticated and was never allowed because of lack of official witnesses.
Although the fliers were disappointed about this, they started out on another nonstop transcontinental attempt as soon as the ship was reconditioned on North Island. A cracked water jacket forced them down at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indianapolis, but they had broken the world's record for distance flight. They had covered 2,284 and again were the talk of America and Europe.
The next event was the round-the-world flight which started and ended on North Island in i924. This flight, as we may recall, occupied 176 days. Lieutenant Lowell Smith was in command after the planes reached Alaska.
But in this haste to speak about records broken on North Island, or from North Island, the story has moved too rapidly into near-modern times. Sweeter is the feeling to return once again to those hedge-hopping days on the island when aerial charts were nothing more than railway maps obtained from the local railway station, when the few plane compasses were more misleading than useful, when beacons as yet were not so much as a futuristic dream, when emergency landing fields were unknown. But even then, almost from the start, these pilots on North Island were attempting to push their crates into the back country. To get carried by wind drift into the deserts of Mexico was easy, brutally easy, during an overcast sky. Some of the pilots, when lost, had no other alternative but to die after forced landings, and two others when lost from North Island were murdered by Tiburon Indians.
Lieutenant W. A. Robertson, with Colonel H. G. Bishop as passenger, started from North Island for Calexico. Without knowing it, they were going in the wrong direction. They flew to the limit of the gas supply, then made a dead-stick landing on what they thought was the shore of Salton Sea.
After walking south they turned around and retraced their steps. They noticed for the first time the presence of a tide, and that while walking south the water completely obliterated their tracks. They realized then that they had landed, not at Salton Sea, the California desert lake, but on the Gulf of California, Mexico.
They emptied a one-gallon can of oil and filled it with water from the radiator. With this as their drinking water they headed north with two sandwiches and two oranges. The nearest point to the United States boundary was sixty miles to the northeast, although they had no way of know- ing this then.
The country over which they tramped was entirely devoid of water and consisted of shifting sand dunes. They gradually discarded their helmets, goggles and aviation coats. The nights were cold, and during the day the men caught the full blast of the Mexican sun.
After eight days of this, Lieutenant Robertson stumbled into the camp of one of the automobile searching parties at a surveyor's tank on the border. He was out on his feet. He was placed inside the car and directed the driver back across the desert to find Colonel Bishop. The automobile became stuck in the sand dunes, and the party continued the rest of the way on foot, following Lieutenant Robertson's tracks.
Colonel Bishop was found thirty miles from the border but was too far gone to walk. An ambulance from Yuma managed to get within fifteen miles of him, and the rescuers carried him the distance.
Yes, those were the hedge-hopping days. Those are the days the men of San Diego remember when they look today across the bay at North Island. They remember because they took part in the searches.
In another case about the same time, four other North Island fliers were lost in Mexico but were saved from starvation by a herd of steers. These fliers were Lieutenant William R. Sweeley, with Corporal J. C. Railing as passenger; and Lieutenant Daniel F. Duke, with Lieutenant McCarn as passenger.
They had taken off from North Island for Prescott, Arizona. Confused by the weather and having no compass, they headed into Mexico by mistake. Lieutenant Sweeley ran out of gas and made a forced landing. Lieutenant Duke continued southward for some time and, seeing an adobe house, circled it and landed there. The house was empty, so he returned to where the first plane had landed.
He picked out the worst part of the valley and landed in a marsh. His plane turned over on its nose, breaking the propeller and one wing. The gasoline was transferred from the wrecked plane to the good plane, and a take-off was attempted. While trying to taxi to a smooth part of the field, Lieutenant Sweeley bounced into a large hole cov- ered with grass. The plane turned over onto its back, and that was the end of that.
The party of four was marooned without food and with no idea of the location, except that it must be somewhere in Mexico. The men limped from the wreck to see what they could find. In the distance they sighted a herd of cattle.
The fliers tried to separate a calf from the herd, but this stampeded the whole herd out of the valley and left the lost party as hungry as before. After dark Lieutenant McCarn and Corporal Railing succeeded in driving a steer into a blind canyon. There they cut its throat with a bearing scraper and returned to the wrecked plane with a quarter of beef.
The beef was boiled in a receptacle made from the aluminum cowling of the plane. They lived on this beef forever, it seemed, and then one day sighted a couple of Mexicans and were guided to the Circle-Bar Ranch. The owner of the ranch was an American. He got them out.
The two North Island fliers murdered by Mexican Indians were Lieutenant Cecil B. Connelly and Lieutenant Frederick Waterhouse. They were flying border patrol, from North Island in August 1919 and in bad weather confused the Gulf of California for the coast of California. They thought the west shore of the Gulf was the coast line adjoining San Diego. They followed the west shore of the Gulf southward deeper into Mexico, thinking they were following the San Diego coast northward.
Out of gas, they finally landed on the shore of the Gulf. Part of their story they themselves carved with a jackknife on the fuselage of their plane;
Flew four hours, five minutes. Turned to our right and flew up coast for two hours and 35 minutes. Didn't see a sign of civilization all the way. Saw boat here. Circled it and landed but it didn't see us. We have no food. Are drinking water from radiator. Tried to catch fish, but after two days gave it up. We have been here five days and are pretty weak. We will mark for days here on left of this sign. We started walking up coast for a day and a half. Ran out of water and turned back. . . .With marks they indicated the days, all told, as seventeen.
What really happened, according to facts found later, was that the men in the boat did see the plane. They were Indians off Tiburon Island, the last hold-out of the once- famous tribe of Sens. The Indians sighted the fliers, all right, and after a while came ashore and joined them. One of the fliers was in bad shape and unable to walk. They had been living on clams and crabs.
The Indian fishermen (not in a boat exactly, but a blue canoe) carried the fliers south in the canoe to the Bahia de los Angeles and landed them there, later returning and killing them. The Indians robbed the bodies of money, took what clothing they wanted, then left.
The actual fate of the missing lieutenants was not known on North Island until October 1919. The word came after a seaman had reported to the American consul at Nogales that the bodies of two men had been found partly buried at the Bahia de los Angeles. The destroyer Aaron Ward was sent immediately south from San Diego, found the bodies, and returned with them to San Diego. The rest of the story was pieced together bit by bit aferwards, as such things are, by more and more evidence and by a confession from one of the Indians.
Today, after thirty years, one cannot help wondering how many lives North Island has given to aviation. The list, even if it could be checked in full, would be too de- pressing to record certainly too depressing to record on a monument. Nor do fliers, as we know, care to look at their business that way, especially those who experimented with North Island's first rickety crates. Other industries rail- roading, mining, chemistry have taken their first big tolls, too. Mining, especially, is still taking its toll.
Yet all this is a rough story of the island which is not technically an island, but which dominates San Diego's harbor and remains the central ring of the aerial circus continually under way.
San Diego has other flying fields, of course, including the huge Lindbergh Field adjoining the bay and built from harbor dredgings.
Naturally we recall the time when he was having his "Spirit of St Louis" built here inside a former tuna cannery reconverted into a plane factory. And naturally we remember how naive he seemed and that he actually wanted letters of introduction to carry to Paris, and that he wanted to know ahead of time the cheapest way of reaching Paris from the landing field outside the city and if an interurban was running to Paris from the field, and that he wanted to know if, by selling his plane over there, he would have enough money to see a little of Europe and pay his fare back home, too. He was afraid the plane would not sell for much over there because of the depreciation of the flying-hours. Yes, we remember all these conversations because we were around the plane factory and took part in them.
But it so happens that some of us do not share in this national habit of picking out one symbolical hero at the cost of the memory of all other nervy men in the same business, men who not only are forgotten now but a good many of whom are dead from their own experiments. Be- cause of North Island's thirty years, San Diego has seen too many great and courageous and hard-working fliers for the city to be sold completely on one personality as the outstanding deity of them all. And so all of North Island remains San Diego's symbolical personality for aviation. And it will have to be like that. For too many seasons now, too many springs, summers and winters, has the city watched the experimenting planes go up and come down- sometimes altogether too fast. The island's crash siren sounds. The ambulance and fire truck speed from the garage, and the families of the officers' quarters over there are meanwhile left wondering: "Who?"
And maybe someday, centuries from now, historians on this same harbor, in looking back, will change the question from "Who?" to "Why?"