Californians and the Military
Gold in the Sun
or Ely, of the California National Guard, Revisited
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 Navy Department.

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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Updated 8 February 2016