The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1979, Volume 25, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Images from this article

Less than one decade after the immortal flight of the Wright Brothers at Kittyhawk in 1903, the concept of flying emerged from the experimental to the realm of the commonplace. By 1911, the skies were no longer the domain of the inventor and daredevil but became available to anyone with the courage and daring to fly. Everywhere, it seemed, men and women took to the air in fragile machines, formed aero clubs, staged aviation meets, and tantalized earthbound onlookers with their aerial gymnastics.

California, during that pioneering era, emerged as one of the most productive centers for flight enthusiasts. Amateur birdmen, up and down the coast, produced scores of flying machines, international aviation meets at Los Angeles and San Francisco enthralled audiences, and barnstorming professionals aroused local interest. Soon, the popular urge to fly led to the opening of dozens of flying schools and the rapid growth of a novel and spectacular sport.

In 1911, Glenn Hammond Curtiss, a dynamic individual from Hammondsport, New York, established California’s leading aviation school at North Island in San Diego Bay. Recognized as one of the world’s premier aviators, Curtiss brought impressive credentials to that remote island. A former motorcycle racer, he built his first airplane in 1908, captured the prestigious Gordon Bennett Cup race with his Golden Flyer in 1909, pioneered in the manufacture of airplanes for sale, and developed the first successful American seaplanes.

The Curtiss School of Aviation at North Island remained open for three short but fruitful years. During that brief period, Curtiss conducted remarkable experiments and produced equally remarkable students. Realizing the military potential of the airplane, the enterprising New Yorker established the first military aviation school in the United States. Graduates, flying his reliable biplanes, set world records and became some of the most illustrious flyers in the world. Others, less ambitious, came to North Island for the sheer enjoyment of learning a new sport. By the time the school closed in 1913, North Island would become known as one of the nation’s outstanding aviation fields.

Curtiss first learned of San Diego when he came to California in 1910 to participate in a Los Angeles flying exhibition. Through the urging of the San Diego Aero Club, the Spreckels-owned Coronado Beach Company offered the aviator use of North Island for a period of three years. Certainly, the presence of the celebrated flyer would boost the fortunes of San Diego’s future in aviation. Clearly impressed by the prospect of this rentfree facility, Curtiss wrote:

I visited the city in January, 1911, and after a thorough inspection of the grounds offered as an aviation field, decided to make that city the headquarters for the winter and carry on the experimental instruction work there.

North Island, lying in San Diego Bay, a mile across from the city, was turned over to me by its owners, the Spreckels Company. It is a flat, sandy island about four miles long and two miles wide with a number of good fields for land flights. The beaches on both ocean and bay sides are good, affording level stretches for starting or landing an airplane. Besides, the beaches were necessary to the water experiments I wished to make. North Island is uninhabited except by hundreds of jackrabbits, cottontails, snipe and quail. It joins Coronado Island by a narrow sandspit on the south side, which is often washed by the high tides. Otherwise the two islands are separated by a strip of shallow water a mile long and a couple of hundred yards wide called “Spanish Bight.”

North Island appeared to be an ideal place for his winter headquarters for additional reasons. Harsh winters at Hammondsport prevented yearround experiments with his seaplanes and delayed the training of aviators. Curtiss was delighted to discover that San Diego offered superb flying conditions especially during the winter months. A San Diego location, combined with the Hammondsport facilities, would permit the operation of two schools based on the seasons.

Furthermore, the isolation of the island proved to be an attractive feature as it would deter curious onlookers. Visitors could come to the island only by boat and it was relatively easy to discourage them. In the Curtiss Aviation Book, the aviator noted:

It was important to find a location where it would be possible to work along the lines I had mapped out-a place where I might be free from the pressing calls of business and the hampering influence of uncertain climatic conditions.

Above all, I wanted a place not easy of access to the curious crowds that gather wherever there is anything novel to be attempted; for a flying machine never loses its attraction to the curious. Mankind has been looking for it ever since the beginning of the world, and now that it is actually here he can’t get away from it, once it is in sight. A machine that has actually carried a man through the air takes on a sort of individuality all its own that acts as a magnet for the inquiring mind. Once people have really seen an aeroplane fly, they want to know what makes it fly and to come into personal contact with the machine and the man who operates it.

Isolation, however, had its price. The only structures on the barren island consisted of an old farm house and hay barn. Despite abundance of quail and cottontails, food had to be imported and students and staff had to commute by boat from San Diego and Coronado. Colonization began in January when Curtiss arrived with his wife Lena and several associates from Hammondsport. The hay barn was converted into a hangar and the San Diego Aero Club added two more. The latter were covered only with canvas and tarpaper which, according to the aviators, blew off with maddening regularity. For the seaplanes, Curtiss built a hangar on the beach of the Spanish Bight. Finally, a crew spent ten days clearing a half mile long landing field of weeds and sagebrush. Located on the south end of the island, the field gave the flyers easy access to the “smooth and shallow” waters of the small inlet.

Having completed these preparations, the school was now ready to receive its first students. Hugh Robinson, a graduate of the Hammondsport school and former stunt car driver, served as an assistant instructor. Demonstrating his business acumen, Curtiss invited the military to provide the first students. In this way, he hoped to prove the warmaking potential of his airplanes and sell them to the army and navy.

In response to Curtiss’ offer, the Secretary of the Navy despatched Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson to North Island “to receive instruction in the manipulation of the Curtiss biplane.” Prior to his arrival at San Diego, “Spuds” Ellyson spent three years in the “submarine boat” service. Excited by this opportunity, the young lieutenant remarked, “there is only one thing better than submarine work and that is aviation.” Ellyson had the distinction of enrolling as Curtiss’ first pupil at the new school, and as Navy Pilot Number One, began the navy’s air corps.

Three army officers, First Lieutenant Paul W. Beck, Signal Corps; Second Lieutenant G.E.M. Kelly, 30th Infantry and Second Lieutenant John C. Walker, Jr., 8th Infantry joined Ellyson to form the first military aviation school in the United States. Charles Witmer of Chicago and Robert St. Henry of San Francisco, two civilians, also enrolled. Later, a balloonist, Lincoln Beechey, joined the class of 1911.

Before class got underway, the San Diego Aero . Club sponsored a meet on January 26 and 27 at the Polo Grounds on Coronado Island. An enthusiastic promoter, Curtiss took this opportunity to impress San Diego with the speed and maneuverabiliy of his machines. Despite threatening weather, Curtiss flew his biplane from North Island, across the Spanish Bight, and landed gracefully in front of the grandstands. A small but appreciative crowd then watched his two associates, Hugh Robinson and Eugene B. Ely perform a series of aerial stunts. Ely, one of Curtiss’ first pilots, had achieved international recognition earlier that month when he became the first to take off and land on a battleship.

The following day, the three aviators thrilled a crowd of 10,000 with races, spiral dips, and other aerial gymnastics. According to one account, “Curtiss out-did Ely in the execution of air stunts by chasing a toy balloon, turning first one way and then another, then upward and then downward, with ease and quickness in order to catch the balloon.” Lt. Ellyson participated as well by making his maiden flight.

Following the aviation meet, instruction formally began. Curtiss brought to the school four biplanes. Three were the sixty horse power eight cylinder engine models similar to the Golden Flyer that Curtiss flew in 1909 when he won the Gordon Bennett Trophy at Rheims. The other was a small training plane designed for ground work. Curtiss and Robinson provided the tiny group with a thorough and cautious program. Before anyone took to the air, each was required to master the basics of aerodynamics and the mechanical workings of an airplane.

Thereafter, the instructors guided the students through a series of steps that would lead to a pilot’s license. As described in the Curtiss Aviation Book, the students first familiarized themselves with a small training plane affectionately called the “Lizzy.” Composed of bamboo, spruce rods, wire and cloth, the tiny four cylinder biplane was deliberately underpowered to prevent flight. Sound reasoning dictated this as a crash landing by a beginner could result not only in injury but also damaged equipment and delays to the entire program. Curtiss remarked, “The other pupils standing in a group at the end of the field are usually hoping and praying that you will not smash the machine before their turn comes and so cause delay until it is repaired.”

With the instructor shouting directions from the side, the pupils learned to guide the craft on a straight line and “get the feel for the machine.” Students referred to this tedious process as “grass cutting.” The teacher then changed propellers and adjusted the throttle and permitted the novices to take off on a series of short hops. When a student had gained the ability to make gentle landings, the power was further increased and he learned to make turns and circles.

Finally, the students graduated from the Lizzy to the more powerful exhibition biplanes. After weeks of practice, the tyro could then take the pilot’s license test. This examination required the flyer to take off and make five consecutive figure eight’s around two pylons set a thousand feet apart, and to make an accurate landing stopping the machine within fifty feet of a given mark.

Everyday life at the aviation camp was busy. A typical day began at 4:00 a.m. when the air was calm and conditions were right for flying. The afternoon gusts, Curtiss discovered, could bring disaster to his fragile machines. When not flying or scaring the local jackrabbits with grass cutting exercises, the students kept themselves occupied with changing propellers, engines, controls, and repair work. Curtiss related that there was a great rivalry between the army and navy students at North Island. He wrote:

Witmer and Ellyson used to get up by sunrise and go over to the island and take out the old machine we used for teaching, which was nicknamed “Lizzy.” They did this secretly because there was only one machine and they did not want the Army to smash it and so keep them down on the ground. After making their practice, they would go home and come back later, pretending that it was their first appearance.

Occasionally turning from the instructional process, Curtiss and his students found time to perform a variety of aeronautical experiments. From a scientific and military viewpoint, his experiments with the sea (hydro) planes represented his most important contribution during that winter. Ever since the flight of the June Bug in 1908, the pioneer aviator planned to develop a craft capable of taking off and landing in the water. During the winter season at San Diego, Curtiss realized that goal. With the assistance of a local machinist, he removed the wheels of an eight cylinder biplane and substituted two pontoons. On January 26, the craft rose from the water, glided over the bay, and gracefully landed. That event, witnessed by his cheering students, marked the first successful flight of an American seaplane.

Encouraged by this noteworthy triumph, Curtiss made further improvements that winter. With the machinist’s assistance, he developed an amphibious craft called the “Triad” and a biplane buoyed only by a single pontoon. In February, Curtiss won the enthusiastic support of the navy by landing a seaplane alongside the battleship U.S.S. Pennsylvania. As a result of that event, Curtiss promoted the seaplane as an instrument of war. The navy, convinced of its versatility, purchased two of the craft. Confident in its reliability, Curtiss also used the seaplanes as an instructional tool as taxiing on the water enabled the students to gain a sense of balance.

In April, the Winter Training School closed with a final exhibition meet. Hugh Robinson, again demonstrating the military potential of the airplane, gave a bomb dropping exhibition with a remarkable substitute for explosives, California oranges. Lt. Ellyson and Charles Witmer followed with a grass cutting exercise.

The small but eager class of 1911 went on to distinguish themselves in their new profession. The graduating officers formed the basis of an “air force” and gave demonstrations at military bases across the country. Lincoln Beechey, a natural daredevil, became known as the world’s greatest exhibition flyer and invented the “loop-the-loop.” St. Henry and Witmer gained jobs with the Curtiss Exhibition Company and the latter travelled abroad demonstrating hydroaeroplanes in such far away places as St. Petersburg, Russia.

Curtiss, himself, gave seaplane exhibitions in Salt Lake City and St. Louis before returning to Hammondsport. During the summer months, the inventor continued his experiments, conducted advanced classes and recruited new students. On one day, his students made a record forty flights. Always anxious to improve teaching techniques, Curtiss invented a system of dual controls whereby the instructor could teach while in the air. Previously, the instructor had to shout orders from the ground.

By this time, the Curtiss School of Aviation had achieved widespread recognition for excellence and requests for instruction were received from around the world. Capitalizing on this success, Curtiss embarked on an advertising campaign to ensure a large enrollment at the San Diego winter facilities. Competition was keen as aviation schools were established in nearly every major city. California, a center for the new mania, had schools in San Francisco, San Rafael, Oakland, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and Santa Ana. None, however, could boast of the experience of Curtiss, the reliability of his machines, and the success of his pupils.

To attract students, the Curtiss Aeroplane Company placed advertisements in such national magazines as Aero and Aeronautics and the Los Angeles monthly, Aviation. These advertisements generally praised the reliability of the Curtiss biplanes, equipment, thoroughness of instruction and the accomplishments of former students. Promoting the school as “the only safe and sane method,” Curtiss summarized the unique qualities of his course in comparison to his competitors:

The aviation training courses, as given by the majority of schools does not, in any way, disclose or explain the principles or give any attention to mechanical or technical aerodynamics. In some schools the instructors do not possess the knowledge and cannot, therefore, enlighten the pupils when important problems present themselves. We consider that a thorough knowledge of these subjects is essential to the success of any aviator, and that it is just as much a part of the course as the flying itself.

The instructors in the Curtiss School are all practical flying men, well grounded in all branches of the science, and especially trained to give personal instruction to each student. The equipment and methods are up-to-the-minute.

Frequently, Curtiss emphasized the attractiveness of San Diego and the physical advantages of North Island:

Our San Diego, Cal., Aviation Training Grounds, situated on North Island, San Diego Harbor, are the finest in America, if not in the world. North Island is leased by us exclusively for Aviation purposes, and comprises one thousand acres of flat, level sand, unobstructed by rock, tree or building, thus offering every advantage as a flying course. The island is entirely private, yet within a few minutes of San Diego, one of the most progressive and attractive cities on the Pacific Coast.

Tuition, in comparison to other schools, was expensive. Curtiss charged $600 for the hydroaeroplane course and $500 for the regular class. As an added incentive, however, the tuition was directly applicable to the purchase of an airplane. Several did take advantage of that offer. For preparation, the company provided a booklet entitled “Training.”

Apparently, the advertising succeeded as a remarkably diverse group of students enrolled for the 1911-1912 season. According to one aviation journal, Curtiss hoped to train more aviators than all the other schools combined. In contrast to the previous class, the military did not dominate. International in flavor, the class included Mohan Singh from India, Motohisa Kondo and Kono Takeishi from Japan, and Captain George Capistini of the Greek army. Proving that flying was not limited to one sex, the “Bird Girl” Julia Clark enrolled. As well, two married couples participated.

The large size of the class necessitated the establishment of another camp for the military. According to Aeronautics:

So great has been the increase in the number of pupils at the Curtiss Aviation School at North Island, San Diego, Cal., that a second camp has been established on the north end of the island, opposite the headquarters on the south end.

Significantly, the military designated this camp as its official training headquarters. Officials from the San Diego Aero Club proudly proclaimed that this would establish their city as the country’s leading aviation center. Dubbed “Camp Trouble” by the navy, the new camp consisted only of tent hangars and living quarters.

Class, according to the advertisements, began officially on December 1. Earlier, the Curtiss Aeroplane Company had sent out a large amount of equipment in the form of airplanes, parts, and machinery. A retired Marine lieutenant and former Curtiss pupil, J.W. McClaskey was the chief instructor. Known as a gruff taskmaster, McClaskey maintained a well disciplined camp. R.C. St. Henry, a graduate of the 1911 winter school, arrived as the special instructor for the hydroaeroplane course. Curtiss did not arrive until later and concentrated his efforts on the hydroaeroplane experiments rather than on teaching.

Attired in leather caps and goggles, fifteen students went out to the flat fields of North Island to learn the science of flying. Following the previous year’s curriculum, the students practiced grass cutting with the Lizzy. The 1912 class, however, enjoyed an added advantage as the Curtiss Company brought to the camp a score of machines including the new dual control biplanes. Unfortunately for the instructors, the situation was not so easy because of the foreign students. This factor required the teachers to give the lessons in sign language which, when given in the air, produced more than one nervous moment.

A few students displayed an unusual exuberance for flight. A middle-aged couple, Mr. and Mrs. W.B. Atwater, took a particular liking to the hydroaeroplane. Impressed by their enthusiasm, Curtiss wrote in “Waterflying for the Sportsman,”

The hydro appealed to Mr. Atwater and his wife as an ideal type of machine, and one was ordered for delivery in the east in May, but after a few rides in the school machine, both Mr. and Mrs. Atwater were sure they could not wait until spring, and had their machine delivered immediately in San Diego. The following day after the arrival of his machine in San Diego, Mr. Atwater was out flying alone, and the next day he took his wife out as a passenger. Since that time they have not missed a day and have taken trips up and around the bay together daily, and on several occasions, around North Island and out over the ocean.

Lillian Janeway Atwater was often the center of attention at the school. Enjoying the wildlife of the bay and the adventure of flying, she devised a new way to catch sea birds:

Mrs. Atwater has originated a new method of catching seabirds. Today she asked Lieut. J.W. McClaskey, instructor at the Curtiss School to take out the hydroaeroplane, with her as a passenger and attempt to catch a pelican or gull with a net. The instructor promptly agreed, and for almost half an hour the big hydroaeroplane with Lt. McClaskey and Mrs. Atwater chased pelicans and sea gulls up and down the bay. They discontinued the hunt only when a large pelican barely escaped becoming entangled in the propellers, which would have smashed it and possibly caused an accident.

Not to be outdone by his wife, Bill Atwater entered the January aviation meet at Los Angeles and set an American speed record of 73.08 miles per hour. Later, the couple took a balloon ride in the “America II” from Los Angeles to Pomona. Atwater further won the praises of Curtiss when he rushed to the rescue of a navy pilot who had overturned his Wright seaplane. Launching his plane from the beach, Atwater rushed to his rescue ahead of several motorboats. Embarrassed by the affair, the pilot refused Atwater’s assistance and waited for his colleagues to arrive. Apparently, the officer did not want to be rescued by a civilian.

After nearly eight months of instruction, catching sea gulls, and practicing flying, the winter training camp came to a close. On May 19, the Class of 1912 received their pilots’ licenses and became professional aviators. Mohan Singh, the “Flying Hindu” purchased a seaplane and returned to India. The Japanese and Captain Capistini, the Greek, returned to their respective countries to give instruction. Other, like the Atwaters, travelled to China and Japan to exhibit their new hydroaeroplanes. Still others joined the Curtiss Exhibition Company and toured the country delighting thousands with their Curtiss biplanes.

Despite the reliability of their flying planes, thoroughness of instruction, and the thrill of executing loop-the-loops, ocean waves, and spiral dips, flying was still a dangerous sport and profession. Cromwell Dixon, the world’s youngest licensed aviator and Curtiss student, met death from a fall of 100 feet in Seattle. Eugene B. Ely, who helped Curtiss open at San Diego, died in 1911 while performing aerial stunts. Julia Clark, the Bird Girl, died just one month after leaving the San Diego school. Finally, Lincoln Beechey, the greatest exhibition flyer of his day and graduate of the 1911 class, met his end by crashing into San Francisco Bay in 1915.

The San Diego School of Aviation continued for one more winter until Curtiss’ lease expired in 1913. The U.S. Government then took over the hangars and landing field and established Rockwell Field. During those three winter seasons, Curtiss and his associates brought San Diego to the forefront of aviation. The pioneer aviator’s ingenious experiments with seaplanes added a new dimension to aeronautics and proved the utility of the flying machine as an instrument of war. Most importantly, Curtiss shared with dozens of pupils that incredible sensation of flying and accomplished more than anyone to popularize aviation.


Gary Kurutz is Library Director for the California Historical Society. The photographs used to illustrate this article are reproduced from a collection of glass plate negatives recently acquired by the California Historical Society and photographs from the San Diego Historical Society and the Historical Collection of Title Insurance and Trust Company of San Diego.