The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1987, Volume 33, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Reviews

Raymond Starr, Book Reviews Editor

California Wings. A History of Aviation in the Golden State

By William A. Schoneberger. Woodland Hills: Windsor Publications Incorporated, 1984. Bibliography. Index. Illustrations. 189 pages. $24.95.

Reviewed by Gary F. Kurutz, Director of Special Collections, California State Library and student of California’s pioneer aviation history.

California has enjoyed a colorful and rich aviation history dating back to the days of 1849 when Rufus Porter developed a scheme to take anxious argonauts to the gold fields from New York in three days via a cigar shaped aerial locomotive. According to author William A. Schoneberger, the Golden State has contributed more to aviation history than perhaps any other region of the world because of its favorable climate, enterprising people, and openness to new ideas. Many aviation firsts took place in California such as the first airship flight (1869), first glider (1883), and first international aviation meet (1910) to name just a few. As well, the state has been blessed with more than its share of aerial heroes including John Joseph Montgomery, Glenn Martin, Glenn Curtiss, Donald Douglas, Lawrence Bell, Jack Northrop, Charles Lindbergh, Cal Rodgers, Wiley Post, Amelia Earhart, Pancho Barnes, Jackie Cochran and Chuck Yeager. All were linked in one way or the other with California.

This rich heritage that blends genuine heroes with high technology, booming business, transportation, sports and Hollywood has, not surprisingly, inspired a plethora of books, articles, dissertations, films and exhibits. Despite this, California Wings ranks as the first to summarize this incredible and complicated story into one volume. It is an ambitious task. The author readily admits that his volume cannot possibly squeeze into it every story but it does contain enough to please those interested in business and technology and those who enjoy social history and good human interest stories. Schoneberger correctly points out that a definitive history (especially if illustrations are included) would require a multi-volume series a la Time-Life Books. Thus, not everyone’s favorite pilot or airplane can be included or treated in depth.

Organizationally, Schoneberger divides his text into topics rather than following a strict chronological format. He offers particularly good coverage of the beginnings of the industry in California; the role of the key movers and shakers including Martin, Northrop, Bell, and Lockheed; the dominance of California in aeronautical manufacturing and its strong military-industrial complex. Schoneberger superbly documents the amazing interrelationship of personalities who forged this important industry. For example, Glenn Martin hired Donald Douglas, Lawrence Bell and William E. Boeing. What pleases this reviewer is that Schoneberger folds in stories about long defunct airlines, museums devoted to the lore of flight, schools and universities with strong programs in aeronautics, military bases, and how Hollywood glamorized and immortalized California pilots, stewardesses and even airports.

San Diego receives much attention. Schoneberger covers Montgomery’s historic glider flight at Otay Mesa in 1883; the hydroplane experiments of Glenn Curtiss at North Island; the contributions of Major Reuben Fleet, T. Claude Ryan, Fred Rohr in industrializing the region; the making of the Spirit of St. Louis; the role of the military, and a history of Lindbergh Field. Schoneberger also includes a fine narrative history of Pacific Southwest Airlines telling of its days as the “Poor Sailors’ Airlines” when its DC-3’s flew from San Diego to Oakland for only $15.60 up to the present era of merger mania. Even though space was tight, it was disappointing Schoneberger did not mention the giant airship that Charles Toliver constructed in 1910 at Golden Hill or the horrifying PSA collision over San Diego.

Sponsored by the California Chamber of Commerce, this pictorial industry history follows the usual Windsor Publications formula and format. In addition to the narrative it incorporates scores of choice illustrations and the familiar concluding section of “Partners In Industry” containing histories of those businesses that helped sponsor this attractive volume. Considering this, one cannot be too critical of the author for not noting such figures as Lyman Gilmore of Nevada City (who supposedly invented and flew an airplane before the Wright Brothers) and the previously mentioned Rufus Porter. The well-captioned illustrations obtained from aeronautical companies, museums and libraries, add immeasurably to the volume. However, not one photo came from San Diego Historical Society’s vast picture collection. Schoneberger provides a bibliography of secondary sources but does not cite useful articles published in historical journals. All-in-all, California Wings succeeds admirably in presenting for the first time a general overview of California’s incredible aerial past from the early pioneers and dreamers up to the sophisticated chief executive officers of the 1980’s.