San Diego: the Birthplace of Naval Aviation Part One Harry starts San Diego Aero Club

San Diego Air & Space Museum



San Diego: the Birthplace of Naval Aviation Part One

Special Presentation Commemorating the Centennial of Naval Aviation, focusing exclusively on San Diego’s contributions.

On November 14, 1910 Aviation pioneer and inventor Glenn Curtiss sent a letter to Secretary of the Navy, George von Lengerke Meyer, offering to train a naval officer to fly, free of charge. By the 23rd of December, orders had been prepared and issued to thirty year old submarine officer, Theodore (Spuds) Ellyson to report to the newly formed Curtiss Aviation School on North Island. On January 17, 2011, Ellyson began his training marking the beginning of naval aviation. Based on Ellyson’s monthly reports to the Navy, a decision was soon made that aviation could play a future role in America’s maritime services. Then, on May 8, 1911, Captain Washington Irving Chambers, USN, signed a requisition for the Navy’s first airplane, the Curtiss A-1 Triad.

While the Navy established some specialized test facilities in Norfolk and Anacostia, the development of Naval Aviation as a practical tool remained focused in San Diego. The fundamental changes in fleet structure from “Big Guns” to “Flat Tops”, the emergence of the aircraft carrier as the pre-imminent sea going weapon, happened mostly during the period between 1920 and 1940 in San Diego. So dedicated was the North Island Naval Air Station to that development that at one time during the thirties every aircraft carrier in the US Navy was home-ported there.

Naval aviation has come a long way from the A-1 Triad to the F-18 Hornet and San Diego has been the scene for the entire journey. As such, San Diego is proud to be known as the birthplace of naval aviation.

Glenn Curtiss

Early Years (1911-1918)
Glenn Curtiss was the first to impact North Island during the early years of naval aviation. He originally became interested in San Diego while participating in the 1910 Air Meet in Los Angeles. Curtiss had been conducting his aviation experiments and flight instruction at Hammondsport, New York, but the winters there made it impossible to fly year-round. Word of North Island’s ideal climate and isolated location thus attracted Curtiss.

Aerial View, 1914

This very early aerial view of North Island was taken circa 1914. The Spanish Bight separating the island from Coronado is very evident. In addition to the climate, this sheltered body of water was one of the lures for Curtiss as it provided an ideal location for testing his experimental hydro-planes.
In early 1911, Harry Harkness, a wealthy New York businessman, formed the Aero Club of San Diego and sponsored an aviation venture with Curtiss. Together they signed a three-year lease agreement, at no cost, with the Coronado Beach Company for the use of North Island.

Harry Harkness


Harry Harkness purchased three French built Antoinette monoplanes to jump start the new San Diego Aero club. This unique photo was taken by Waldo Waterman just after the arrival of Glenn Curtiss on the island and shows two of Harkness’ planes along with several early Curtiss pushers.


When the Curtiss Aviation Camp began operations, the only substantial building available for him was an old hay barn which he used as a hangar and workshop. Most of the other “buildings” used by the mechanics and students were “tents”. In this photo Glenn Curtiss sits in the pilot’s seat of one of his planes in front of that barn.


Curtiss, hoping to interest the War Department in the possibilities aviation presented, offered free instruction in his first class for Army and Navy officers. The Army sent three candidates and the Navy sent one. Seen here are from the left, Lt. Theodore Ellyson; navy, Capt. Paul Beck, army; Glenn Curtiss; Lt. G. E. Kelly, army; and Lt. John C. Walker, army.

1st Naval Aviator, License courtesy of Library of Congress

Theodore Gordon Ellyson became Naval Aviator #1. Not only was he the first naval officer to undergo flight training, he was also the first Naval officer to make a night flight. He made the first successful launching of an airplane by catapult, assisted in preparing for the test of the first successful hydroaeroplane flight, tested the Navy’s first flying boat -the C-1, and was the first naval officer to be enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Eugene Ely

On November 14, 1910 in a Curtiss landplane, Eugene Ely (member of the Curtiss Exhibition Team) was the first to takeoff from a ship. On January 18, 1911 Ely made the world’s first landing on a ship, the battleship USS Pennsylvania and on that same day, he made the second takeoff from a ship.

First Seaplane Flight

On January 26, 1911, Glenn Curtiss made the first seaplane flight at North Island in his “hydroaeroplane.” After this historic flight, Curtiss intensified his efforts to convince the Navy to purchase his design.


Curtiss was determined to prove that seaplanes could operate effectively with the fleet. On February 17, 1911, Curtiss demonstrated his Model D-III from San Diego Bay and landed alongside the USS Pennsylvania. He was lifted aboard by a standard boat crane and placed on deck. This demonstration, along with Ely’s, 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.

First Navy Plane

On May 8, 1911, the Navy purchased its first aircraft, the Curtiss A-1 Triad

Camp Trouble

On January 15, 1912, Ellyson set up the first aviation squadron on the northeast side of North Island consisting of tents for personnel and three aircraft (two Curtiss aircraft and one of the Wright Brothers’ design). Within four months, all aircraft had been wrecked, earning the camp the nickname, “Camp Trouble”. The squadron operated alongside the Curtiss school until May 2, 1912, when the detachment was transferred to Annapolis, Maryland. The Navy would not return again until 1917. In the meantime the Army stepped in.

The Navy Returns

When the Navy returned to North Island, a decision was made by the Army and Navy that operations on the island needed to be separated. A compromise was reached that allowed the Navy to take over the northeast corner of the island while the Army relocated to the southeast end. All landplane flying operations took place on the western half of the island. Almost immediately, the Navy began to plan and build permanent buildings, while the Army continued to operate out of temporary wooden structures.

Aerial View, 1918

This composite aerial photograph of the north end of the island was taken on December 5, 1918. Construction of the new Navy building has begun, with the new lighter-than-air building visible in the center.


The earliest navy buildings on the island were of similar construction to the simple wood structures already in use by the army. Made in some cases with wood salvaged from dismantled army buildings, these facilities were intended for use only until permanent buildings were made ready. This June 1918 view shows a new enlisted barracks nearing completion.


During the First World War, airships played a vital role as spotters and patrol craft. After the war, the Navy continued to show great interest in lighter-than-air technology and North Island was looked upon as an optional site for dirigible activities. In this February 3, 1919 photograph, the construction of a dirigible hanger over 250 feet long is near completion.


Once completed, this hanger could accommodate all but the largest airships then in service and was the largest building on North Island.

Curtiss N-9

The Curtiss N-9 was one of the Navy’s most important early training aircraft. Over 560 Curtiss N-9 trainers were built, mostly under license by the Burgess Company. This World War I type, while very similar to the famous JN Jenny, was designed from the outset as a seaplane trainer for the Navy. Seen floating peacefully on San Diego Bay with a battleship at anchor in the background is Burgess-built N-9 assigned to the base reserve unit.

Golden Age (1919-1941)

Lieutenant Earl W. Spencer

Naval aviation activity in San Diego accelerated rapidly after WWI as squadrons of Battle Fleet aircraft concentrated their training on North Island. On September 25, 1917 Lt. Earl Spencer, U.S. Navy, was ordered to report to San Diego in order to establish a permanent naval air station for training purposes. On November 8, 1917, Lieutenant Spencer became the commanding officer of the naval air station on North Island. Spencer remained in command until December 1919.

Building the Navy Base

This is an artistic view of the plan for the final configuration of NAS San Diego dating from August 1919. While most of the permanent buildings shown were finished and the configuration would remain unchanged, only one of the three planned lighter-than-air hangars would be built.


The Navy’s first phase of construction at North Island included the tower of the administration building and two seaplane hangars on the water’s edge of Spanish Bight. This photograph shows the newly completed administration building taken c. 1925. Although there is a new control tower today, this distinctive building remains in use.

Aerial of North Island

Taken c. 1925, this image of North Island has been marked to show the borders between the Army and Navy areas of operation. Over the next five years, the flying fields would be developed further.

USS Shenandoah at NI

North Island was the scene of many of the Navy’s experiments with lighter-than-air. On October 10, 1924, the navy’s first rigid airship, the giant USS Shenandoah, paid a visit to San Diego after its transcontinental flight from Lakehurst, New Jersey.

USS Langley

Advancements in aircraft and tactics highlighted the 1920s and the carrier became an integral part of fleet operations. In 1919, the US Congress appropriated funds to convert the collier, Jupiter to the first US carrier, USS Langley. By the end of the decade, two carriers were added to the fleet, the USS Lexington and USS Saratoga (both converted from battle cruiser hulls).

The USS Langley, CV-1, was commissioned on March 20, 1922 and became America’s first carrier. A new era for naval aviation began with the arrival of the Langley in San Diego on November 29, 1924.

The Langley is seen here on Navy Day 1929 at her dock at NAS North Island. Among the planes visible on her deck are a UO-1 and a Martin T4M-1 from the torpedo squadron VT-1B. The latter perhaps visiting from the USS Lexington, as the Langley did not carry a torpedo squadron at the time.

First Takeoff from the Langley

A Vought VE-7 was the first plane to take off from the USS Langley on October 17, 1921. Seen in this image is a group of proud Navy mechanics smiling for the camera behind a Vought VE-7 in the early 1920s at NAS San Diego.

Admiral Joseph Mason Reeves

Admiral Joseph Mason Reeves was instrumental in the development of carrier aviation. At the age of 53, Reeves qualified as a naval aviator observer and became the first officer wearing wings to be promoted to flag rank. In October 1925, Reeves assumed command of the Aircraft Squadron, Battle Fleet assigned to Langley. At the time, the carrier was classified as an experimental ship and was the only aircraft carrier in the Navy. Under his command, he introduced concepts of efficiency that transformed carrier tactics and doctrine.

The Three Seahawks

The Navy’s first aerial demonstration team was formed in 1927, the true forefathers of today’s famous Blue Angels. Commander D.W. Tomlinson formed the Three Seahawks from North Island with the support of Admiral Reeves. This panorama photograph was taken in Los Angeles in September 1928, just prior to the National Air Races. NAS San Diego was the primary home for the West Coast naval aviation in the interwar years. Under the direction of Admiral Reeves, the base was aggressively involved in every available opportunity to get public attention and advance naval aviation in the public view. The Langley anchored off Manhattan Beach near the race site, and naval officials watched the flying from her deck. Standing in the center of the pilots is Rear Admiral Reeves. Also present is Commander D.W. Tomlinson, whose personal Curtiss Jenny appears on the left.

First Rotary-Wing Aircraft

Lt. Alfred M. Pride made the Navy’s first rotary-wing landings and takeoffs with the XOP-1 while aboard the USS Langley underway in September 1931. After a short testing phase in the 1930s, Pitcairn autogiros were ruled out for Navy service.

USS Ranger

The USS Ranger and USS Langley, share the pier at NAS San Diego in 1937. The Ranger was the fourth aircraft carrier to see service and the first carrier to be built from the keel up as a carrier. Launched in 1934, she was home ported in San Diego until 1939. The USS Langley, having outlived her usefulness as an aircraft carrier, was modified into a seaplane tender and later sunk by the Japanese in the Indian Ocean, February 1942.


Six Consolidated P2Y-1 seaplanes of Patrol Squadron 10, under the command of Lt. Commander K. McGinnis, are seen over Point Loma after leaving their North Island base for San Francisco in early January 1934. On January 10, they flew nonstop from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii – 2,399 miles in 24 hours 56 minutes, faster than any previous passage and a record for a formation of C-class flying boats.

Consolidated PBY Catalina

With the development of the Catalina, the Navy flew many long-distance formation flights. Competition for their share of the War Department’s budget meant getting the attention of the American public. This photograph shows VP-11F preparing for such a flight from NAS San Diego to Fleet Air Base Coco Solo in the Panama Canal Zone in December 1938.


Seen here, NAS San Diego’s busy seaplane ramp is dominated by various models of early PBY Catalina flying boats in 1938. With the preservation of neutrality a major goal at the time, the navy had more PBY patrol planes in service than any other type. Visible in the photograph are aircraft from at least three squadrons.

Aerial view, 1939

By 1939, North Island was beginning to take on a different shape. Constant dredging of the bottom had added over 50 acres of land to the north and west sides. New seaplane ramps and hangers were built on the northern shoreline to accommodate the growing fleet of PBY patrol planes.

U.S. Navy Radio and Sound Laboratory (NRSL)

NRSL was established in 1940 to improve communications on ships operating at sea and to investigate the potential benefits of two emerging technologies: radar and sonar. Trained fighter interceptor pilots at North Island used the first operational radar set. NRSL later became the Navy Electronics Laboratory (NEL).

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