El Cajon Historical Society

Airplanes Over El Cajon

By G. Carroll Rice
Early Fliers: In 1909, while the Wright brothers were trying to sell the idea of powered heavier-than-air flight to the army and navy, Donald Gordon, of Bostonia, put a motorcycle engine on a modified glider and made short flights from his father’s ranch.

St. Kieran’s Church, off Greenfield Drive, now occupies the hill where the Gordon family lived, and it’s easy to imagine a twenty-one-year old Donald running down the slope to be borne aloft by one of his homemade gliders in 1907. It’s probable, also, that he was inspired by reports of the glider flights made by John H. Montgomery on Otay Mesa in 1883, the year he was born in Connecticut. Donald was not alone in researching gliders; Popular Science, Popular Mechanics and similar magazines carried plans for gliders and reported on the progress of experiments in flight as early as 1903.

In addition to his 1909 aircraft, Donald Gordon built at least three other powered ‘flying machines’ but quit flying by 1914 due to deafness which affected his sense of balance, essential in flying early aircraft. Subsequently, he moved to Valley Center where he built a primitive runway, and resumed flying in the 1920’s. He was recognized by the Air and Space Museum in 1964 as "a pioneer inventor, builder and flier of aircraft" and died in 1968 at a ranch he owned on Palomar Mountain.

World War I: When Glenn Curtiss landed at North Island in 1910 to establish the first flight instruction facilities for the Army and Navy, he initiated the story of aviation in the San Diego area; a history that spilled over on nearby communities including El Cajon. Aircraft developed rapidly from the crude flying machines of the Wrights into the fairly sophisticated training and fighting biplanes of the World War I era. Fliers soon found that air currents over the valley were usually stable and suitable for training exercises; and by 1919, airplanes such as the Airco DeHaviland DN4 became a familiar sight in the skies over El Cajon.
The late Dr. Laurence Bliss told me how during World War I a Navy aviator apparently had engine trouble during a training mission and landed his plane in a vacant field west of the present School District complex. The patriotic ladies of El Cajon gave him a warm welcome. While waiting for a truck to take the airplane back to North Island, the pilot was not only regaled with coffee and cake, he was loaded with cakes, cookies and jams to take back to his fellow aviators. The reception made such a favorable impression that naval aircraft suddenly developed a tendency to fail over the valley, and each emergency landing was met by the same type of hospitality and culinary abundance. It was probably inevitable that after some months that an airplane gliding to a ‘forced’ landing crashed with disastrous consequences. Not the least of the penalties was an order by the Naval commandant that there would be no more suspicious emergencies over El Cajon; and to the disappointment of the housewives and the intrepid aviators, aircraft reliability suddenly and remarkably improved.

1920’s: Aviation, with its record-breaking speeds, transoceanic flights, races and feats of endurance stirred the imaginations of Americans throughout the 1920’s. New and more powerful airplanes were rapidly developed and absorbed by the naval and military flying services. Surplus World War I airplanes, such as the popular Curtiss JN4 trainer, were scrapped, distributed to high schools like Grossmont for shop training, and some were sold at reduced prices to barnstorming pilots and private citizens.

Many of the truly successful 1920’s airplanes, including the Boeing F3B and F4B fighters and torpedo planes, were flown over El Cajon well into the 1930’s. Martin T4M torpedo bombers were operating off carriers by then and certainly swept over the valley with the three Douglas ‘Cloudsters’, whose 1926 around-the-world flight began at North Island.   

In-flight fueling test flights carried out between 1923 and 1929 definitely passed over El Cajon and involved airplanes staying aloft for up to 150 hours. The transfer system consisted of nothing more than hoses and hand valves that controlled the flow of gasoline from one airplane tank to another.

Civilian aviation, too, progressed by leaps in popularity, and Charles Lindbergh’s test flights of the Spirit of St. Louis often carried him over the El Cajon Valley. In the late 1920’s El Cajon’s Leonard Harris began building gliders that were launched down Chase Avenue, pulled by the cars of his friends at the Citrus Association Packing House. Leonard was apparently a born pilot who survived at least one upside down glider flight and a host of emergency landings after he acquired an old biplane.  In the years following, the neighbors around the Harris home on Dehesa Road had their morning wake-up call from the airplane engine as it warmed up for a daily flight to Leonard’s job at North Island. Its very existence, of course, excited admiration and awe in the heart of every young man in the valley.

1929 saw the filming of Columbia  Pictures’s landmark ‘all-talking’ picture Flight. Directed by Frank Capra, the company was headquartered at the Arthur Embleton property on Chase Avenue. Starring Jack Holt, Lila Lee and Ralph Graves, the love-triangle storyline of this pioneer film was created around the 1920’s Sandinista conflict in Nicaragua. Rural El Cajon and La Mesa mountains, hills and valleys were apparently considered a fair match for the landscape of the Central American Republic.  The film, released in 1930, was considered a singular artistic and financial success. Clips from the film are available for viewing on the Internet.

1930’s: Commercial aviation, begun in the 1920’s, gradually moved into its own in the 1930’s. Twelve-to-fourteen-passenger Ford and Fokker tri-motors over El Cajon gradually gave way to the sleeker, more powerful Douglas DC-2s, -3s and similar airplanes. Regular service crossed the valley to Phoenix and points east, even at night, with planes following lighted beacons such as that on San Miguel Mountain.

The conspicuous blue and yellow biplanes, flown by both Navy and Army fliers throughout the 1930’s, continued to be a common sight over El Cajon. As children we often ran out into our yards to wave to the pilots passing low overhead or tried to communicate with them with bailing-wire-and tin-can “radios.” Incidentally, no radios were installed in the airplanes and it was not unusual to hear the pilots cut back their engines and shout back and forth. Even in the airplanes, communications were through a ‘gosport’, a hose-and-funnel speaking tube running from cockpit to cockpit.

On October 21, 1930 a Curtiss OC-2 Falcon caught fire over El Cajon while returning from a photographic mission. The pilot, Marine Corps Reserve Lt. Joseph Adams told his passenger Lt. R.C. Neale to jump and then left the flaming plane himself. Apparently Lt. Neale’s parachute became tangled with the aircraft as he jumped and he was carried to his death on the Nelson Ranch. The pilot’s legs were burned by the cockpit fire, but he landed safely near the burning wreckage.

Variations of Consolidated’s twin-engined PBY “Catalina” patrol-bomber flying boats occasionally appeared over El Cajon in the late 1930’s, and even today, well over 70 years later, some are still flying in fire fighting service. Originally planned for air-sea rescue, transport, antisubmarine warfare, reconnaissance and bombing missions, it is one of the most versatile airplanes ever designed for a multiplicity of tasks.  Basically a sea plane, inland flights were less frequent than those of the other planes of the time.    

1940’s: The newer four-engine PBY2Y “Coronado” designs began to take the place of the PBY in the 1940’s, but their presence was overshadowed by the constant and growing presence of the Consolidated B-24 “Liberators.”

First flown in late 1939, the B-24 heavy bombers began to roll off the assembly lines in 1940 in San Diego and reached full production in 1941. El Cajon’s skies roared with their four-engined power day and night for the next four years, as they were tested before entering the growing arsenal of the United States and its allies. Variants of the B-24 were produced for the Navy as well as the Army Air Corps; and many were destined for the British and Canadian Air Forces. An enduring airplane, the last military B24 was retired from the Indian Air Force in 1968.

More contenders for the air came from the United School of Aeronautics, headquartered at a field near the corner of Greenfield Drive and Mollison Ave. Offering rudder-and-stick flight training to potential Air Corps officers, their bright yellow Piper Cubs were familiar sights over El Cajon. With Army parachutes manufactured nearby, the school contracted to test them, using 160-pound dummies for the dangerous first-time drops. There were those who complained about the presence of the flying school, of course; noise and frightened chicken flocks being the main grievances. The construction of Gillespie Field in 1942 and the hourly flights of transport aircraft dropping Marine parachute troops on the field apparently drove the complainants to other locations or occupations.

Entry into World War II brought more airplanes into the sky and a corps of Civilian Defense volunteers, who observed all aircraft and reported their positions to trackers in San Diego. Before the building of the observation tower and the installation of the air raid/blackout siren, the Boy Scout Hut on Lexington Street was the center of operations. Adult volunteers and Boy Scouts manned the station day and night, watching for any enemy airplanes that might sneak through.

February 27, 1942 was a special day in my personal recollection of airplanes over El Cajon. Expelled from class for talking, my fellow offenders and I were picking up papers and trash from the school grounds, and incidentally watching the low-winged monoplane trainers, probably Ryan PTs, practice formation flying. A sudden noise to the west turned our eyes to a collision between the propeller of one plane and the empennage of another. The tail-damaged plane dove directly toward the ground; two stick figures were thrown clear, parachutes opened, the ground shook and dust rose at its impact. A single figure jumped from the second aircraft and his parachute opened. That airplane, flying uncontrolled over El Cajon, made an Immelman turn and crashed in a second cloud of dust. Amazingly, neither airplane caused any significant damage; the first buried itself near the stock pens of the meat packing plant at Main and Marshall, and the second fell into a vacant lot near Magnolia and Park Avenues about 25 feet from a house.  It was reported that the airmen were unhurt and were quaffing beer at Bill’s Place, next to Hardin’s Pharmacy on Main Street, when the emergency and retrieval trucks arrived.

Although the army had designated several squadrons of Lockheed P-38 fighters for the defense of the west coast, they were seldom seen over El Cajon, at least in my recollection. However, a memorable crash in 1943 involved a P-38 fighter that swooped low over the east side of the Valley with both engines at full throttle and drove directly into a hillside above Washington Street. The impact, exploding gasoline and ammunition killed the pilot and a detached propeller beheaded a calf that was grazing nearby. Being wartime, the newspapers were scanty in their coverage of the accident which it was believed to have been caused by jammed controls.

When the United States entered World War II, there was nothing in the air that could match the climbing and turning rates of the highly maneuverable Japanese Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighter. In 1942, a Japanese pilot returning from a raid on an American position in the Aleutian Islands died while attempting an emergency landing on Akutan Island. His barely damaged plane was spotted by a U.S. Navy patrol and sent to North Island for evaluation. It was quickly repaired, given American paint and ‘star’ markings, and subjected to flight tests around the San Diego area. I remember hearing the snarling engines and seeing the outlines of the Zero and an early Chance-Vaught F4U “Corsair”  fighter circling above the then-new Gillespie Field in mock dogfights, testing combat characteristics and areas of vulnerability. The capture of that Zero is considered one of the most significant events of World War II. It led directly to the development of tactics that assured American air superiority in the Pacific Theatre.

Not only did the El Cajon area provide housing for aircraft and other defense workers, it contributed of its wealth as well. Special programs, horse shows, bond sales and direct gifts to the Navy and War Departments raised more than enough money to buy a B-24 bomber. On May 21, 1943, The Spirit of El Cajon rolled off the production line to be commissioned and sent into service. Nothing more is known of this aircraft, but it would have been fitting if it had been manned by fliers from El Cajon, of which there were many.

 The El Cajon Valley contributed more than its share of fliers and flight personnel to the Marines, Navy, Army Air Corps and even the WASP (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots) throughout World War II and after. Surely, those earlier fliers, pioneers and military aviators, and their exciting airplanes, inspired that next generation to take flight in service to their country. Today, when we see the antique biplanes and WWII warbirds at fly-ins and air shows, we should remember how they fueled our imaginations and inspired the dreams, visions and service that established the United States as a major air power in war and peace.

Relying on memory I wrote that a P38 aircraft crashed in El Cajon in 1943; I was mistaken. In August 2012, Richard Scheid, a researcher at the San Diego Air and Space Museum determined that the crash took place in 1942 and wrote:
I have found several references to a P-38F crash in El Cajon on 11/18/42. Also I found no references to P-38 + El Cajon for the entire year of 1943. Assuming then that this is the one in question, here is the data that I have:
Date 421118 Nov 18, 1942
Aircraft Type P-38F
Serial Number 41-2384
Sqdn 33OS
Group 329FG
Home Base NAS San diego, CA
Pilot Sleadd, Philip R Jr
Country USA
US State CA
Location El Cajon, CA

Special thanks are due to The San Diego Historical Society, the archivists, restorers and docents of the San Diego Air and Space Museum, and Bill Allen of the Allen Airways Flying Museum at Gillespie Field for their help in locating data and verifying facts during the writing of this article.

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