Gateways to the Sky

In Uncategorized on August 29, 2013 by hillermuseum

San Carlos Airport circa 1966

San Carlos Airport circa 1966

The Airports of San Mateo County

The birth of the modern airplane could not have occurred without the simultaneous birth of the modern airfield. Wilbur Wright, searching for a location with favorable weather for flying the gliders that he and his brother envisioned, used both US Weather Bureau data and recommendations from aviation pioneer Octave Chanute to settle on Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, as a flying field. Its open beaches, rolling dunes and solitude were ideally suited to those first tentative steps into the air, but by 1904 the Wrights shifted their ongoing experiments to Huffman Prairie, a spot near to their Dayton workshop despite the disadvantage of poorer flying conditions– a catapult was usually needed to ensure a safe takeoff.

Aviation came to the Bay Area not long after the Wrights unveiled vastly improved versions of their flying machine to the world in 1908. That year, Wilbur launched a series of public flights in Europe using a race track at Le Mans, France. The track combined wide fields with public viewing areas and made a fine venue for demonstration flights. The same criteria held sway when the Bay Area hosted its first public flight demonstrations some two years later. In January 1910, thousands of spectators flocked to the Tanforan Race Track in San Bruno for the state’s first Air Meet. Tanforan’s facilities, combined with easy road and rail access from San Francisco and the Peninsula, made it a compelling location. The following year the Air Meet returned to Tanforan, and the adjoining Selfridge Field– named to honor US Army Lt. Thomas Selfridge, killed in a test flight of a Wright airplane in 1908– served as the launching field for Eugene Ely’s history flight to the cruiser Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay.

For a short period of time airplanes were operated from open fields in nearly any location, but technology advanced rapidly during and after the First World War and airplanes required longer takeoff runs to reach flying speed. In 1926 San Francisco City Engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy reached the conclusion that an appropriate airport could not be built within the city limits, and instead recommended purchase of a 200-acre site and adjoining baylands owned by Ogden Mills. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors ultimately approved this site, and the airfield– originally named Mills Field, partly in the hope that the Ogden Mills estate would ultimately donate the desired parcel– was dedicated on May 7th, 1927. Within its first year of operation the future San Francisco International Airport celebrated the arrival of Charles Lindbergh, on a publicity tour with his Spirit of St. Louis airplane of transatlantic crossing fame.

Despite an auspicious early send-off, Mills Field quickly fell into disrepute. Even along the newly-renovated Bayshore Highway it was an interminable 22-minute drive from downtown San Francisco, and foggy weather frequently interfered with flight operations. Boeing Air Transport, the predecessor of today’s United Airlines, abandoned Mills Field for the better weather and facilities found at Oakland Airport. And in what could have been a final indignity, Lindbergh himself was mired in mud at Mills Field while piloting a 1929 demonstration flight in a large airliner carrying over 30 passengers.

While commercial operations fled San Francisco and the Peninsula for the sunnier climes of the East Bay, smaller fields for so-called general aviation sprung up across its length. San Carlos was a leader in this regard, with the original San Carlos Flying Field established by 1917. Operating at a site about 1/2 mile northeast of the current airport location, the field’s airstrip roughly followed the modern course of Twin Dolphin Drive. Originally constructed under the direction of J. Pauling Edwards, the field became known as Cooley Field when acquired by Charles Cooley. Hemmed in by sloughs and surrounded by dikes, Cooley Field’s 1,200′ dirt strip proved adequate in fair weather for early biplanes, but sadly wanting as more sophisticated machines became available.

Despite its modest size, San Carlos boasted two separate airports during this period. The field that actually held the name San Carlos Airport was located east of the Bayshore Highway and just west of the Southern Pacific Railroad station at San Carlos. Opened in November 1941, this airfield was used for military flight training but fell into relative disuse shortly after the end of World War II. It remained active through 1950, by which time operations were consolidated at a new airfield built at the location of the current airport.

Today San Carlos Airport hosts more than 150,000 aircraft operations each year. No commercial airline service is available at the airport, as its half-mile long runway is too short for use by most airline aircraft. Instead, San Carlos Airport supports a wide range of personal, business, and emergency services operations ranging from flight instruction to aero-medical evacuations. It is also considered a “reliever” airport, as many transient aircraft that land at San Carlos carry passengers bound for San Francisco, reducing congestion at the larger field just eight nautical miles up the Peninsula.

Meanwhile, back at San Francisco, matters finally began to improve shortly after the Lindbergh debacle of 1929. The Board of Supervisors officially changed the airport’s name to San Francisco Municipal (later International) Airport in 1931, and the following year the first radio aids were installed at the field. A new, mud-free terminal opened in 1937– a replica of which exists today inside the SFO Airport Museum, found in the modern airport’s International Terminal. SFO is now the county’s seventh-busiest commercial airport, serving some 20 million passengers each year. To this day, however, travelers still chafe at the commute to downtown San Francisco and find that fog still disrupts flight operations on a regular basis, just as at the field’s inception over 85 years ago.


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