SEAPLANES OF SAN DIEGO BAY By CDR Doug Siegfried, USN (Ret.)

Thanks to CDR Doug Siegfried (USN Ret.) for writing and sending eCoronado.com the below - this is great stuff!

It is difficult to believe, looking at San Diego Bay today with the Coronado Bridge and all the maritime traffic, that for 56 years large seaplanes majestically landed and took off in our bay.

The first American seaplane flight took place here in 1911, when Glenn Curtiss flew his hydro-aeroplane - a landplane fitted with a wide float - from a strip of shallow water between North Island and Coronado called Spanish Bight.

Twenty-two days later Curtiss taxied his hydro-aeroplane from North Island to the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania anchored in the bay. The fragile craft was hoisted aboard and then lowered back into the bay proving the airplane was adaptable for military use. The plane became the prototype for the Navy’s first aircraft, the Curtiss A-1.

When America entered World War I in the spring of 1917, the Navy began to establish an aviation training school on North Island. The north end of the island was selected for seaplane operations, which provided access to both the Spanish Bight and the bay.

By early 1918 the water was alive and the air buzzing with students and instructors flying Curtiss floatplanes and flying boats.

A seaplane was the first plane a Student Naval Aviator flew in flight training. That was the case until 1941. Seaplanes were the Navy’s primary aircraft until the early 1920s. By 1919 San Diego Bay was the principal base of operation for the Pacific Fleet.

During the late 1930s spectacular long distance flights were made by entire patrol squadrons from San Diego to Alaska and Hawaii that took as long as 24 hours nonstop. One of these mass seaplane flights involving 47 PBYs and was part of the 1938 Warner Brothers movie, Wings of the Navy, filmed here.

The Navy was not the only organization that flew seaplanes on the bay. The Consolidated Aircraft Corporation moved to San Diego in 1935 and began building its famous Catalina and larger Coronado flying boats.

Consolidated built 2,159 Catalinas and 200 Coronados in San Diego. Rohr Corporation did modification work on the Coronado so a seadrome was established in south bay during World War II for flight operations, and later another in central bay.

Seaplanes proved an asset both to the military and civilian aviation world from the 1920s through the 1940s because of their long range, endurance in the air and the ability to land on the water in remote areas.

The Pan American Airways clippers and their long flights to the orient, South America and Europe were the height of luxury and romance in the 1930s.

During WWII seaplanes proved their worth as an asset in air-sea rescue, search and patrol, gunfire spotting for surface ships and attacking enemy installation and shipping. Many a downed airman in the Pacific and Atlantic rejoiced at seeing a seaplane appear over the horizon to land and rescue them.

With the end of WWII the importance of seaplanes began to decline with the increased range of existing landplanes and the abundance of airports with long-paved runways all over the globe.

The Navy continued to use the seaplane in patrol squadrons flying from NAS North Island throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. The Coast Guard stopped using their seaplanes in 1964.

Coronadan Herb Franck joined the Navy in 1937. He joined his squadron at NAS San Diego in October 1938 as they were transitioning to the new PBY Catalina. As flight engineer he flew in the center pylon above the fuselage that supported the massive 104-foot wing, operating the (gas) mixture controls for both engines.

“It was very important,” he recalled, “especially on long flights, to lean out the mixture. We flew to Pearl Harbor from NAS San Diego in 1941 and it took 24 hours with no extra gas tanks to get there. We operated from the large ramp at North Island.

“San Diego Bay was very busy with Navy and commercial ships plus all the fishing boats. We would have to wait for the fishing boats to get out of the way to launch and recover our aircraft,” said Franck.
“Taking off in a heavy seaplane was difficult and it often took a mile to get into the air. On smooth days it was hard to get the plane up on the step and get unstuck from the water,” remembered Franck. “We often had to have our small assist boats go out and create ripples in the water to help us get airborne.

“We landed where there was space in the bay and then sailed (water taxied) back to the ramp so that the ground crew could attach the wheels to the aircraft and tow us tail first up onto land.”

“The PBY was a great airplane,” remembered Coronadan Robert Lenson, who got his wings in 1944 and flew seaplanes for 29 years.

Lenson catapulted off cruisers such as the USS Chester, Maimi and Atlanta in the Vought Kingfisher floatplane. This compact monoplane was one of the Navy’s primary observation planes at sea. There were 1,519 of them built.

“This was my first plane,” said Lenson. “I remember being catapulted from the deck of the ship. If the catapult officer liked you, he didn’t launch you on the down roll,” said Lenson with a wry smile.

Lenson described taking off in San Diego aboard flying boats. “Once the tower cleared us for take off, we would point the nose into the wind, power up the two engines and then take off. We had to stay below 300 feet until clear of Point Loma to clear the fixed wing traffic taking off from North Island,” he said.

Lenson said that salt water took an intense toll on the planes with corrosion on the hull and moving parts and a fresh water wash down after a flight was a necessity. His wife Raye remembered being inside a PBY riddled with bullet holes. “The crew kept a cache of pencils in various sizes that they used to plug the bullet holes,” she said.

On November 6, 1967 a VP-50 SP-5B Marlin took off from San Diego Bay in what was to be the last operational Navy seaplane flight, ending 56 years of continuous seaplane operations.

Many Coronado residents remember crossing the bay by ferryboat and seeing (and hearing) the massive seaplanes on the water, straining to achieve liftoff. Their engines roared, with a plume of water surrounding the seaplane as they raced down the bay before rising into the air. It was a sight none who experienced will ever forget.

Captions:

This early seaplane, the NC-6, is seen taxing near the North Island dogleg, in the shipping channel of San Diego Bay, circa 1920s. A sparsely populated Point Loma can be seen in the background. Photo courtesy of Doug Siegfried.


Coronadan Bob Lenson, a retired seaplane pilot who flew for 29 years in the U.S. Navy, is seen here holding a model of the PBY Marlin he flew in and out of San Diego Bay.


By the 1930s seaplanes were barely two decades old. That didn’t stop Consolidated from producing ambitious designs like this early PBY craft. Known as the “Guba,” this plane was marketed for both military and civilian use, and is seen here in front of the County Administration Building. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Air and Space Museum.


A Consolidated Aircraft Corporation PBY-5 circles San Diego Bay in October 1940. Consolidated’s factory was located adjacent to Lindbergh Field. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Air and Space Museum.


A Convair XP5Y-1 in mid-takeoff on San Diego Bay. Photo courtesy of Doug Siegfried.


Smaller seaplanes like the PBY series were given widespread use in all theaters of war during World War II. Larger aircraft, like this R3Y, were produced after 1943 for a wide range of uses by the U.S. Navy. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Air and Space Museum

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Tags: community, history, people

Comment by Councilwoman Barbara Denny on September 29, 2009 at 12:10pm
Thank you for your service, CDR Doug Siegfried. I greatly enjoyed your story and photos. You certainly had an outstanding career. As a student pilot, I aspire to fly a small seaplane one day. Yours, Barbara Denny, Coronado City Councilwoman

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