After the invention of the airplane in the first decade of the last century, airfields began to spring
up everywhere. Although most were eventually called airports, airfields or landing fields is a
more accurate term for many of the early ones, as they started out as open land. Early airplanes
landed slowly enough that they did not require runways.
After the end of World War I, Army airplanes were sold off for pennies on the dollar, making
them available to the general public. During the Roaring Twenties, pilots earned a living doing
stunts and giving rides to a fascinated public. Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 solo flight from New
York to Paris in the “Spirit of Saint Louis” was a great boon to aviation.
In the early 1920s, the first airport in our county was operated by the California Coast Artillery at
Camp McQuaid, Capitola. It was bounded by Park Avenue, Monterey Avenue and today’s
Highway One. It was acquired by the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce and leased to Russell &
Ester Rice as the Santa Cruz-Capitola Airport.
In Watsonville, there were at least four landing fields in the rural area before Watsonville’s first
airport opened in 1931 near the junction of Highway One and Salinas Road in Monterey County.
About the same time, airports were constructed in Bonny Doon and the San Lorenzo Valley.
On April 15 th 1929, the Rio Del Mar firm of Monroe, Lyon and Miller made a proposal before
the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce, to donate land in Rio Del Mar for a county airport, and
that Maddux Airlines would provide mail and passenger service to that airport if it met all of the
qualifications for landing and leaving. The same proposal was presented to the Watsonville
Aviation fever was in the air. On August 25 th , a once-in-a-lifetime event occurred. Perry Pond,
who lived in Rio Del Mar and flew out of the Capitola Airport, flew with his wife to San
Francisco with the sole purpose of seeing the Graf Zeppelin on its way to Los Angeles. They
followed the huge airship from the Farallones to Oakland and then to Santa Cruz. The Graf
Zeppelin was the biggest airship in the world, measuring 776 feet long, more than two football
fields. It was chartered by William Randolph Hearst for an around the world flight. Local people
raced to Davenport to watch the zeppelin cruise by at 50 miles per hour.
By September of 1930 work had begun on an airport in Rio Del Mar. The plan for a county-wide
airport did not materialize so Mr. M. R. Davis and two other pilots leased 80 acres from
Peninsula Properties, (Monroe, Lyon and Miller), and spent considerable money to open the
project to commercial airplanes. They planned to have an air taxi service between the bay area
and Rio Del Mar. The airport ran parallel with the ocean cliffs at the intersection of Cliff and
Bay View Drives.
By November of the following year there were four planes and four hangars on site. The largest
plane was a dual control “Bird” OXX-6. There was also a “Scout” Le Rhone, a “Jenny” OXX-5,
and the smallest was a tiny “Heath Parasol” equipped with a converted four-cylinder motorcycle
engine. A small hiccup occurred at the end of the year when a farmer who leased an adjoining
property plowed up part of the airfield by mistake. It was repaired and placed back in service.
An Aviation Dance was held at the Hotel Palomar on October 1, 1932, as a benefit for the Rio
Del Mar Airport. The airport was now two years old and had five hangars housing seven
airplanes. By the middle of 1933 there were seven hangars. The managers were Sylvan Thrash
and M. R. Davis. The airport proved to be popular during weekends when pilots would fly their
families in for a stay at the country club. Watching or participating in stunt flying also proved
popular with the guests.
Not everything was fun and games at the airport. In July of 1933, two unskilled pilots from
Monterey purchased one of the planes at the Rio Del Mar Airport. When they tried to fly it to
Monterey, they rose to an altitude of about 30 feet, but as they turned toward the bay, the landing
gear and wing clipped the brush at the edge of the cliff and the plane spun around and crashed.
The plane was demolished but the men were only slightly injured.
Just before Halloween 1933, all seven hangers were robbed of oil, fuel and any equipment that
could be easily disposed of.
Also, in May of 1934, Orville Holt was taking a plane to show a prospective buyer. As he took
off and headed toward Watsonville, part of the engine broke off and dropped through the
fuselage. Holt headed toward the bay and glided to safety on the beach below.
In May of 1936, a man and woman from Oakland took off and struck the brush and trees at the
west end of the runway. The plane turned over twice and crashed into a ravine halfway down the
cliff. Miraculously, no one was badly hurt, and the plane was mostly intact.
By November 1933, the airport had three graded runways, seven hangars and eight active pilots.
By spring of 1934 the road to the airport was improved and the parking area was enlarged along
with runway improvements. At the same time, the Santa Cruz-Capitola Airport began major
improvements. Mr. Thrash moved his hangar from Rio Del Mar to Capitola.
In 1936 the fate of the airport was sealed. Lots on the palisades overlooking the beach near the
airport were sold and several homes were under construction. In 1937, the airport was
subdivided, and the lots were quickly sold.
But that’s not all. Douglass Corrigan flew out of Rio Del Mar and managed the airport at some
point. Historian Carolyn Swift’s mother and great-great-grandmother, Carrie Trueworthy, flew
with Corrigan over Watsonville. Corrigan had also worked on building Lindbergh’s “Spirit of
Saint Louis” at Ryan Aviation.
In 1933, Corrigan bought a used airplane and spent the next five years customizing it for a trans-
Atlantic flight. He requested permission for the flight many times but was denied, as his plane
was not considered fit for the flight. He was however, given permission for a transcontinental
flight from Long Beach, California, to New York City. After arrival, he filed a flight plan to
return to Long Beach, but after taking off through the clouds, he continued east and landed in
Ireland. When he was questioned, he said, “I got mixed up in the clouds, and I must have flown
the wrong way.” Wrong-way” Corrigan became an instant celebrity.
It’s a stretch, but Corrigan owned the plane while he was at the Rio Del Mar Airport. So, the first
stage of his journey was from Rio Del Mar to Southern California, and although there was some
delay, from there to New York, and then Ireland, connecting the dots would make Rio Del Mar
Airport an international airport one year after it closed.
Many thanks to Carolyn Swift for her assistance with this and other history stories. If you like
reading these stories, please become a member of the Aptos History Museum.