Airplanes, airships, mechanics are part of the history of the CDCR
CDCR institutions have witnessed moments in aviation history while helping to advance the field through professional education programs. Inside CDCR takes a closer look at the connections between California state prisons and aviation history.
Did you know? November is National Aviation History Month. Learn about aviation innovators and pioneers on the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum website.
Police shoot at a plane flying over the prison
“Shots were fired by guards when a plane, ignoring Warden James A. Johnston’s warnings, continued to fly over San Quentin Prison,” according to the Healdsburg Tribune, April 30, 1923. (The plane) suddenly nosed forward and landed nose down. in the soft earth of Baltimore Park, halfway between Corte Madera and Larkspur.
After a plane passed over San Quentin five times, corrections officers opened fire when it dived inside the prison walls. Some news reports from the time claim that prison staff shot down the plane.
“(The plane) was shot down (when) the pilot ignored a warning to stay clear of the jail and flew over the walls,” the Santa Cruz Evening News reported. “The bullets shattered the plane’s propeller, and it nosedived spectacularly, landing in the swamp. The occupants escaped injury (but) the machine was wrecked.
Other reports say the plane overheated, forced to land in the nearby field. One of its wheels sank into the swamp, causing the plane’s propeller to break.
Filmmaker, pilot ignored warnings
When prison staff arrived at the plane, the pilot was checking the damage while a cameraman gathered his equipment. Rather than a contraband drop or escape attempt, the pilot had been hired by a filmmaker.
Film photographer John Stout claimed he had all the necessary permits to film and fly over the prison. He was getting footage for “The Woman with Four Faces”, about a prisoner escaping using a rope ladder dropped from an airship.
Planes buzzing at San Quentin had become so troublesome that Warden James A. Johnston told his staff to fire if planes got too close to the prison. At one point, Johnston even threatened to mount a cannon on the wall.
The pilot said he made five dives over the prison and then made two “side slides” directly over the yard, all in the direction of Stout.
Only a few shots were taken on the flying machine, according to Johnston. The pilot said he couldn’t hear the gunshots or warnings due to the noise from the plane’s engine.
1911 historic flight over San Quentin
Weldon Cooke, a 27-year-old pioneer aviator, made aviation history by flew over San Quentin State Prison and Mount Tamalpais, reaching elevations of 4,000 to 4,500 feet.
“(Cooke’s) flight took him directly over San Quentin Jail, where there are men who have never seen (an airplane),” the San Francisco Call reported.
During his flight, he dropped two letters, making him the first to deliver mail by airdrop in California.
The robbery might not have happened if it hadn’t been for the prison population and the warden. Early in 1911, the incarcerated residents wrote a letter requesting a flyover.
“There are hundreds of men confined here who have never seen (an airplane) and some of us probably never will, except as a courtesy of the airman who will come this way,” says the letter signed The Prisoners of San Quentin. “With the Warden’s permission, (we ask) if it can be arranged to have the machine rotated above the prison, so that (we) have an opportunity to see it.”
The following year, Cooke became the second person in California to hold a pilot’s license.
In 1914, while flying in Colorado, he was killed when his plane crashed.
US Navy Akron airship flies over prison
The Akron, a military airship, was built in 1931 and became the US Navy’s flagship for its lighter-than-air program. From New Jersey, the Akron embarked on a cross-country journey to Moffett Field in Sunnyvale near San Francisco. Across the country, people flocked to see the Akron along its flight path.
The “experimental aircraft carrier in the sky” carried out a series of tests, with cross-country flight being one of the most important. As an aircraft carrier, the Akron successfully received small combat aircraft in the air, stored them in a hangar, and then returned them to the air. Catch and release tests were based on a trapeze type system.
Akron’s Goodwill Mission
From Moffett Field, the Akron flew a goodwill mission around the state, passing over cities large and small, before taking part in naval maneuvers with the West Coast Fleet.
On May 17, 1932, San Rafael mourned the loss of Captain Dollar, “whose life and name have been associated with maritime development for more than half a century,” according to media reports. The town’s mayor, William Nock, asked the navy to fly over the town to pay their respects to Dollar. They responded by sending the Akron.
“The huge silver craft sank from the mists of fog a few hundred feet above the rooftops and dumped flowers in a special tribute,” the Petaluma Argus Courier reported. “The (Akron) circled above the church where (Dollar) lay in state under the guard of a military detachment, (sprinkling) with flowers.”
Dignitaries from across the state attended the funeral, including Governor Rolph who led 60 honorary pallbearers.
Akron visible from the prison yard
After laying flowers, the Akron departed, passing over San Quentin State Prison at 5:20 p.m., visible to staff and those in the yard. The airship’s next mission was to anchor to the mast of the USS Patoka.
After maneuvers and flights as far north as the Canadian border, the Akron needed repairs. In June 1932, the Akron left California and returned to New Jersey after five days in the Golden State.
Akron disaster kills 73
In 1933, the Akron was caught in a violent storm on the east coast, crashing into the sea. Survivors were picked up at sea by a passing merchant ship which saw the lights as the airship sank . A small airship, J-3, was sent to assist in the search, joined by additional warships. The J-3 also crashed in the storm, killing two people.
In total, the Akron accident claimed the lives of 73 people. There were only three survivors.
One of those killed in the crash was Rear Admiral William Moffett, spelling the end of the flying carrier program. The Navy continued to use airships and blimps for training and research until the 1960s.
Deuel Vocational Institution trained aircraft mechanics
Deactivated in 2021, Deuel Vocational Institution had a single vocational training focus: aircraft repair and maintenance. Tracy’s location was actually the second for DVI, which began as California’s professional establishment in Lancaster. Located at War Eagle Field, the institution has integrated available resources into a rehabilitation program.
Before becoming a state prison, the institution trained British pilots before the United States entered World War II. After the war, vacant military installations found other uses, such as becoming public institutions (see report on CMF).
Deuel replaced California in the name when transferred to Tracy. State Senator Charles Deuel was a proponent of establishing the institution in a permanent facility. He died before the work was completed.
Rather than removing the aviation-focused rehabilitation programs already established at DVI, they were moved to the new location.
DVI operated in Lancaster from 1946 until 1953, when it moved to the Tracy location. At its new location, DVI operated from 1953 to 2021.
By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR Editor
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