Interview with 'Woodie' Spears, Tuskegee Airman

Tuskegee Fighter Pilot, the late Lt. Leon ‘Woodie” Spears was born in Colorado in 1924. He earned his wings on June 24, 1944 with the class of 44F at Tuskegee, Alabama. He was an original "Red Tail" serving with the 301st Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group.
He mastered the P-40, P-39, P-47 and the P-51. He served his country in both WW2 and Korea. Mr. Spears flew 51 combat missions in the “P-51” with a '51' buzz number on the side at Ramitelli, Italy. He scored a number of ground victories as well as getting a shared air combat victory over a German HE-111 bomber. I met Mr. Spears through the Tuskegee Airmen organization in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 90’s. The President of the San Francisco Bay Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the late 
Ed. note:The Allies called these airmen "Red tails" or "Red tail Angels," because of the distinctive crimson paint applied on the vertical stabilizers of the unit's aircraft.
William “Bell” Jackson introduce me to Mr. Spears during one of the meetings when I was a member of the chapter. It was in early 1999 that I conducted a number of interviews over at his house, including this one. He did not live to far from me, so I would drive down to see “Woodie” to talk about his combat experience over the weekend with tape recorder and note pad in hand.
This interview is a edited question/answer piece that was published in Air Classic magazine in 1999. No known photo existed of Mr. Spears whole aircraft called “KITTEN” until this cropped Toni Frissell photograph was discovered. The illustration is the result of a in-depth interview with “Woodie” as he had described his aircraft to me. I also interviewed Charles McGee concerning this same aircraft that he also flew. Please note that when the 302nd Fighter Squadron was disbanded, all the aircraft went to the remaining squadrons. Kitten was picked up by Mr. Spears at a sub-depot station. The aircraft squadron markings were revised and a new “buzz” number was assigned.

Spears: I flew this P-51C around the end of 1944. I was assigned to the 301st Fighter Squadron from the 302nd Fighter Squadron, so I had to pick up my new plane from the sub-depot station in either North Africa or Southern Italy. When I saw the plane, I noticed it had the name “KITTEN” on the side of the nose. I believed this plane originally belonged to Charles McGee of the 302nd Fighter Squadron. I believe I know why he called it “KITTEN”, because the engines sure “purred” like one when I fired it up. I remember this plane well because I had a number “51” on the side of the plane, my plane was a P-51 with “51” on the side.

Q: Can you describe the loss of your P-51 named "Kitten"? 
Spears: I was hit by German 88 guns during a mission over Berlin at 32.000 feet. That's almost six miles straight up! There was no way I could get back to Italy and make it over the Alps, so I had to crash land "Kitten" in Poland. I would have to be at least 18.000 feet to cross the mountains. I knew by the way my engine was sounding that I would be no way near 18.000 feet to make it home. 
I turned 90 degrees west toward Poland and I landed near this river. The Germans were on one side of the river and the Russians were on the other side. Between the two of them they shot my plane to pieces. You see, when the P-51 Mustang is flying directly at you it looks like an Me-109 from certain angles. While I was flying down this river I could feel shells hitting the plane. I said to myself, well, I'm on this side of the river so the shells got to be coming from those Russians. Once they saw that I was an American they stopped firing at me. As I remember, I saw myself coming toward this runway. I said to myself that if I let the wheels down I could probable make a pretty good landing. I decided not to land because I did not want the enemy to use the plane. As I was in the process of putting the wheels up I hit the ground. I did not have enough power to work the hydraulics.
Surprisingly, it was Germans that came right away in a car. There were two officers and three enlisted men in Nazi helmets and they had their guns pointed right at me. I put my hands in the air and they motioned for me to come close. They could see that I had a .45 pistol. They made motions that they wanted that .45 on the ground, which I did. It seems to me that they were trying to be as nice as they could because they knew that the war was coming to an end for them, so they did not want to get too cruel. The Germans did know about the Geneva Convention which dealt with war crimes. They did not want to be involved in any war crimes. They sat me in the car and drove to their headquarters. I was interrogated by a German official who asked if could speak English. He asked me where did I come from. I told him. "I'm sorry, I can't tell you. I can tell you my name. rank and serial number." I said. "You know the Geneva Convention don't you. He said, "Yes", whenever he would ask me something. I would mention the Geneva Convention then he would say, "I'm sorry I ask," and that was it. They knew full well that any information they could get would be useless for them. I was only with them for three days.

The Russians were in Poland and they were advancing about 25 to 35 miles a day. At about the third day I heard all this ripping androaring, and the building was shaking and everything. All the glass was out of the windows, but I pulled a board off a window area and the first thing I saw was this huge Russian tank. There were 40 or 50 guys surrounding it going through the town blowing up buildings. This scared me because I thought that they would blow this building up that I was in. I was screaming and hollering to them and a guy that looked like a Russian officer looked up and saw me. When I saw him looking at me I had a A-2 flight jacket on with a large American flag on the back. I put my back to the window so he could see it and I could hear him yell. "American! American! " He came up and gave me a big bear hug!

Q: Please relate your first combat encounter with enemy aircraft.
Spears: I had an air combat encounter in "Kitten" when my flight of about five aircraft escorted a... I believe it was a British 
Mosquito reconnaissance plane over a target area. He led us while we kept him in sight. We escorted him to the Munich area to this German ball bearing factory. As soon as he started his photo run, we backed off a little so he could do his work. He had to fly straight and level. The Mosquito was a very fast plane.
When we came back from the target area he just out ran us. We could not keep up with him because of his speed. We heard him say on the radio "ta. ta. chaps!", and just keep on going past us. As we started after him we noticed a He-111 bomber turning in our
direction. Well, we turned into him. When he saw us turning, I could see little specks coming out the bottom of the bomber, which meant he was firing his hand-held machine guns. He did not hit us. I think he waited too long to fire because we were just right on top of him. By the time he made his turn we started to fire on him. We keep firing and I could see pieces coming off and then smoke and fire would come out and then the plane went in toward the ground sideways. Both me and James Mitchell destroyed this aircraft and shared the victory.
Q: Were you allowed to put ground victory markings on your plane?
Spears: No. I did get quite a few ground victories.
Q: What squadron were you in?
Spears: When I first got overseas I was with the 302nd Fighter Squadron, which was later disbanded. The guys with the 302nd Fighter Squadron went to the 99th Fighter Squadron, the 100th Fighter Squadron and the 301st Fighter Squadron. I went to the 301st Fighter Squadron, 332 Fighter Group.
Q: How come the 302nd Fighter Squadron was disbanded?
Spears: Well, a group with four squadrons would be a bit much, logistically and tactically. What they did was beef up the three 

   301st fighter Squadron patch

squadrons. Instead of having four lesser squadrons they had three larger squadrons.
Q: Did the markings of 302nd Fighter Squadron Mustangs stay the same when they were transferred to the other three squadrons?
Spears: The planes came with you, all the markings were the same from the previous squadron. My P-51 strangely enough had the number 51 on the side when I received it!
Q: Were their dorsal fins added to the P-51's vertical stabilizers?
Spears: That's was one of the things that was a big help because it was in front of the rudder. This device disturbed the air flow from the propeller. You see, the air flow from the propeller doesn't just go back. it goes around the airplane. The dorsal fin in front of the vertical fin broke the airflow up to the point that you always had good control of your airplane. My P-51 "Kitten" did have the dorsal fin.
Ed. note: From Ramitelli, Italy the 332nd Fighter Group escorted Fifteenth Air Force heavy strategic bombing raids into Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and Germany. Flying escort for heavy bombers, the 332nd earned an impressive combat record.

Q: What was your first combat experience in a P-51 Mustang?
Spears: We flew from Ramitelli to an area were they are having that war in Yugoslavia right now. It was a place around the Udine Valley. We were escorting bombers over Yugoslavia. Coming back from the target we were told that we could take out targets of opportunity, which means that we could go down and do a little strafing. I remember we went down into the Udine Valley and I saw a train going through the valley. All of us jumped on that train. We stopped it from moving. I made two or three passes. On one of the passes I made, I saw steam and smoke from the engine. It shot straight up into the air. I liked strafing because I liked to fly close to the ground.
Q: When did you arrive at Ramitelli Air Base?
Spears: Sometime in November of 1944. That's when I first saw the P-51 Mustangs.
Q: Were you assigned your own plane?
Spears: Yes! It was a C model. It was a hand-me-down from someone who had rotated back to the States. I think my plane was previously flown by Charles McGee.
He had his time in and rotated back to the States. As a replacement pilot I was given his plane. I remember very clearly that the Mustang had some nose art on it , which just said Kitten written on the side. I left the nose art on there, because I remember the first time I flew it and came down, my crew chief asked me what I thought about the plane's performance. I said it's justifiably named because the engine sure did purrrrr like a kitten !
Q: How would you describe the maintenance done on the Mustangs?
Spears: They were very well maintained. We had very fine crew chiefs!
Q: Did any representative from the North American P-51 factory come to Ramitelli to consult you guys on the P-51 Mustang?
Spears: No. The instructors were our own guys. We went through the technical manual and did a little ground school work. There was no class room type thing to it. It was mostly hands on. After it has been assumed that we had enough training to fly into combat, we were assigned missions. When a combat mission came along, you were just assigned to it. Three flights would take off daily to go into combat.
End of interview

A Personal History of RHV

By Jim Meide 

The first time I ever saw the Reid Hillview airport was around 1959. My father was stationed at Moffet Field at the time, in Squadron VF-124. The front line fighter they were using then was the Chance Vought F8U Crusader, the navy's first 1000 mph fighter.

Reids Hillview Airport circa 1958Reid's Hillview Airport, circa 1958

We were living in Mountain View during this time. My mother also worked at Stanford Hospital. She usually had to work on Sunday. On those days my dad would sometimes pack my sister and myself into the car and we would visit nearby airports. On one of these days we ended up at Reids Hillview. I can still recall as we drove into the airport seeing some skydivers sitting on the lawn with their parachute gear. We hung around a short time, checking out the field and just walking around talking to people. We only visited Reid's one time during this first stay in the Bay Area.

A quick aside; we once visited San Carlos airport on another of these Sunday outings. I can remember well there was an Arial Photography outfit operating at the airport. The plane they used for this work was a photo recon version of the P-38! Some of you may recall this airplane. It had a bulbous nose where the standard sleek nose with the machine guns used to be. The camera operator actually stayed in this cramped compartment during the flight.

An early fly-in at Reid's Hillview. The airport was renamed Reid-Hillview when the county took over.

Years later I got involved in backpacking in the Sierras, and for this activity needed topography maps. I would sometimes purchase these at the United States Geological Survey offices in Menlo Park. There they had a display of the history and activities of the USGS. I learned from these displays that the USGS was still photo mapping the Sierras well into the 1950's. It's likely that the P-38 I saw sitting at the San Carlos airport was used in this effort.

Being in the navy meant we moved around a lot. My dad transferred to the then new Lemoore Naval air station in 1961. After yet more moving around, my mother, sister and I eventually resettled in the Bay Area in 1964. I was a junior in high school at the time. For the last part of the school year I attended Cupertino High. During one physical Education class I overheard some fellow students talking about flying. I wandered over and soon joined the discussion. It was there that I met Vern Miller. Many of you knew him, and possibly his parents. They were a "flying family", that all started with his father flying as a bomber pilot in WW-2. I can't recall exactly now, but at the time Vern may have been working towards his private license, or may have already earned it. Vern was a senior at this time.


Vern and I quickly became friends. Shortly after that he asked if I would like to take a flight with him, something I couldn't say yes to fast enough. When the big day arrived, we met at Reid Hill view airport. It was there that his dad based his Aeronca Champ.

Vern knew his way around the airport very well. Eventually through that friendship I was able to work as a “line boy” for Spartan Aviation, the only flight school operating out of a "real building" at the time. Harold "Mac" Mcmurdo was the owner, and his fleet consisted mainly of Cessna aircraft. He was a Brantly Helicopter dealer, and had one on the line which he used for training. Mary Lail was his secretary, and her husband was a San Jose Police officer.

Mac's school was located near where the Civil Air Patrol offices are now. Those offices were at one time the County Airport Operations office, and were used until the main terminal was built in 1970.

Reid-Hillview just before the new main terminal was built (1970)

Mac's mechanic at the time was Norm Derks. Norm had his own maintenance shop located in one of the hangars in the main line of hangars shown here. Norm later went on to get his flight engineer rating for B-727’s (when there was such a thing, remember that 3rd seat in the cockpit?) and flew for non-scheduled airlines for some years.

   About this time I started taking flying lessons at Spartan Aero. My instructor was Mr. Bob Haney. Bob had flown P-38's during WW-2. I managed to get to solo that summer before starting back to high school for my final year. I finished up my Private ticket by the next summer.

Amelia Reid worked out of a trailer parked a short distance away from Spartan Aero.

Nearby Pinkerton Aviation also was located in a trailer. "Pinkies" Champs were painted yellow, and some referred to them as the "Yellow Jaundice Airforce".   Pinkerton had flown F4U Corsairs in the Pacific theater during WW-2, and had a number of photos of those days were on display in his flight school office. 

Amelia and Robin Reid

Vern and I took what was for me the longest flight in a small plane, a weekend trip to Clearlake where we camped under the wing of Pinkies L-2.

Pinkerton 1956 Champion 7EC

Sometime later Vern decided to rent one of these tired old birds and go out to see how high we could get it. I recall at least a one hour climb near Reid Hillview, and we eventually decided that 13,000 feet was about all we were going to get that day. Great fun! Both Amelia and Pinkerton's "flight school on wheels" were located near the current hangar and tie down rows "H" and "I".   These schools were near the entrance to the field, which at that time was on Cunningham Avenue. This road was eventually bisected due to additional land purchased to enlarge the airfield. The remaining stubs of this road remain on each side of the field, the east portion becoming the main entrance to RHV.

At this time both Story and Tully roads had stop signs where they intersected with highway 101!  Both got over crossings soon after I began flying at Reid's, around 1966 or so.

Aeiral view of Reid Hillview taken in 1975. Note San Jose Speedway, upper left.

Amelia's fleet consisted of a smattering of Champs, Taylorcraft, and maybe a Piper or two as well. Two or three of the aircraft she had on the line in those years are still in use today in the "new" Aerodynamic flight school as I write this. By the way, I remember seeing Robin Reid playing alone in the parking lot while his mom was busy flying with students.

Another memory of Amelia's school;  the Piper Apache twin Robin received some of his first multi-engine training with his mom instructing is still tied down there. It was sold some years ago, but the new owner elected to keep it tied down in one of the several spots the school rents out for tie downs. As far as I can see the only “improvements” to this aircraft has been a new pair of cowlings. The plane still has the original paint job it did when Robin was getting his first twin engine training.

Later Amelia hired a flight instructor named Marge Frenzel . Marge was a funny, outspoken, and independent woman with a lot of aviation knowledge. I found out some years later she was one of a number of women that had been trained to fly in WW-2. I learned about this when Marge was given an award at the Aero Club Annual Crystal Eagle Award Dinner held at the Hiller Air Museum in San Carlos. I hadn't seen Marge since the late 1970's. She had been brought there by friends and was in a wheelchair. In spite of the advancing years she still had a sparkle in her eye, and remembered me from the days I worked with Vern when he was Amelia's mechanic before striking out on his own.

Marge Frenzel, among other women military pilots during the war, were known as 'Women Airforce Service Pilots' and were trained to ferry aircraft around the country (and to Europe, ed.) as needed during the war, freeing up more men to fly in actual combat. After the war air racing resumed, and one of the racing categories was for T-6's. Marge later wanted to try her hand racing T-6 Texans during the Cleveland racing years, but was turned down because of her gender. Marge died about 3 years ago.

 It was around this same time I first saw Vaughn Lamb arrive at the field in the Ford Truck he had for so many years, with a fuselage and other parts in tow arriving at the field. It was a few years later before I met and became friends with Vaughn. Vaugn always had an aircraft restoration project going, and got a number of them back in the air.

Vaughn kept busy as an engineer for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and had a side business recovering aircraft wrecks from all over the world. Some of the stories he could tell sitting around the fire at San Antonio Ranch club house (behind Mt. Hamilton) were very interesting to hear. He used to host get-togethers at the ranch for members of Wings of History and some personal friends. Some of you will recall it was a wonderful place to stay overnight. That area was so isolated it was almost like being in another state.

One of the more unusual aircraft Vaughn Lamb restored was an Interstate Cadet. He kept this aircraft for many years    

I also knew Jeannie, a single lady that was good friends of the Reid family. Vaughn and Jeannie eventually met and were married for many years. Prior to their marriage Jeannie had her own Taylorcraft in which she eventually crashed. She spent time recuperating from this at the Reid family home.

As the county continued improving the field, the day eventually came when they insisted all the "Trailer" Schools either move into permanent facilities or leave. Pinkerton elected to move his entire operation to a field somewhere in Southern Cal. Amelia had the large hangar/office facility built . But, in true Reid fashion, she kept the original trailer and parked it along the

Robin Reid standing by the "trailer school"

inside wall of the new hangar, where it remained for a number of years before finally disappearing. Amelia had a number of "Hangar Parties" in the early 70's, where I met a number of wonderful  people I still know today. This included Frank and Gail Womack. I recall Frank was the newsletter editor for the "Antiquers" (now WOH) at the time we met. A short time before I had been the newsletter editor for EAA Chapt.62, so Frank and I were able to enjoy a laugh or two over the challengers of newsletter editing.

Around this time the school I had worked for, Spartan Aero, shut down, and I lost contact with Mac. He ended up flying out of a school at Oakland airport. I last saw Mac briefly at the Watsonville Fly-In in the mid 80's.

After high school I had started A&P training at College Of San Mateo, and didn't spend much time at RHV during those years. This was from around 1965 through 1967

I also remember the coffee shop with the blue windows. It was typical of the type of eatery seen at so many airports then. One thing that I'll always remember was the awful tasting coffee from that place. It turns out that the water supply was from a

The old Reid Hillview wash rack 

private well, which had lots of sulfur which had a lot to do with the coffee flavor. Bobby Reid's wife worked there as one of the waitresses.
There was a working crop-dusting operation based at Reid's in those days. The name of this operation was Clevenger. The planes were all converted Stinson L-5's with a lower wing from a Luscomb. This wing also held the hardware for applying either the dust or liquid being used. The "designers" of this hard working aircraft had mated a 220HP continental radial engine to the airframe, and were getting an extra 20hp out of the engines.  

Stinson/Clevenger L-5 conversion N69083

A number of the "old heads" around the field could recall when Art Scholl, a student at San Jose State at the time and living in a trailer on the field, had worked out an aerobatic routine using an 85hp Globe Swift!  As many of you know, that was a rather under powered craft with an 85hp engine. Art would have to climb to altitude and dive towards the "zone" in order to have adequate speed to complete his maneuver. Knowing how he got started explained how he ended up becoming a successful airshow pilot.


85 h.p.  Globe Swift

After finishing up A&P training at CSM, I finally started  flying seriously in order to obtain my Commercial Pilots license. I passed the flight test for this by the time I was 21 years old. I then started working on the flight instructor ticket. This took another 6 months or so. I then did some flight instructing for time building during my days at San Jose State.
Around 1981 I began helping Bobby Reid announce at the Watsonville Fly-In. I had gotten my first experience doing this at the old Hollister Fly-In that was put on by EAA 62. Looking out over the crowds at Watsonville compared to the Hollister show made me feel like I had made the "big time" chatting at flying events. If I recall, John Winter was the person that helped pave the way for this. I had a number of very satisfying years on that stand, which always gave the opportunity to meet aviation personalities and stay in touch with long lost friends. 

The 'rocket ranch'

After discovering my red/green color deficiency was going to keep me away from any major airline, I then had to rethink my career direction.  I did end up in the aerospace industry but in an unexpected way. I ended up working about 12 years for United Technologies Inc at the "rocket ranch" located about 5 miles south of Reid Hillview. I started there working in the solid fuel test range, and ended my career in Quality Assurance, visiting supplier's facilities all over the country.

In May of 1999 I started work with Santa Clara County at the Palo Alto airport. After a year at Palo Alto I transferred to Reid Hillview, where I'm currently employed. (Editor note: Jim retired from Reid Hillview January 2011)
I transferred from Palo Alto airport to Reid Hillview in 2000. At this time the Reid Hillview pilots Association would hold their monthly meetings in the main terminal. One of my shifts was the evening from noon untill 10 pm,  so I often had a chance to talk with some of the members during and after their evening meetings. On one particular night after the meeting I ended up chatting with Amelia for a short time. She discussed some of her recent medical problems and how she was concerned that it might affect her flight 
medical. After she left the terminal she headed back to her school to shut things down. At this point she had a stroke that knocked her to the floor, still alive. She was found the next morning. She survived for another couple months before passing away. 
  It was discovered shortly after the 9/11/2001 attacks that the captain of United flight 93 name was Jason Dahl. This was the aircraft that eventually crashed in the field in Pennsylvania. It turned out that Mr. Dahl had been a student and gotten his pilots license at Amelia's some years before. Amelia was a bit of a pack rat, and had kept most or all of the shirttails with notes signifying the student’s solo flight. Someone dug around and actually found the United pilot’s shirttail in the batch that Amelia had kept for all those years. 
One day soon after the shirt tail was located, it was arranged to line up several of Amelia’s trainers on the transient line in front of the terminal in memory of Jason and the heroic passengers of United flight 93. 

Vern Miller's Passing

On June17, 2006, I was announcing for the Fathers Day Fly-In at Columbia Califorina.  Saturday evening after the proceedings I learned that earlier that day Vern Miller had died in a crash along with his wife and two others in his Cessna 180 in Oregon at Paradise Lodge, located along the Rougue river in Oregon. Vern had been flying up there for a number of years for rest and relaxation. He was one of the hardest working people I've ever known. He was considered an expert on the Cessna 180, and had customers from adjacent states fly here to have him maintain their 180's and 185's. 

The week after this accident was one of the most emotionally difficult times of my life. It seems that once the word got

Vern Miller

around that Vern and I were long-time friends, everyone wanted to ask me about the accident. I knew everyone that asked had no idea of what I was going through, but it was really hard to keep telling the story over and over. One of Vern's customers that had retired and moved clear across the country called and also wanted to know the details. 

I was asked to MC the memorial to be held in Amelia's hangar. While I was honored to do this, difficult as it was, there turned out to be a downside. I had certain details to take care of in order to get a handle on what was to take place. As I moved through the crowd, I kept bumping into people that I hadn't seen in years. It was not easy to excuse myself in order to prepare for the ceremony. 

It was especially difficult to talk with Vern’s parents, whom I hadn’t seen in many years. They had retired and moved to Arizona years ago, and rather than just enjoying visiting with them after all this time, there we were at their sons memorial in Amelia Reid’s hangar. 

On the Monday or Tuesday after the crash a TV film crew showed up at Reid Hillview and wanted to interview me. During the conversation they discovered I had a number of pictures of Vern at my home. I was able to break away from work for a time to retrieve these for the film crew that followed me home. One set of photos was in an album from my first wedding in 1976. Vern had been my best man at that wedding, and a few years later I was the best man at his second marriage. One of the pictures in the album was of myself, Vern, my bride, and the bridesmaid. As I looked at the picture and discussed it with the film crew, I was struck with the thought that I was the only person still alive in that photo. All the other had passed. I had to walk away and take a few moments to regain my composure after that realization hit home. 

 Robin Reid, The Last of the Reid family, Leaves for Oregon 

After Amelia's passing in 2000, son Robin assumed management of her flying school. Robin had a lot on his plate. His flying career, a growing family, along with running the flight school. After a time he decided to sell off the school portion of the business and retain rights to use the main hangar for a workshop for the restoration of his many antique aircraft and glider projects.  In this agreement, the school was allowed to keep the original name, so well known in this area.
Eventually this became more than he wanted to deal with, and he purchased a home on an airport in Oregon. He also purchased a functioning FBO in order to get the hangar space for his projects.
robinfrndssmalRobin Reid (center) and friends
Robin Reid, ever present around RHV and the local aviation scene, departed for Oregon in early 2010.  He had 3 full hangars of stuff on the field that needed to be moved. I kept an eye on this drawn out process with a certain nostalgia and sadness.  He continued to offer his considerable flying expertise to homebuilders , warbird and restored antique aircraft pilots for such duties as first flights, ferrying antique aircraft around the country, and providing proficiency training in everything from Taylorcrafts to T-28's.

Various trucks and even a 54ft semi-trailer were needed to move all his belongings. One by one, his various aircraft were flown away to Oregon.

Finally, there was a flurry of activity involving a particular biplane which I had seen in his hangar and had been aware of for years. It’s a Kreider-Reisner Challenger

Robin's Kreider-Reisner Challenger, the very first aircraft to land at Reid's Hillview airport in 1939

powered by a very rare small Wright Corp. radial engine. This engine had been apart for some time. I later learned Robin was forced to have the replacement parts machined from scratch, as originals simply were not available. 
There were ground test runs and test flights to prepare this ancient craft for the long flight. A few days before a trusted friend of Robins would actually fly this craft away for good, Robin told me that this craft was the very first aircraft to land at the new Reid's Hillview airport in 1939! Exactly 70 years ago.
   I watched this beautiful old bird depart and knew it was the end of an era. 
   Part of the business agreement when Robin finally left for good was that the school discontinue the use of name Amelia Reid Aviation. The name was changed to Aerodynamics, something that took all of us including the control tower personnel some time to get used to. 
   As things turned out, it was some time before the school got around to actually installing signs with the new name. But they finally did, and on 10/09/2009 Al, the mechanic that has worked there so very long, with the assistance of airport personnel, removed the large sign with the Amelia Reid name on it from above the main hangar door. The other signs on the building facing John Montgomery Drive and Robert Fowler Way consisted of individual letters attached to the sheet metal and remained for several months more before finally being taken down. 

Announcing at Reid Hillview Airport day

   I’ve done some announcing at fly-ins and air shows since the early 1973 at the EAA chapter 62 Hollister events. Around 2001 or so I assisted Frank Womack in announcing at the annual Reid Hillview day. Later, in  2005 or so, I was asked to do the

Jim Meide and Saber Kitten cheerleaders  at RHV airport day

announcing and commentary at Reid Hillview Airport Day when Alan Silver, who had been handling this for several years had a schedule conflict and could not make the date.  I ended up doing this each year until 2009. Great fun, as you can see in the photo. Actually it was usually not this grand, but a good friend had connections to the former Arena Football team cheerleaders, the Saber Kittens. He was able to get them to attend airport day for several years as seen here. Since the demise of that team, he now brings the Raiderettes instead. 

Over the years I’ve attended a number of special events in the hangars around RHV. These events have included several wakes for departed friends, a wedding, and a party for Maynard Engels 50th birthday which included a male stripper! 
It looks as if this is going to be the place I retire from, which I hope to do at the end of this year. There is a certain irony to retire at this field after soloing in a Cessna 150 here long ago at age 17. To Reid Hillview and all the people I’ve known over my years of association with this field, I say thanks for the memories!

The Spirit of St. Louis

Eighty years ago, on May 20, 1927 a 25 year old air mail pilot named Charles A. Lindbergh departed Roosevelt field in New York and flew a modified Ryan monoplane solo to Paris, France. The flight lasted only 33 hours, but Lindbergh had enough fuel to fly over 40 hours if he drifted off course and found himself anywhere from Norway to North Africa.

The plane was named “The Spirit of St. Louis” after a group of St. Louis businessmen who financed the venture. The Orteig Prize of $25,000 was established several years earlier for the first pilot to fly nonstop between New York and Paris. The number of accidents was accumulating with two famous French WWI pilots Nungesser and Coli already overdue from Paris to New York when Lindbergh actually launched for Paris.

The “Spirit” was built in San Diego after Ryan Aircraft returned a telegram to Charles Lindbergh advising that they could build (in less than 90 days) a single engine airplane capable of flying across the Atlantic Ocean for $15,000. Major design modifications were made to the Ryan Brougham by Donald Hall, the chief engineer of Ryan Aircraft. The wings were extended to provide more surface area and the landing gear strengthened for the extra weight. The fuselage was extended to carry three quarters of the 450 gallons of fuel in front of the pilot to increase stability. A periscope was added to minimize looking out the side window in the cold slipstream. There was no windshield, but there also was not much air traffic over the Atlantic in 1927.


Lindbergh stayed in an apartment that still exists in San Diego a few miles from the Ryan factory to supervise the construction. The Spirit had a gross weight of 5100 pound with full fuel. The engine was a state of the art Wright J-5 Whirlwind 225 HP Radial that had a special gold plate inspection.

The Spirit was completed in 60 days, and Lindbergh set a speed record flying to New York with a stop in St. Louis to thank his supporters. To navigate, Lindbergh had drawn out a great circle route on a globe and then transposed that course route onto charts. Since the Spirit cruised at about 100 mph, the heading was adjusted each hour for both the route and winds observed from waves on the ocean. The long wings and small tail made the Spirit unstable in the roll axis, which required constant hands-on flying thus helping to keep Charles Lindbergh awake. There were also distractions from icing, compass problems, and never accurately calculating the strength and direction of any crosswinds. However, the navigation errors luckily averaged out and the Spirit arrived over Dingle Bay, Ireland on the morning of May 21st right on course!!.

The navigation technique of maintaining a course over time is called “dead reckoning”. Lindbergh depended upon the method, but didn’t appreciate the description! From Ireland, navigation was a “piece of cake” cruising over the English countryside and following the Seine River towards Le Bourget Field. By then, the whole world was watching and waiting along with thousands of cars and headlights creating confusion over The nighttime landing field.

A very exhausted Charles Lindbergh landed the Spirit of St. Louis on the grass field 3000 miles from takeoff and just a quarter century after the first powered flight under control in 1903!

What About Steam ?

From Scientific American ( September 1933 )

A Steam Driven Airplane

[dropcap cap="T"]wo brothers, William J and George Besler recently installed a reciprocating steam engine in a conventional Travelair biplane, and a number of successful flights have been made at the Oakland, CA airport. The power plant is illustrated in these columns by photographs and a diagram. As the engine was really an old automobile engine, the airplane came out 300 lbs overweight, but it is expected that savings in weight will be readily made later.[/dropcap]

The Besler brothers’ steam engine is a two-cylinder double-acting, compound 90-degree V engine, with a cut off at about 50% of the stroke.

The high pressure cylinder has a bore of 4.25 inches and a stroke of 3 inches. The low pressure cylinder has the same stroke, but a 5 inch bore. The ordinary working pressure is 950 psi, and the temperature of the steam is 750 degrees F. The engine not only drives the propeller but also drives a blower through an over-running clutch. The blower (an electric motor used when starting) supplies air to a Venturi in which the fuel lines terminate. The Venturi leads the mixture to a fire box, where an ignition plug sets the mixture aflame. Once ignition has been started, the process of combustion is continuous.

The steam generator is of a modified flash type. The tubing is continuous in length, about 500 ft in total length; the coils are covered with metallic wool insulation and sheet aluminum. A pop valve is set to give relief at 1500 psi. A thermostatic normalizer device injects water into the superheater whenever the temperature goes over 750 degrees F. From the boiler the steam passes through a throttle to the engine proper, and then to two condensers --- one mounted at the top of the fuselage and one below. From the two radiators or condensers, the steam passes into the water tank, which is provided with a steam dome.    From the water tank, a pump passes the water through a primary heater and then to a secondary heater. By preheating the water, some of the energy of the exhaust steam is put back into the system, ad thus the overall efficiency is improved. After passing through the heaters the water again goes back to the boiler, and the process is repeated over and over again.

In the tests the rapidity with which the boiler got up steam was remarkable. In 5 minutes the plane was ready to take the air. In the air, the absence of noise was remarkable. On landing a very interesting possibility of the steam engine was in evidence. As soon as the pilot landed he reversed the engine (reversing the engine is a simple matter on a reciprocating steam engine). With the propeller driven in the opposite direction, a powerful braking effect was obtained. Perfect control and smoothness of

A great deal of the technical work on the Besler steam engine was done at the Boeing School of Aeronautics, and we are indebted to Mr Welwood Beall of this school for a first-hand account of the design and operation.

Another View of Steam Powered flight, Published in 1933

Remarkable though its development has been in the Last dozen years, in one important respect the science of aviation may be

said to have remained virtually at a standstill since its infancy, and that is in the type of engine used to furnish the the motor power for aircraft.

Aeronautical engineers long have recognized that the development of a motor that will combine lightness of weight with high power efficiency but that will lack the uneven performance of the present internal combustion engine probably is the principal problem confronting them in pushing the commercial possibilities of aircraft. 

Steam Airplane is a possible Solution

From Germany comes a report of the development of a steam driven airplane. Although this craft Is still in the experimental stage. accounts of its Performance and the description of its operation have been received by American aviation engineers with tremendous interest. In fact, some profess to see in the new German Plane the first step in the solution of the Problem of furnishing an absolutely dependable motor for the commercial aircraft of the future.

The steam plane is constructed throughout of duralumin, the extremely light aluminum alloy which has been wed used successfully in airplane construction in this country. The engine is an adaptation of the Diesel engine, now extensively employed in the United States Navy. It burns a combination of crude oil and other oils, which is broken up under a forced air feed and sprayed against the boiler. Here it Ignites, giving terrific heat considering the relatively small quantity of oil consumed in the operation. ten gallons of oil are said to be sufficient to run the plane's 750 horsepower engine for eight hours. American aviation engineers are inclined to question this statement, as well as the report that only 1000 pounds of water are used in a flight of 95 hours. They do agree that the principles employed in the new plane are likely to lead to important developments.

The steam turbine and boiler are said to be considerable lighter than other engines capable of developing equal horsepower. It is claimed also that the new plane will carry much less weight in oil and water than the weight of gasoline carried by an ordinary airplane of the same size, equipped for a flight of equal duration.

The water used to generate steam in the new plane is carried in the metal wings in compartments so arranged that the water may be shifted to "trim ship" if desired. The steam is condensed after exhaust and conveyed back to the wings in the form of water.

George W. Lewis, M. E., executive officer of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, says that the U.S. government has done considerable experimental work on steam power for airplanes, but has met with only partial success because of the problem of condensing water without the use of heavy equipment. For the heavier-than-air machine he believes steam power does not look encouraging at this time but ultimately will be of considerable use in propelling dirigibles. Lewis and other aeronautical engineers in the navy agree that steam is the apex of efficiency and that its thorough reliability under practically every condition makes it a fertile field for experimentation.

A Century of Flight

A Century of Flight

For thousands of years, the speed limit of transportation was no faster than Paul Revere’s famous ride in 1775. And the pony express quickly gave way as the steam and internal combustion engines multiplied “horsepower” for another century. But even the best locomotive was hard pressed to average 50 mph with frequent stops.

Pushing the Flight Envelope

A hundred years ago, two bicycle mechanics, Orville and Wilbur Wright, made a quantum leap in transportation and added another dimension: altitude. They combined a small engine with their latest glider design. By the toss of a coin, on December 17, 1903, Orville Wright became the first man to fly under power and control. Aeronautical engineers use a concept called the “flight envelope” to measure aircraft performance. It is simply a graph with altitude on the vertical axis and speed on the horizontal. In 1903, the flight envelope of the Wright Flyer was a few dozen feet and just 10 mph. And the distance of that first flight was less than the wingspan of a Boeing 747!

The bi-plane fighters of World War I were flying at 100 mph over 10,000 ft. By 1944 during WW II, the piston engine Mustang could fly at 400 mph and climb to 30,000 ft. Shortly after Chuck Yeager jumped started the flight envelope to supersonic in 1947, the 1950’s F-8 Crusader was capable of over 1000 mph and altitudes to 50,000 feet. The US recently retired the fastest non-rocket airplane. The Lockheed SR- 71 spy plane developed by Kelly Johnson in the 1960s was “officially” listed at over 2000 mph above 80,000 feet. This does not even mention the space program and landing men on the moon in 1969.

Growth in Civilian Aviation

A similar pattern emerged with the civilian flight envelope. Following World War I, Army surplus open- cockpit Jenny bi-planes became available to “barnstormers”. These traveling salesmen of aviation winged across the country performing air shows and sharing airplane rides. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh, also a former barnstormer, crossed the Atlantic averaging about 100 mph for 33 hours. Lindbergh’s flight to Paris inspired and propelled aviation. No longer would flight be limited to the few who landed in fields and slept under the wing. Cities began building airports, and there were dozens of companies manufacturing aircraft of every description. The 1930s have been called the “golden age” of aviation. Before World War II, many individuals owned airplanes for both business and pleasure. And for the last time in early 1930s, a civilian could buy a Beachcraft Staggerwing that had performance equal to the military planes of the day. The 1930s also saw the airline industry evolve from the red ink of the 100 mph Ford tri-motor to a profitable industry with the 200 mph DC-3. While not pressurized, the DC-3 was a milestone in commercial aviation with modern engine and instrument technology. This connected the continent and allowed flights in inclement weather and routes across the Rocky Mountains.

The benefits of WWII wartime aeronautical engineering brought the pressurized DC-7s and Constellations that could fly passengers in comfort above 20,000 ft and at 300 mph. When the jet powered Boeing 707 joined the airline industry in the late 1950s that flight envelope doubled to 40,000 and 600 mph. For several decades, the magnificent Concorde again doubled the speed of civilian air travel to 1500 mph. Unfortunately, maintenance issues and the enormous fuel consumption have recently forced the Concorde into retirement.

When on my 18th birthday I earned a private pilot’s license. This century of flight has opened the planet with affordable worldwide transportation. A hundred years ago, a hot and dusty passenger train might cross the Dakotas in a day. Now in less time, a Boeing 747 can fly 300 passengers in comfort above most weather to navigate continents and connect cultures.

 Mark Lindberg  

 Mountain View, CA 


More Articles ...

  1. Mark Lindberg