Unlocking History

California prisons linked to aviation history

Planes, dirigibles, mechanics all part of CDCR history

CDCR institutions have witnessed moments in aviation history while at the same time helped further the field through job training programs. Inside CDCR takes a closer look at the links between California state prisons and the history of aviation.

Did you know? November is National Aviation History Month. Learn more about aviation innovators and pioneers on the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum website.

Officers shoot at plane flying over prison

“Shots were fired by guards when an airplane, disregarding warnings by Warden James A. Johnston, continued to fly over San Quentin prison,” according to the Healdsburg Tribune, April 30, 1923. (The plane) suddenly pitched forward and landed nose down in the soft earth at Baltimore Park, midway between Corte Madera and Larkspur.”

After five passes of a plane over San Quentin, correctional officers opened fire when it dipped low inside prison walls. Some news accounts at the time claim prison staff shot down the plane.

“(The plane) was shot down (when) the pilot ignored a warning to keep away from the prison and flew low over the walls,” reported the Santa Cruz Evening News. “The bullets shattered the plane’s propeller, and it made a spectacular nose dive, landing in the marshland. The occupants escaped injury (but) the machine was wrecked.”

Other reports indicate the plane overheated, forced to land in the nearby field. One of its wheels sunk in the marsh, causing the plane to break a propeller.

Filmmaker, pilot didn’t heed warnings

When prison staff reached the plane, the pilot was checking the damage while a camera man gathered his equipment. Rather than a contraband drop or escape attempt, the pilot had been contracted by a filmmaker.

Movie photographer John Stout argued he had all necessary permits to film, and fly, over the prison. He was getting footage for “The Woman with Four Faces,” about a prisoner escaping by using a rope ladder dropped from an airship.

Planes buzzing San Quentin had become so troublesome, Warden James A. Johnston told his staff to fire if planes came too close to the prison. At one time, Johnston even threatened to mount a cannon on the wall.

The pilot said he made five dips over the prison, then made two “side slips” directly over the yard, all at Stout’s direction.

Only a few shots were taken at the flying machine, according to Johnston. The pilot said he couldn’t hear the gunfire or warnings due to the noise of the plane’s engine.

Historic 1911 flight over San Quentin

Weldon Cooke, a 27-year-old pioneer aviator, made his mark on aviation history when he flew over San Quentin State Prison and Mt. Tamalpais, reaching altitudes of 4,000 to 4,500 feet.

“(Cooke’s) flight took him directly over San Quentin prison, where there are men who have never seen an (airplane),” reported the San Francisco Call.

During his flight, he dropped two letters, making him the first to deliver mail by airdrop in California.

The flight may not have happened if it weren’t for the incarcerated population and the warden. In early 1911, the incarcerated residents penned a letter requesting a fly-over.

“There are hundreds of men confined here who have never seen an (airplane) and some of us probably never will unless by courtesy of the aviator who will come this way,” states the letter signed The Prisoners of San Quentin. “With permission of the warden, (we ask) if it can be arranged for the machine to circle over the prison, so (we) have the 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 airship Akron flies over prison

The Akron, a military dirigible, was constructed in 1931 and became the U.S. Navy’s flagship for its lighter-than-air program. From New Jersey, the Akron embarked on a cross-country trip 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 skies” conducted a series of tests, with flying cross country being one of the biggest. As an aircraft carrier, the Akron successfully received small fighter planes in flight, stored them in a hangar, then returned them to the air. The catch-and-release tests relied on a trapeze-like 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 news accounts. Town Mayor William Nock requested the Navy fly over the town to pay respects to Dollar. They responded by sending the Akron.

“The huge silver craft sank from the fog mists to a few hundred feet above the housetops and showered blossoms in a special tribute,” reported the Petaluma Argus Courier. “The (Akron) circled above the church where (Dollar) lay in state under guard of a military detachment, (showering) flowers down.”

Dignitaries from across the state attended the funeral, including Governor Rolph who led 60 honorary pallbearers.

Akron visible from prison yard

After dropping flowers, the Akron headed off, passing over San Quentin State Prison at 5:20 p.m., visible to staff and those in the yard. The airship’s next assignment was to anchor to the mast of the USS Patoka.

After maneuvers and flights as far north as the Canadian border, the Akron was in need of repairs. In June 1932, the Akron left California and returned to New Jersey after five days in the Golden State.

Akron disaster claims 73 lives

In 1933, the Akron was caught in a severe storm on the east coast, crashing into the sea. Survivors were picked up at sea by a passing merchant ship who saw the lights as the airship plummeted. A small airship, J-3, was sent out to assist in the search, joined by additional naval vessels. The J-3 also crashed in the storm, killing two.

In all, the Akron crash 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 aircraft carrier program. The Navy continued using blimps and airships for training and searches until the 1960s.

Deuel Vocational Institution trained airplane mechanics

Deactivated in 2021, Deuel Vocational Institution had a unique job-training focus: airplane repair and maintenance. The Tracy location was actually the second for DVI, which began as the California Vocational Institution at Lancaster. Located at War Eagle Field, the institution incorporated available resources into a rehabilitative program.

Prior to becoming a state prison, the institution trained British pilots before the US entered World War II. After the war, vacant military installations found other uses, such as becoming state-run institutions (see story on CMF).

Deuel replaced California in the name when it was relocated to Tracy. State Senator Charles Deuel was an advocate for establishing the institution at a permanent facility. He passed away before construction was completed.

Rather than do away with aviation-focused rehabilitative programs already established at DVI, they were transferred to the new location.

DVI operated at Lancaster from 1946 until 1953, when it moved to the Tracy location. At its new location, DVI operated from 1953 until 2021.

See how DVI evolved over the years in our previous history story. See DVI deactivation photos.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

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