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ISSUE 158 - February 2011
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A Centennial Celebration

By David Rose, Contributing Editor
San Diego, California

San Diego is a small town. Altogether it’s spread out over a wide area, but the downtown section, despite having enjoyed enormous growth over the past few decades, is only about ten blocks square. It has a great bay, long and deep, (after years of dredging) which is able to accommodate ships of any size. It was the bay of course that attracted early seafarers, a safe harbor with easy shorelines, perfect for developing a port. And develop it they did. The Port of San Diego is now home to a large commercial airport, Lindbergh Field where Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis was built and from where he began his epic journey to Paris.

On the sea side of things the port boasts one of the largest ship yards on the west coast and a huge U.S. Navy base, The Naval Air Station North Island. One can enjoy seeing all manner of Navy fighters, transports and helicopters taking off and landing there all day.

Naval Aviation has always been linked to San Diego. The first flights of any U.S. Navy aircraft occurred at Naval Air Station North Island. The actual site of the Navy’s first flight, in a Glenn Curtiss designed seaplane, is now dry land, it’s bay shore location having been filled in during the second world war to add valuable land to the base. That flight having occurred in January 1911 gave rise to a huge celebration of Naval Aviation in San Diego this past weekend.

The Navy spent enormous resources planning their pivotal celebration and they had been enticing visitors to attend with a seemingly endless stream of media ads; radio, TV and the newspapers were all enlisted to bring out the throngs for what the Navy promised was to be the greatest celebration of Naval Aviation ever; there would be a flight of 200 aircraft; thrilling demonstrations by paratroopers and Navy Seals; the Blue Angels would perform. There would be displays of specially painted aircraft, classic cars and all manner of Naval weaponry and equipment, the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) a Nimitz class nuclear powered supercarrier and other ships of the line would be open to welcome visitors. It looked to be a huge party and I wasn’t going to miss it.
But how. As I said, San Diego really isn’t that large, and with the throngs expected, the downtown and bay shores would be jammed. The displays would be on the North Island base itself and that meant crossing the Coronado Bridge just to get to the Island. Traffic on the bridge is always a problem because it empties right into downtown Coronado. But if we stayed on the San Diego side we would need to find both parking and a place to sit for the anticipated four hours of activities. I was sure we could enjoy the fly by from anywhere on the bay, but it would be nice to be comfortable. Fixating on the word comfortable, we decided to head for that great bay front sea food restaurant ‘The Fish Market’. We would simply sit outside over the water, enjoy a fine lunch and watch the show. “Your nuts” our friends said, “You’ll never get near the place”, and headed off on their own. Having fallen on my head as a youth I dismissed their protestations and we set off, sublimely optimistic that as an aviator on his way to an air show, I had every right to believe there’d be no problems.

The flyby was scheduled for 1 PM, so around 11 we drove down the coast highway, pulled up to the restaurant’s valet parking and gave them the car. The restaurant is located right next to the aircraft carrier museum Midway and the harbor area there is actually a park. We decided to take a few minutes and walk around enjoying one of those perfect days that seem to exist perpetually here in San Diego. Looking up at the Midway flight deck it was obvious there would be many watchers from that great vantage point, but the thought of four or five hours in the sun on a steel ship had dissuaded us from that idea.
In the park area next to the Midway is a statue reminding us that a sailor had accosted a young woman in the very nicest way sometime in 1945; I understand she slapped him. You can spend a fun afternoon there watching the little boys walking over to the statue and staring up into it. (big boys too).

Returning to the restaurant, the Maitres De seemed a little frazzled but greeted us with a smile which immediately exploded into laughter when I outlined our plan. “have a seat in the bar,” she said, “the people who already have tables outside will be there all day” With that she dismissed us with one of those little pagers that shake, buzz and flash.

We had not yet been seated in the bar when the little pager went off. We were escorted to a table dead center on the outside balcony and turned over to the waiter. Seems an argument had ensued among several of the visiting clientele and they had left in a huff. Turned out we were the only ones who had bothered to get on the list. Like my Dad always said, “if you don’t think there’s any parking, drive up to the front door and park there.” It’s surprising how often that works.

The place really does have great food and we were just getting into the appetizers when one o’clock rolled around. With it came the familiar sound of jet engines. Into view came the first of the 200 ship flyby. The Blue Angels.

They flew by in good formation, slowly made their way around the bay, then out over the beaches and out of sight to the South. It was to be the last we’d see of The Blues. I suppose the expectation that they would be doing a show should have brought to mind the fact that we were in downtown San Diego and that Lindbergh field, with all it’s commercial traffic, is on the shore of the bay right next to North Island. At any rate, the sky fell silent.

The route of flight for all the aircraft was to be over the Coronado bridge Northbound, up the center of the bay and exit Southbound. This brought all the aircraft right past the Fish Market and we enjoyed the show and lunch for the next three hours. Turns out the 200 plane flyby was not to be the sky full of planes I had anticipated. They had said it would be the largest formation of planes since WW II and that’s what I had come for. In any case we got to see some great planes, one at a time and about a minute apart. Underwhelming, but rewarding nevertheless. One treat was the flyby of the B-17 Sentimental Journey, unforgettable, and beautiful in polished aluminum and blue paint.

A parade of F-16's, F-18's and helicopters took the better part of the afternoon and then the sky did fill with a large formation, approximately 35 Navy fighters in groups of 5; very impressive. The Osprey made their appearance and wowed the crowd with their ability to hover as well then exit the area at a high rate of speed. Vintage fighters and an array of early aircraft made their way past our lunch table and we enjoyed ever minute of it. Thanks Navy.

By David Rose, Contributing Editor

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