Categorized | Culture

A Century of Flight at North Island Marks Another Kind of Commemoration: How Coronado’s Earliest Aviators Paid Their Towing Charges

Posted on 17 February 2011 by John Rippo

Contemporary postcard of a Curtiss biplane over North Island, 1911.

“Here comes the king of the fools again,” muttered Agostino Zolezzi, an Italian fisherman who, like the rest of his kind, struggled to make a living fishing in the waters around San Diego. Zolezzi watched as yet another hated airplane went silent and fluttered down onto the water near his boat; its engine dead, its pilot waving frantically for a tow and its wings covered with salt water thrown up from its pontoon.
Zolezzi was used to the drill; for months these airborne annoyances had disrupted fishing in the early mornings when the tuna men hunted for anchovies and sardines in the bay to use as bait for the tuna that paid them their hard won living from the sea. The first time it happened, the shrewd Italian thought to claim salvage rights on the helpless plane and make some fast money merely by hooking his line to the plane’s nose, according to maritime law. But after looking at the clumsy frame of bamboo and wire with its wings patched together without even the skills of an apprentice sailmaker in evidence and an engine that obviously couldn’t run right, he’d given up the idea. As for flying, to him it was a fool’s way to die.  Zolezzi took his life in hands every day on the sea in a one-man boat and his occupation was dangerous enough. He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to chance death in a flimsy boxkite over the ocean.  But it wouldn’t be right to ignore a vessel in distress. So he hooked a line to the nose of the plane, took the pilot on board and headed for the tide flats at North Island.
Though the aviators were usually good for a fist full of money whenever they got towed back and the fishermen welcomed whatever they could get, Zolezzi had more than his share of interference in his work from them. When the planes crossed over a school of fish, their shadows would spook them and make the school dive away from the fishermen’s nets. Sometimes the noise of the plane’s motor would do the same if the plane was low enough and if a plane alighted in a good fishing area, the fish wouldn’t show for hours afterward. This meant a loss of income for Zolezzi and his fellow fishermen and since more planes seemed to be around to suffer from engine trouble and hurried forced landings this meant the problem needed to be addressed. Zolezzi saw to it that it was.
The pilot was a skinny, tough fellow with a mustache and an attitude. He obviously didn’t think much of the fishing boat carrying him back and made the mistake of smirking at the single cylinder Sulzer engine that powered it. Zolezzi recalled that he said it was “primitive”. “My engine runs fine,” Zolezzi pointed out. “Yours has many cylinders and none of them work? How unfortunate; you paid too much .” Not the kind of man to stop when he had an opening, Zolezzi then gave the wet pilot an earful about how the flyers at North Island caused grief to the fishermen of San Diego Bay and he ended the sharp tirade by indicating that the pilot knew what he could do with his plane, engine and propeller, too. The pilot listened with gritted teeth. A long silence passed until the shore was reached.
When they got there, they saw some other boats catching a large school of bait fish not far from North Island. Zolezzi had missed the chance for them and would have to roam the bay to find enough bait before he could go out to sea for the tuna he needed. The pilot asked some questions about fish that Zolezzi answered. The parting was civil, and true to form, he got a few dollars for his trouble.
Days passed and fishing continued, and soon after, Zolezzi noticed a change in the air—literally. While roaming the bay for anchovies, a Curtiss biplane from North Island appeared, diving at his boat and wagging its wings. The pilot looked at the fisherman and pointed off to his right and buzzed away to his left—away from where he came.  Zolezzi sailed in the direction indicated and soon found a school of anchovies that he netted all for himself.

Such things would happen from time to time and it seemed that every pilot who had a forced landing on the water and needed a tow home got into the act. Since early airplane engines were notoriously unreliable, the number of fish-spotting pilots grew to nearly 100 percent of the airmen at North Island. Zolezzi remembered one man who had no end of bad luck—a haughty Japanese who stayed with his plane on the way back  and would never set foot on a mere fishing boat. Zolezzi got used to the note of the man’s engine and recalled years later that it always sounded “wet”. When he heard it, he knew that very soon the Japanese would make a sudden dive for the water with a dead engine and that he or one of the other fishermen would tow the arrogant, undersized Japanese back.  Maybe the pilot ran too rich a mixture and froze his carburetor or maybe he couldn’t master the throttle control.  Soon the Italian and Portuguese fishermen nicknamed him “Little Pelican” after his forced landing technique.

Anchovies are a silvery fish that reflect sun in distinctive patterns. Sardines are visible in schools; their swarms ripple the water and the waves catch the observer’s eye. Early airmen at North Island soon became accustomed to finding the schools of fish and some of them—but by no means all—would alert the fishermen to their presence. Early pilots had to read the water as part of their training. They could tell the wind direction at the surface from the ripples on the bay and perhaps gauge windspeed to safely land their frail planes. Some of  those men who troubled to learn how to see beneath the surface using the sun’s reflection and cloud shadows to find fish were officers in two navies. Later, the same technique was used to spot submarines in two world wars. The arrogant Japanese pilot eventually became the chief of Japanese naval aviation during WWII. He and others were the first to learn the secrets of sea flying over San Diego Bay a century ago, repaying men like my grandfather for bringing them home when their engines failed them. From a comic opera beginning came the means to take war beneath the seas from above the clouds. The centennial of this history is now being celebrated this month by the navy at North Island.

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