Pre-War History: “Watsonville Airport Incorporated”
In the 1920’s aircraft landed and took off from open fields. Landing speeds were so slow that aircraft did not require runways. Land owners and farmers whose open spaces with names like Mines Field (now LAX), Mills Field (now SFO) and Buchanan Field (Concord) became airfields. Landing fields in our area were found at such places as Rio Del Mar, San Andreas, Palm Beach and one near Watsonville on Beach Road. One called Storms Field, on what is now called Freedom Boulevard near Mariposa Avenue, was used by many barnstormers to sell rides as they flew from town to town.
It was early 1931 that Watsonville entered the aviation age. On May 9, 1931, Governor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph, riding in a Stinson monoplane piloted by W.W. Bendell, made a low pass over the runway and cut a ribbon stretched across the field to officially open Watsonville’s first airport. This was just over a year after the formation of “Watsonville Airport Incorporated”.
Five thousand shares of stock were issued and bought by 400 “largely civic minded citizens” to purchase land to build an airport. An 85-acre site southwest of the city, near the junction of Highway 1 and Salinas Road in Monterey County, was chosen for the airport because it was the only land available “at a reasonable price.”
Harlow Ford was the first president of the board of directors, and Claude Wilson was the first airport manager and flight instructor. Other people who were active in establishing the airport were Perry Andrews, William Bendell, Pete Calaghan, Basil and Kenneth Clark, Floyd McFarlane, Bill Russell, Charles Tharp, William Waters and Dr. Henry G. Watters.
Some pilots and their planes were Watters, Curtiss Robin; McFarlane, Russell, and Roy Martelli, Eagle Rock; Clark Brothers, Stinson and later a Ford Tri-Motor; Lou and Harold Foote, Monocoupe; Roy Waugaman, Ryan; Manager Wilson and Bert Scott, Bird; Russell Kemper, Lincoln Paige; William Neibling, TravelAir; and Jack Irwin, an airport manager later in an Irwin special.
The earliest known photograph of Watsonville Airport is an undated aerial view, looking southwest, from the Airfield Directory Company’s 1938 “Airfield Directory“. The field was described as “…having three runways, with the longest being a 2,300 feet northwest/southeast strip and a hangar was said to have “WATSONVILLE” on the roof”. Located approximately four miles south of town, the original airport site was to become “the busy center of flying activity” until acquisition by the United States Navy as an Airship base.
In 1939 The Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA), forerunner of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), decided that a civil airport was needed in Santa Cruz County. CAA representatives went first to the City of Santa Cruz offering to build an airport, if the city would buy the land. This offer was conditioned with an agreement that upon accepting CAA funding the land would always be used for an airport. Santa Cruz County voted down the offer and the CAA presented a similar offer to the City of Watsonville.
The offer was accepted and a special election was held on May 12, 1942 with Proposition 4 being a bond issue in the amount of $125,000 for a municipal airport. The citizens of Watsonville passed Proposition 4 with 1537 for, 407 against and 27 votes marked invalid.
World War II: Naval Auxiliary Airfield
The original airport, at Salinas Road and Highway One (about four miles south of town), was the location of the Naval Auxiliary Airfield, effectively an Airship base. Prior to the special election this southern airfield supported the Navy’s Airship patrols for submarines off our coast. The Airship flight squadrons were based at Moffett Field and Watsonville was an auxiliary field where Airships and flight crews were stationed.
The Airships departed on 12-hour submarine patrols, convoy escort flights or on many occasions, to perform air-sea rescues. Crews were stationed here for about a month before being rotated with another crew and Airship. Local men stationed at Watsonville were Don Wilson, George Davis, Vern Dietz and Ron Hill. When the heavier-than-air station northwest of town became operational, the former Airship facility was closed down in late 1945 as the Airships were no longer required.
Naval Auxiliary Air Station, Watsonville
In August of 1942 a parcel of land (287.58 acres) was purchased near Freedom, the airport’s current site. It was reported that the CAA had allocated $743,900 for construction of the airport. On August 12, 1942 the Board of Aldermen, by adopting Resolution 3428 entered into an agreement with the United States relative to the operation and maintenance of the Watsonville Airport.
The War Department became involved and the city leased the Airport to the United States of America for the sum of one dollar on June 1, 1943. Prior to the Navy taking over the airport in July, 1943, the CAA had contributed approximately $744,000. The Investment of the City in the project, by virtue of the ownership of the 287.58 acres, was approximately $280,000. By March of 1944, the Navy had invested an additional $1.2 million.
The Navy took over in July, 1943, purchased an additional 35 acres, built support buildings and the concrete ramp. On October 23, 1943, the airport was commissioned as Naval Air Auxiliary Station Watsonville (NAAS Watsonville) and served as a satellite to Naval Air Station (NAS) Alameda.
With two auxiliary bases here Watsonville became known as a “Navy town,” one well liked and remembered by the thousands of Navy fliers who made their way to war zones.
There were as many as 75 combat aircraft and 1,200 men at a time stationed at the Air Station. Then the ramp was used for Avengers, Corsairs, Dauntless’, Hellcats and other Navy combat aircraft. Today that same ramp provides ample space for corporate and private planes, both local and visiting, which make daily use of the airport.
NAAS Watsonville was not a primary training base, but where Carrier Air Groups (CAGs) organized. CAGs consisted of torpedo, dive bomber and fighter squadrons. CAGs coalesced in Watsonville, stationed 90 to 120 days for training, then assigned to Pacific Theater carriers. Since aircraft carriers were vulnerable to submarine attack, CAGs would fly to the carrier after the ship was clear of the harbor and reverse the procedure when returning to port.
In 1990, three members of the World War II VC-33 succeeded in gathering shipmates for a reunion. In the process, these service men encountered members of the current VC-33. The group met at Watsonville Municipal, the training site of the World War II VC-33. At the reunion, an organization was founded “to perpetuate the memories and traditions of
Composite Squadrons Thirty-Three “, including the VC-33 progeny of VA(AW)-33, VAW-33 and VAQ-33. Since then the organization has expanded it membership to include personnel from any former or current US Navy Aviation squadron including the numeral “33”.i.e. VF-33, VT-33, AG-33, HSL-33 and VS-33.
During World War II, FG-33 flew F6F Hellcats from the Pacific Islands and combined with VT-33, which flew TBM Avengers, to form Carrier Air Group AG-33. A new VF-33 was established in 1948 and disestablished in 1993 (on the same date as VAQ-33). HSL-33 flew helicopters on antisubmarine missions from 1973 to 1994. VS-33 was established in 1960 flying S-3B Vikings for antisubmarine missions.
As the war ended, so did operations at NAAS Watsonville, on Nov. 1, 1945 it was closed and placed on caretaker status. The last official Navy flight took off in Nov. 1945, piloted by Vern “Ack” Ackerman, a former operations officer at the base, a combat veteran decorated for sinking an enemy ship. Ack, a Watsonville native who would soon serve as airport manager, also flew in the first civilian airplane to use the airfield after the city of Watsonville acquired the facility.
In March 1946, the War Department, through an Instrument of Transfer, returned the airport to the City of Watsonville for civilian use. The airport received a permit from the California Department of Transportation, Division of Aeronautics as the Watsonville Municipal Airport.
Following the war, the Navy returned the 87 acres to the corporation. The city acquired the land and improvements at no cost from the War Assets Administration, and subsequently sold 32 acres to the Freedom Elementary School District which moved its school into the old Navy buildings and operated it until 1963.
Military to Municipal
On December 2, 1946, a DC3 with Southwest Airways livery (which later would become Northwest Orient) landed at Watsonville Airport to pick up its first passenger and 16 pouches of mail, providing the first airline service to the community. This service continued until 1956.
The first airport manager was Robert Hudson. He held the post for about a year until he returned to the US Air Force. Vern Ackerman and his business partner Robert F. Ditlevsen became co-managers of the airport. Ackerman bought out his partner and became airport manager in May 1948. In 1964 Ackerman resigned, only to return and be reappointed in July 1966.
During this period the first of the soon-to-be famed Watsonville Fly-In & Show first begin as the Northern California Antique Airplane Association’s annual West Coast Antique Fly-In.
Early Fly-In’s soon included air show performers including Aero Space Pyro, Amelia Reid, Dan Buchannan, Andreini Airshows, G.A.F. International, Jim Cheatham and John W. Piggott.
During Ackerman’s tenure a number of activities begin and improvements were completed:
- The first annual West Coast National Antique Fly-In in 1964; now the Watsonville Fly-in & Air Show.
- Apron lighting installed in 1971.
- Terminal building constructed in 1974.
- A Localizer installed in 1976 enabled establishment of a non-precision instrument approach.
- City fire Station No. 2, was established in 1978 to serve the airport and surrounding areas.
- Non-Directional Beacon added in 1980 improved the instrument approach procedure.
- Visual Approach Slope Indicators installation on Runways 1 and 19, and expansion of the apron area in 1980
- Additional T-hangar space added incrementally in 1984.
From left to right: Runway lighting, the classic Air Show hay bales and 1993 new hangar construction
From left to right: Watsonville once had a tower, Instrument Approach “Plan View” and airport aerial from 1970.
Ackerman remained Manager until 1987. From 1987 until 1990 Kimberly Wirht served as Manager. After the Loma Prieta earthquake of October 1989 the Airport provided the only access to the Pajaro Valley. An estimated 100 tons of supplies were airlifted during the first week following the earthquake.
In 1990 Assistant Fire Chief Don French, a certificated pilot, added interim Airport Manager to his responsibilities. In 1997 French accepted the full-time role as Airport Manager and under his capable leadership additional hangars were added in 1993, airside and landside lease holds were increased, an Airport Driving Range was developed, technology was brought to the terminal, perimeter fencing improved and Aviation Way was widened.
During French’s tenure he oversaw over 300 corporate and private aircraft, north-south (2-20), east-west (8-26) runways and the addition of a GPS instrument approach. French also led the evolution of the Antique “Fly-In” to an full scale Air Show and witnessed the largest plane to fly in and out Watsonville, a Gulf Stream IV, which is slightly smaller than the Boeing 737.
In 2003 an AMBAG economic study stated the Total Direct Economic Impact of the airport exceeded $16 million annually to the community.
After serving an additional fourteen years French retired in 2011. Rayvon Williams, who learned to fly at Watsonville and served as a volunteer aviation safety counselor supporting French, was hired as the airport’s general manager in the late 2011.
In early 2012 a number of capital improvements were implemented at the Airport. By June of 2012 the airport’s self-service fuel island was upgraded and by July the terminal building’s lobby, UNICOM room and restrooms were renovated.
The planning for these efforts began shortly after the closure of the Airport’s iconic restaurant, Zuniga’s.
Within four months a new tenant was selected from a competitive process, approved by the City Council to lease the restaurant facility and renovation begun. In August 2012, Props Restaurant & Lounge opened offering breakfast, lunch, and dinners as well as a full bar. Props upgraded the exterior patio seating area to include a heated deck offering an improved view of the airport’s flight line.
April 2014 saw the departure of Props Restaurant, but by year end the Airport reached agreement with local eatery Cafe Ella’s of Watsonville to bring a new venture to the field. Ella’s-at-the-Airport opened February 2015.
Terminal Lobby today:
Restaurant & Observation Deck:
Continuing the Tradition
KWVI continues as a key Regional General Aviation Airport with a focus on an orderly, flexible, environmentally sensitive expansion and development of the Airport environs. Airport Management is committed to improving safety and service while continuing an economically viable enterprise operation.
In conjunction with the Airport’s Master Plan the following are objectives for the Watsonville Municipal Airport:
Continual operational improvements:
- Remedying operational deficiencies by improving the primary runway and reconstruction of supporting taxiways to fully accommodate aircraft.
- Enhancing safety of aircraft operations by identifying and removing objects in the vicinity of the airport that are obstructions as defined by FAA standards.
- Improving operational and safety systems by supporting installation of advanced satellite-based instrument approaches to increase overall safety of landings in all conditions.
- Managing existing space deficiencies by providing for expansion and enhancement of the terminal and hangar facilities, plus providing new and improved access to accommodate current and future facilities.
Continued Self-sufficiency of Enterprise Operation:
- Providing a fiscally responsible financial plan to provide suitable facilities and generate revenues necessary for proper operation, management, and development of the airport.
- Development of complementary light industrial and general commercial uses for affiliates of the airport.
- Continually assess on-airport property development opportunities.
Maintaining and enhancing natural resources:
- Ensure all development is consistent with the Airport Master Plan and City General Plan while minimizing adverse effects on the natural physical setting and enhancing wetlands and sensitive habitat areas.
- Development consistent with resource protection regulations administered by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish & Game, California Coastal Commission and other agencies
- Protecting and enhancing wetlands and sensitive habitat areas.
- Developing operational procedures that protect, and enhance, wetlands and sensitive habitat areas.
Community support, outreach and developing goodwill:
- Ensure development is consistent with the Master Plan and General Plan while minimizing adverse effects on adjacent land uses, the local community and the region.
- Providing a noise mitigation plan to ensure neighboring properties are not significantly affected by airport-generated noise.
- Developing community outreach programs to build a relationships and confidence between the airport and the community.