Especially encouraging were comments from Richard Ortenheim, operator of SkyView Aviation, the airport’s major tenant.
Richard said that he hoped to ramp up his flight-training operation. At present, SkyView trains individual students periodically over several months. He wants to upgrade to a full-fledged school with full-time students on site for the duration of their training.
He said that could mean having 10 to 20 students from the U.S. and other countries at the airport at one time. Many of the students would be candidates to become airline pilots.
As we discussed the possibility in SkyView’s pilots lounge, we both commented that it wouldn’t be the first time the airport was the location of a full-scale pilot training program. In the years just before U.S. entry into World War II, roughly 160 United Airlines pilots received their intermediate training at the airport.
Although strictly for United pilots, the school was called the Boeing School of Aeronautics, as all of United’s passenger planes were Boeing products, including the classic workhorse Boeing DC-3.
The school was originally established at Oakland Airport for both intermediate and advanced training, but as the war clouds began to gather in 1940 and the Oakland airport became much busier with military air traffic, the intermediate segment of the school — the major portion of pilot training — was moved inland to Tracy.
For a five-year lease of the airport, Boeing agreed to pay the city of Tracy $1 a year and promised to improve gravel runways, repair hangars and construct other equipment and lights for night landings.
Students came from colleges all over the U.S., where they had learned to solo in college-sponsored flying programs. Here, over a four-month training period with 150 hours of flight instruction, they continued developing their flying skills in single-engine planes and for the first time learned instrument flying in closed-cabin aircraft.
At any one time between October 1940 and January 1942, there were three classes of 20 students each in various stages of the training cycle. The 60 students lived in the Tracy Inn and took ground-school instruction, including simulated flying in Link Trainers, next door in the old Central School building.
One former student, Sylvanus “Scotty” Devine from the University of Akron, reported later, “It was an exacting, high-quality instructional program.”
Another former student, George Peterson from the University of Colorado, later recalled his time in Tracy.
“I can still hear ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ playing in the Tracy Inn’s bar. I bet that song played 24 hours a day,” he said. “Actually, we were a fairly sedate bunch; I suppose it wasn’t that we weren’t ready for a big time, but most of us were just too poor. United paid us $60 a month and took back $47.50 for room and board.”
Peterson recalled the hospitality offered by a number of Tracy families, especially mentioning the Jim McDonald family.
After the students completed training here, they received their United pilots’ wings and moved to Oakland, where they began flying with veteran United captains in United’s multi-engine Boeing DC-3 and 247 passenger planes. They were then assigned as co-pilots in regular United flights.
The first class started training at Tracy’s airport in October 1940. After Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the sixth class was allowed to finish training, but the seventh class was transferred mid-term to Cheyenne, Wyo.
During World War II, the Tracy-trained pilots flew passenger planes for both United and the U.S. Air Force. After the war, most continued as United pilots.
Former student Devine, one of the members of the first class at Tracy airport, told me years later that by the 1970s, the Tracy students had become the most-senior United captains.
They remained a close-knit group, he said. They formed their own organization and held several reunions, including one in Tracy. Each proclaimed his pride in being called a “Tracy Ace.”
Who knows? There could be a new generation of Tracy Aces in the airport’s future.
• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at email@example.com.