During WWII, a large portion of the pilot training was provided under government contract by civilian flying schools. The schools provided cadets with the same training and discipline as they experienced at military facilities, but because they were owned and operated by private entities, they were not designated as Army Air Fields and were not listed in any directories. Mesa del Rey, also known as Palo Alto Airport Inc. was one of these flying schools.
The original airport was first leased from the Spreckles Sugar Company in 1940 by the city who subleased it to Palo Alto Airport Inc. The airport began construction with the intention of training pilots for the Army Air Corps. The property was purchased by the city in 1941.
In 1941 the first group of Army Air Corps cadets arrived via train to be the first class to be trained at the Mesa del Rey flying school. It contained five barracks, a hospital, administration building, mess hall and 3 hangers on the property that is now the King City airport and Rava Farms complex (formerly the Basic Vegetables facility). The civilian operated facility accommodated 280 cadets and had 110 mechanics, 400 civilian workers, an administrative staff of 45 and a military staff of 35. This provided much needed work for local residents. At its peak, cadets logged 700 hours a day flying Stearmans and Ryans. By the time that the operation closed in October 1944 around 10 thousand cadets had passed through and graduated from the school.
“With the advent of the airplane to its position of such extreme importance, as proven since the start of the present conflict, a system to train hundreds of thousands of pilots had to be developed. The answer lay in the Army Air Forces; decision to contract the primary phase – to establish the now famous Army Air Forces Contract Flying Schools. To those . . . flocked the man who in the pre-war years had built up thousands of hours of experience in training men to fly – experience so vital in laying a sound foundation upon which to build the Air Force.
Since Time was of the essence, the Army needed pilots and needed them quickly . . . equipment had progressed rapidly to a point of being very intricate and calling for a high degree of skill in operating. With it came the outstanding achievement of all – a Safety Record. Not only are the pilots being trained but . . . they are the world’s best and the story of their deeds will long live in the history of the future.”
In February 1945, the U.S. Navy took over the facility to train fighter and torpedo plane pilots. 800 men were stationed at the Naval Auxiliary Station located in King City. The Navy demobilized the basin in September 1945, and the property reverted back to the City of King in 1951.
In 2011, through the perseverance of Joanne Banuelos, MCARLM received a video depicting Army pilots in the making at Mesa del Rey. It contained video footage, photos and records that were provided to the City by the family of Harry S. White. Mr. White was one of the three principle owners to start the civilian flight school. The video footage shows pilots arriving in King City by train and provides a view of how Mesa Del Rey operated in the 1940s.
Recently, during the Jack Hayes Prime Rib Dinner Museum Fundraiser, this video was shown to those in attendance. Local boy, Jack Hayes attended the school in 1943. During an oral histories interview with Jack he talked briefly about his time at the facility:
“ . . . they’re all sharp young men from the age of 20 to 26. We call them the cream of the crop and I suppose they were. The cadets were assigned to living quarters, two to a bedroom with a bathroom dividing every two bedrooms, so it was pretty deluxe accommodations. We were here for 9 weeks to get about 65 to 70 hours of training before we went on to basic. Cadets were assigned 5 cadets to an instructor. King City was one of the earliest primary training fields and had one of the top ratings of the primary fields. Harry White and his people went all over the United States recruiting top flight civilian flyers and they got a pretty darn good bunch. As a local boy, nobody wanted to instruct me because I knew them all and they were afraid they’d have to wash me out. I got Joe Gillespie to start with, and he solo’d me. Then I got Luke Zanidovich for my second half of training. We flew a Ryan PT22. It was a good interesting airplane to fly. The snap roll to the right was so quick you didn’t know what was happening. Most of the time they used bi-planes, Stearmans for training. They had a pretty high wash out rate here, somewhere between 20 and 40% didn’t make it. Most of us made it and I’ve loved flying ever since.”