EARLY DAYS OF AVIATION
Aviation activities at Guantanamo Bay had their start as early as 1912. The excellent climate and broad expanse of sheltered water in this region were recognized as an ideal location for an aviation activity. During the last week of December 1912, an aviation instruction camp with Lieutenant John H. Towers in charge, was transferred from Annapolis, Maryland, to Guantanamo Bay, "where in addition to the regular work of instruction some very satisfactory tests, bearing on the problems of naval operations, were carried out in the presence of the Atlantic Fleet and a wide range of estimates of the future usefulness of airplanes in Naval warfare was obtained." (Quotation is from the Secretary of the Navy Report, Fiscal Year 1913). It is also recorded that Lieutenant (later Admiral) J. H. Towers and Ensign G. D. C. Chevalier flew from Guantanamo Bay to Santiago de Cuba on 10 March 1913 in a Curtiss flying boat-time of flight being 46 minutes,-and returned the next day.
There was a small amount of air activity carried on at the station during World War I. Aircraft operated with the Fleet in 1919. During that winter six seaplanes, with the seaplane tenders Shawmut and Sandpiper, comprised the Atlantic Fleet Detachment. This detachment with the Fleet in the 1920s becoming a yearly routine.
In 1920 shipboard aviation was first introduced into Guantanamo Bay. Battleships of the Atlantic Fleet were equipped with a platform covering a gun turret and extending the length of the guns. From these platforms, planes of World War I vintage were launched to act as observation planes. In 1923 the practice of having observation planes spot main battery fall of shot was made standard. While the Fleet was here the planes were taken ashore near Conde Bluff, the casemates of Fort Conde serving as living quarters for the air detachment. The first known aviation fatality in Guantanamo occurred that winter when Lieutenant Eikout, USN, flying a Nieuport Scout, dove into the salt flats adjacent
to the fort.
Langley at Guantanamo
The first lighter-than-air activity at Guantanamo Bay occurred during the Fleet cruise in the spring of 1921, the same year the first aircraft carrier, the Langley, appeared here. During this period the Navy experimented with elevated observation and fire control platforms. A "Kite Balloon Station" was set up on Fisherman's Point and personnel of this activity were berthed in a houseboat secured to the Marine Corps pier at that point. The balloons were unpacked and inflated from a portable hydrogen plant on shore, then towed by motor launch to the respective battleships where they were secured to a quarterdeck winch.
During the winter of 1920 and spring of 1921 the newly formed air group of the USS Langley accompanied the Fleet to Guantanamo Bay and operated from the salt flats of Hicacal Beach. This location continued to be used by landplanes of the Fleet for more than ten years. Eventually some temporary facilities such as a pier, shops, and living quarters were provided at Hicacal Beach, including a concrete ramp for seaplanes.
The experimenting with dirigibles continued in the 1920s and 1930s, and in view of their long cruising radius, the dirigibles Shenandoah, Macon, Los Angeles, and Akron accompanied the Fleet. It was only natural that a mooring mast should be installed at Guantanamo Bay for their use. At that time this was the largest aviation project at this location and the mast was located on what is now McCalla Hill Field. A large circular area around the mast was cleared and a track installed and placed in service in early 1931. This was used during the ensuing four years by all dirigibles except the Akron. Following the ill-fated wreck of the Macon in 1934, the Navy discontinued the dirigible program and no further lighter-than-air activity occurred here until the much smaller type "K" airships were based here in the spring of 1943. The mooring mast and circular track were removed sometime between 1934 and 1939 and were replaced by a landing field for heavier-than-air aircraft. All through the 1920s detachments were sent here in the winter months and operated with The Fleet during maneuvers.
Attention then turned to the high level areas at Leeward Point and McCalla, Hill, and also the area south of Fisherman's Point. The first and third of these were cleared and for a number of years were used by Navy and Marine Corps aircraft during winter cruises. Boundary and obstruction lights and a few temporary buildings were installed at McCalla Hill Field but no facilities except a small pier were provided for Leeward Point.
In early 1938, Project DOG, for the operation of radio controlled aircraft, was established and ordered to Guantanamo Bay. The complement consisted of one officer, one warrant officer and sixteen men; three TC control planes and Five N2C2 drones. The control planes departed the Naval Aircraft Factory and flew to Guantanamo via Key West, Cienfuegos and Camaguey. The N2C2's were flown to Norfolk where they were loaded aboard the USS Ranger and upon arrival, they were flown to McCalla Hill Field. In March 1938 the operations commenced and continued through April. NOLO (pilotless) flights were run from Leeward Point Field, known then as "Hungry Point" due to lack of messing and berthing facilities; in fact it was just a wide open space of coral rock, dust, and scrub palm. During all operations of Project DOG, only one drone was shot down by Fleet vessels. The ships participating in this operation included the destroyer Patterson and the battleships Maryland, California and Utah. All forms of attack were made including dive bombing attacks on the Utah. During these operations, only one drone was knocked out of the air, that being accomplished by the Maryland. This feat resulted in much hilarity and celebration aboard the ship. The original Project DOG ultimately became Squadron VJ-3.
Guantanamo Bay continued to be used annually by seaplanes, and as later models were produced which gave higher performance and greater range, their visits became more frequent. Patrol planes from the Canal Zone operated here during the height of the Canal Zone rainy season, from October to December, and at other times of the year by patrol squadrons for advanced base training. During early spring of 1939 planes of Patrol Wing ONE used this base on their flight from the East to the West Coast and return. No seaplane facilities other than mooring buoys were provided, these planes being serviced by seaplane tenders accompanying them.
Initial development for increasing seaplane activities consisted of a concrete apron and ramp, a double-nose hangar with shop space, a utility building containing a parachute loft, photographic laboratory, and office space. These facilities were completed in the spring of 1939 and were put to immediate use. The expansion continued and in 1940 contracts were let for the construction of a seaplane hangar, an additional ramp and concrete parking area.
Leeward Point offered an excellent landplane operating area under better all-around wind conditions and the Bureau of Aeronautics approved limited facilities in 1939 for a field which would afford additional operating conditions for carrier aircraft.
By the end of 1939 the United States had become vitally conscious of the pressing need for promoting national defense. The turn of events in the European War, with the possibility that this country would eventually be drawn into it, gave rise to the probability of the Caribbean becoming an important defense area. The construction of the Naval Air Station, along with the expansion of the Naval Station into a Naval Operating Base, was a natural consequence. This construction started in 1940 and will be covered in a later chapter.
Go to Chapter Eight