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The neighborhood airstrip that time nearly forgot

Posted: November 21st, 2014 | College Area, Communities, Features, Top Stories | No Comments

Tom Leech

I arrived here from the Midwest about five decades ago to work in aerospace out in Kearny Mesa. In those days, Mission Valley had a far different look and style than today. Interstate 8 had not arrived yet, and red lights at Texas Street, Murphy Canyon Road and College Avenue (if memory serves me correctly) controlled traffic on the two lanes heading both directions on old Highway 80.

Mission Valley Center had recently been activated, with fields of cattle still providing a steady farm scent as you drove east from the center. It was a smell that reminded me of the considerable time I spent out on grandma’s farm, where the dairy cows were regular participants. I recall giving a speech to my College Area Toastmasters Club about the value of those farm critters to the atmosphere of what was slowly becoming a fast developing Mission Valley.

One other memory, though this one was in the vague category, was knowing about the airstrip that was out there somewhere near the State College (not University yet). Yes, there was an airstrip out there, sort of on the mesa east from Fairmount Avenue, and occasionally you could see a small plane arriving or departing from up there. I never actually did see the airstrip, but clearly one had to be up there.

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A P-47 Thunderbolt, the same plane flown by pioneering pilot Betty Gillies. (Courtesy Tony Hisgett/Flickr via Creative Commons)

As the years passed, so did those small airplanes, and eventually none were appearing, so presumably that airstrip was inactivated. It was not a major factor in the region’s transportation system, so little was said or written about it.

Fast forward to recent times. I’ve asked a few cronies from back there about that airstrip in the eastern part of Mission Valley and no one seems to have any recollection.

“How could there have been an air field out in the San Diego State area? That makes no sense,” is sort of a typical response.

Well, the facts are that yes, there was an airstrip out there. By poking around with the search buttons, a few tidbits can be found, and the story has some tantalizing tidbits about it.

You’ve likely read about some religious folks who believe someday, maybe soon, a major league “rapture” will occur and the select few will fly off up into the far sky somewhere to hook up with a major vessel waiting for them (check the several popular books by former San Diegan Tim LeHaye for specifics).

Back in the 1930s and early 1940s, a leader of a Jehovah’s Witnesses group had similar thoughts about major destruction and when a cataclysmic event would occur. According to this leader, an important spot where a select few would survive was a section of land on that mesa west of today’s San Diego State. He built a special “compound” of several structures on that barren land and waited — and waited. Finally, after he died and the major shakeup did not occur, the land was sold and an air field arrived.

The religious leader was Joseph Rutherford, who in 1917 was elected second president of the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, a Jehovah’s Witnesses leadership group with its main headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. In 1929, Rutherford was able to get the San Diego land and built a mansion: Beth Sarim, the “House of the Princes,” who were a group of biblical religious icons. The larger property was known as Beth Shan (a Hebrew holy city mentioned in the Bible). Rutherford wintered in San Diego, driving to and fro with his two 16-cylinder Cadillacs, and enjoying the good life of San Diego with an oft-consumed alcohol supply (he was well-known for a well-flavored lifestyle) and a workforce at the ready.

After some time, Rutherford was offered $75,000 for the 100 acres; however, he could not sell it because he had placed the property in the name of the Princes. He died in 1942, and after considerable legal wrangling the land was sold in 1948.

The buyers were a husband-wife team of professionalaviators who saw another valuable use for that large flat area on the mesa. Brewster “Bud” Gillies had been a vice president of Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp. With the start of World War II, pilots of the male type were in demand to fly U.S. military aircraft being cranked out in increasingly large numbers, which created a problem for Grumman and other aircraft companies that needed personnel to test their planes and deliver them to various locations. Gillies believed that hiring women pilots was a viable solution to these problems, and he was a key player in achieving that result.

His wife, Betty Gillies, helped tremendously. In 1939, she became president of the Ninety-Nines, the International Women Pilots Association. The Ninety-Nines was founded in 1929 and by 1940 had become a strong network with more than 400 women pilots. The group, and Gillies in particular, was working hard to create new flying possibilities and to remove the restrictions imposed on women flyers. In 1942, she was the first pilot to qualify for the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron. In March of 1943, she became the first woman to fly the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter aircraft. (I was a big fan of that aircraft, arguing with my pals about which fighter was best.) She ferried various aircraft within the continental United States including the B-17 bomber, the P-38 fighter and others.

After some careful, progressively more-involved phases, Bud Gillies’ efforts were supported by Grumman, and soon women became test pilots on Grumman Hellcat fighter airplanes and key players for many previously male-only aviation roles. (The famous pilot Jacqueline Cochran became president of the Ninety-Nines in 1941.)

With the end of the war, the Gillies arrived in San Diego and made an offer to the Jehovah’s Witnesses for that puzzling piece of land on the mesa. After more legal finagling, the Gillies got the land and the state of California issued an airport permit, dated Sept. 30, 1949, authorizing the Gillies to construct and operate a Class S-I Airport on their new land. Little info exists about the airstrip’s operation.

Residential development began in 1948 on an adjoining section of that mesa. Lots were for sale north of the airstrip, according to a history of Alvarado Estates. They went for $5,000. Marketing materials noted that you could fly in and out with your own plane, then taxi it over to your own lot and house. How many new developments could offer that benefit? After a while that was no longer seen as a benefit, and following further development, the airstrip was shut down in 1965. On that same space, another set of lots was set up, thus replacing the planes with luxury housing.

Greg Lambron is a local attorney who grew up in Alvarado Estates and has written articles for the Estates Community about those early arrangements.

“I would often see the small planes, such as Cessnas, flying in and out,” he said. “The Gillies lived in the house that had been the Jehovah’s Witnesses compound. They were friends with my dad and we’d often head down to the Town & Country for lunch.”

The Gillies lived there until the mid-1960s, then moved up to Rancho Santa Fe. Greg’s family moved into that same house in 1967.

“As a kid I’d often see older people, some wearing overcoats, looking at our house and asking ‘Is this the Temple?’ My dad would say it was not.”

Today, Alvarado Estates is a major locked-gate community up from Montezuma Road onto Yerba Buena Drive. A few blocks east is another compound, a hugely active institution called San Diego State University. And the Gillies’ airstrip is remembered only by a few — mainly those living right there.

—Along with wife Leslie Johnson-Leech, Tom Leech is the author of the new children’s Christmas poetry book, “The Curious Adventures of Santa’s Wayward Elves,” available at xlibris.com and amazon.com. For info about all his books, visit presentationspress.com.

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