WWII PILOT TRAINING AT SILVER LAKE
After December 7, 1941, and entry of the United States into World War II, all civilian flights were forbidden within 150 miles of the California coast. As a result, all pilot training and civilian aviation was either discontinued or was required to move their operations to a desert location. Silver Lake, a playa (dry lake bed) located in the Mojave Desert, became home for civilian students enrolled in the Chaffey College pilot training program. Because of its smooth flat topography and hard surface this waterless basin proved ready-made for the take-off and landing of aircraft.
Chaffey College was ahead of the times. An Aeronautics School opened its doors in 1929 and began training students in the art of flying and preparing them for obtaining their pilot’s license. Careers in aeronautical engineering got their start here. And, in the early days of aviation, some students, enrolled in the air maintenance program, kept busy building and refurbishing aircraft as part of their course work. In 1939, they rebuilt a Jennie J-N-4 Curtis biplane that flew the wrong way in a feature movie about “Wrong-Way” Corrigan. [Douglas Corrigan, who in 1936, against federal regulations flew from New York to Ireland. He later stated that he thought he was headed to Los Angles but his faulty compass and thick fog misled him. Throughout the remainder of his life he stuck to his story.]
By the summer of ’42 the Silver Lake campus had settled into full operation. Initially, the men arrived in groups of 100 for six weeks of basic ground school and flight training. The program was conducted by civilian instructors under the aegis of the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program. After completing the six week course, students became eligible for transfer to the military for further training. Evelyn Kilgore, the first woman pilot in the United States to receive a secondary (commercial) rating, joined the Silver Lake staff as senior flight instructor. [In later years, I got to know this woman as Pinky Brier owner of the San Bernardino Tri-City Airport and expert desert pilot.]
The physical plant included two barracks for the trainees and one for the instructors; a small office; a building that housed classrooms, a dining room and kitchen; a utility building; and a restroom and shower building. A total of 23 aircraft toed-the-line including: Cubs, Wacos, Travelairs and Fleets purchased from around southern California and repaired and outfitted for training by Chaffey students enrolled in the college’s air maintenance program located in Ontario. For the first six months, trainees lived in tents.
Headquarters and Camp Layout
Pasadena City College’s training campus operated out of the Silver Lake Airfield located about 5 miles north of Baker. Established by the Department of Commerce in the ‘30s it provided intermediate service to pilots flying the Los Angeles-Salt Lake Airway corridor. It had a beacon with rotating 24 inch light to direct those risky night flights across the desert.