Temporary berthing of the Goodyear Blimp Columbia at Watsonville Airport
by Lou Arbanas
Hard to believe that 50 years had passed since we were entertained by the visit of the Good Year blimp July 9th 1970. The dirigible was temporarily berthed at the Watsonville Airport for the duration of the Goodyear promotional presentation of the craft to the community. Nick Milich from the Register Pajaronian in July of 1970 opined that it had been a long time (30 years) “since blimps trailed their long, lumbering shadows over the Pajaro Valley.” He was referring to the WWII days when we had a blimp base at the corner of High Way 1, and Salinas road.
Aviation was in it’s infancy with experimenters and their daring flying machines and groupies called barnstormers traveled from town to town selling tickets for airplane rides. Local business people shared a vision of the emerging aeronautical age and 400 of them in conjunction with civic minded citizens sold five thousand shares of stock to purchase land to build an airport.
They chose an 85 acre site southwest of the city near the junction of Highway 1 and Salinas road in Monterey County because it was the only land close to Watsonville available at a cheap price. In 1931 Governor James (Sunny Jim) Rolph riding in a Stinson Monoplane piloted by W.W. Bendell of this town, made a low pass over the new airport cutting a ribbon stretched across the runway officially opening the airport. It was not until ten years later in 1941 that it became a US Navy facility. The Navy migrated the airport from private aviation to an auxiliary base out of which housed their blimps to patrol for submarines off our coast. The blimp flight squadrons were based at Moffett Field and Watsonville was an auxiliary field where a blimp and flight crew were stationed. From here blimps took off on 12 hour submarine patrols, convoy escort flights or on many occasions, to perform air-sea rescues.
Crews stationed here would spend a month before being rotated with another crew and blimp. Local men stationed at Watsonville were Don Wilson, George Davis, Vern Dietz and Ron Hill. The base lasted until late 1945 and the property sold May of 1947 by the corporation to Edwin and Flora Peterson for a cattle feed lot. In 1939 efforts were in play by the Civil Aeronautics Authority to create a civil airport in Santa Cruz County. 330 acres were purchased by Watsonville at the current site. The runways were almost completed when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. Once again the military choose Watsonville as a satellite station to NAS
Fifty years ago the pilot of the Good Year blimp Columbia was Dick Widdicombe and was quoted by Nick Milich as saying “ If flying an airplane is like swimming through the air, flying in a blimp is something like floating on your back. And always below you is the great big sausage-shaped shadow.”