Editor's note: This concludes the two-part series on Allan G. Hancock.
Both the history of aviation in Santa Maria and Hancock College stem from one fateful day in 1925 when George Tunnell stopped a railroad train, with G. Allan Hancock at the throttle, to offer him a slice of watermelon. Hancock had purchased the Santa Maria Valley Railroad at a bankruptcy sale that same year.
What they talked about is anyone’s guess, but in January of the following year, Hancock purchased 80 acres of the Tunnell ranch. A short time later, he began a farming operation, which he named Rosemary Farms in honor of his only daughter, Rosemary.
In the years to follow Hancock, one of the country’s wealthiest men who was already renowned in the field of marine science, shifted his interests to aviation. In doing so, he opened the doors to aviation Santa Maria.
Hancock’s interest in aviation began when Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith taught him to fly. Kingsford-Smith went on to pilot the Fokker tri-motor Southern Cross from Oakland to Australia, thus effecting the first flight from the United States to Australia. Charles T.P. Ulm was his co-pilot. As a token of his esteem, Hancock, who owned the Southern Cross and who totally financed the flight, sent a telegram scheduled to arrive when the Southern Cross landed in Australia, transferring title to the airship to Kingsford-Smith and Ulm.
On July 8, 1930, the Southern Cross arrived at Hancock Field, where its crew was met by Hancock, Acting Mayor W. Walter Stokes and a cheering crowd. Kingsford-Smith intended to return he Southern Cross to Hancock, but Hancock felt that it should be presented to a museum. Some years later, it was givento the Australian National Museum in Canberra.
Thousands of Californians flocked to Santa Maria on Oct. 21, 1928, to witness the dedication of Hancock Field, a landing strip that Hancock had established on his open land bounded within the Santa Maria Railroad, Miller Street and Stowell Road.
The best pilots from both the Army Air Corps and the U.S. Navy put on an air show that transfixed the spectators who watched from below. As a result of the excitement and interest shown, plans were made to open both an airline and a school to train pilots.
Hancock opened the Hancock School of Aeronautics on Oct. 21, 1928, a school that was destined to become one of the most important military training sites in the country as the dark days of World War II loomed ahead.
The school opened with five airplanes and a handful of students. However, as more and more men became interested, the classes quickly grew.
Hancock decreed the highest possible standards at the lowest possible cost to his flight students. Not everyone made the grade.
The school flourished until 1934, when the country was in the throes of the Great Depression. Enrollment was suspended until 1938.
In 1939, the aeronautics school entered into a contract with Santa Maria Union High School and the Junior College, making it a part of the Cadet Ground School Training Program.
Hancock School was to furnish the building and certain materials and the high school would furnish the instructors to teach the cadets airplane mechanics and airplane engines. Night classes in navigation and meteorology were started in 1941.
In May of 1939, with war clouds gathering throughout the world, Hancock was among eight flying school operators summoned to Washington by General Henry H. (Hap) Arnold, chief of the Army Air Corps.
Addressing the group, Arnold came right to the point. The Corps desperately needed pilots, but the government lacked the means with which to provide the training. When he asked the men to contract with the government to provide such training, Hancock was one of the first to agree to the request. From that time on, all of the captain’s energy, experience and facilities were centered on the country’s defense efforts.
Hancock brought in the people he felt could do the job and do it well. Lt. Ross McBride, of Los Angeles, was recruited to head the faculty. W.E. Strobridge, already well known in Santa Maria as the conductor of the Community Orchestra, was brought in as the head of welfare.
All of the flight instructors holding certificates of proficiency from the Air Force Training Center were graduates of the flight instructor's course at Randolph, with most of them being rated as airplane pilots and members of the Air Corps Reserve.
Both the mechanical and flying divisions were under the highest-trained experts that could be found and were the school’s last word in efficiency. The students, in general, were introduced to anything that could be flown.
Other buildings, including eight barracks structures, were put up as needed. Four auxiliary flying fields were added, three of them two-way fields.
The Hancock School was the only school of the original nine that sent instructors to Randolph Field for a two-week refresher course in flying-related subjects.
Since the school had been in operation for more than 10 years at the time that the contract had been signed with the government for use as a Civilian Contract School, Hancock Field came ready equipped with runways, hangars, shops and barracks.
By the time World War II ended in 1945, civilian school contractors had trained more than 200,000 pilots for the Army, thereby saving the government $1 billion in that particular phase of the war effort.
In addition to being an experienced pilot, Hancock was a mariner of long experience and licensed to master any ship of any tonnage on any ocean. After passing an exam for master mariner's license, the resulting document authorized Hancock to "captain" a vehicle of any size. In addition to funding the 1928 flight of the Southern Cross, he had spent many years in conducting voyages of scientific exploration throughout the eastern Pacific.
With the Hancock School of Aeronautics being a far cry from other drab duty stations, the new cadets began to wonder when they’d have to start paying dues to this "country club.” The dream ended, though, when the newness wore off and the men began to buckle down to the job at hand.
Men came and went, with not everyone making the grade. Those who were to be eliminated were brought before the academic board and within 24 hours were returned to their prior duty stations for reclassification. The remaining men were ready to begin intensive training.
In 1942, when the 12-week course was reduced to nine weeks, the classes remained the same. Instructors just needed to cram more information into a smaller time period.
Hancock paid for everything except for the telephone and wire services.
Although the school had a chaplain, it had neither an official chapel nor much time in which to hold services.
On Sundays, when the school was virtually deserted, there was no need for services. However, when a new class was in quarantine, both Protestant and Catholic services were held at the school.
Since a cadet could not go home, except for a most urgent emergency (such as sickness or a death in the family), most other problems resulted in a visit by the cadet to the chaplain. The chaplain also met with the cadets’ wives and became their adviser.
The Little Theater, which Hancock had built many years before as a community center for theatrical and motion picture entertainment, was reconditioned for the use of the members of the Cadet Club. Its floors were sanded and waxed to create an ideal dance floor, and its stage accommodated a full dance orchestra.
Mrs. Wallace Van Hise was the Cadet Club’s founder and first hostess. Mrs. Louis Crawford, a longtime teacher at Santa Maria Union High School, was hired by the college to help look out for the welfare of the cadets as well as their wives and friends. Mrs. C.B. Fergusen served as her assistant.
Working tirelessly on behalf of the cadets, Crawford served as principal hostess at the cadet club until the government’s contract with the school was terminated on June 30, 1944.
The 8,414 cadets who completed the required courses went on to distinguish themselves in battle, with some giving their lives in the service of their country.
Shirley Contreras lives in Orcutt and writes for the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society. She can be contacted at 623-8193 or at email@example.com. Her book, “The Good Years,” a selection of stories she’s written for the Santa Maria Times since 1991, is on sale at the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society, 616 S. Broadway.
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