Speaker details history of Torrey Pines Gliderport

By Jonathan Van Dyke


A packed house of spectators was treated to the robust history of La Jolla’s own Torrey Pines Gliderport during the La Jolla Historical Society’s annual members meeting on Monday night at St. James by-the-Sea Church.

Dr. Gary Fogel, aviation historian, detailed the pioneers of engineless aviation, many of whom took to the skies off the coast of La Jolla.

The gliderport “is the last of its kind,” he said, noting that it was part of the National Register of Historical Places.

The idea of man and machine in flight took off with John J. Montgomery in Otay Mesa during the 1880s — he is actually credited as the first American to fly, said Fogel, a former president of the Torrey Pines Soaring Council who is also active in the Hisotrical Association of Glider Clubs of Southern California.

Frazier Curtis ushered in the first flights off the Torrey Pines cliffs in 1910.

Fogel reflected on just how wild it was for these early aviators who were legends a hundred years ago.

“You could buy your own (glider plane) kit, and take your chances (off the cliffs),” he said.

“Gliders represented a very inexpensive way (to fly).”

The first gliders were meant to strictly fly from a high place and “glide” down hill, but then sailplanes became popular and offered new opportunities for continued flight — taking into account wind physics much more heavily.

“They would sail back and forth on those four miles off the cliffs,” Fogel said, describing Torrey Pines special wind physics.

La Jolla’s national landmark saw many big aviation names come through, including Charles Lindbergh, who managed an early 20-minute flight from Mt. Soledad in 1930 that was the first recorded use by a glider pilot of the lifts off Torrey Pines.

The spot hosted the large Pacific Coast Mid-Winter Soaring Championships from 1947 until 1985, drawing thousands of avid fans.

“Clearly, it’s this Torrey Pines connection that helped all these fantastic people go on to do fantastic things,” Fogel added, noting how the gliderport was used to test a number of aerodynamic designs and concepts.

While development has encroached on the field some, Fogel and his peers aim to protect this small part of La Jolla heritage — one that continues to serve a thoughtful and recreational purpose.

“That lift (from the wind) hasn’t changed at all — it’s just the forms we use to glide,” Fogel said.

For the Historical Society, it was also a night to take inventory — and the large crowd had members very optimistic looking toward the future.

“This is one of the biggest crowds I remember,” President Connie Branscomb said.

She said they are particularly looking forward to moving the society’s archives into the new temperature-controlled facility.

“This is one of our main goals, to preserve the resources we have,” she said.

Treasurer Don Yeckel noted that, like many nonprofits, the society was dealing with some financial shortfalls, but that they were still very much “financially sound,” and he was proud of how the organization was progressing.

“This is becoming a very dynamic organization in recent years,” he said.

Lydia McNeil, Courtney Ann Coyle and Clarke Herring were unanimously selected to the board.