In Plane Site

By David Moye / Photo by Kristina Yamamoto

If not for the sensitive sniffer of Reuben H. Fleet, America’s Finest might not have become a headquarters for the aerospace industry.

Fleet is the namesake of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park. But in 1935, he was the head of Consolidated Aircraft Corporation located in chilly Buffalo, New York, where frequent snowstorms made testing aircraft difficult, according to his daughter Susan Welsch.

“Dad wanted to move to the West Coast, and both Long Beach and San Diego wanted him to relocate to their cities,” Welsch says. “At the time, Long Beach had a lot of oil wells, and he didn’t like the smell.”

That nose was good news for San Diego, which became a major player in the world of aerospace, and for Consolidated Aircraft Corporation (aka Convair), which became the world’s leading producer of military training planes, also building seaplanes in larger numbers than all other flying boat manufacturers combined.

Convair’s World War II landplane bombers were built in greater quantity than any other aircraft ever produced and helped win victory for the allies. However, Fleet’s impact on San Diego, the U.S. and even the world goes way beyond defense contracts.

In 1918, Fleet, then a 31-year-old Army major, was pulled from his assigned duty of training pilots to fight in World War I and put in charge of something else: A new and experimental concept known as “airmail.”

“Dad was given just a couple of weeks to start up the airmail service,” Welsch says. “He liked to do things right and didn’t think that was enough time.”

Still, he made the deadline. The first regularly scheduled airmail service, between Washington, D.C. and New York City, started May 15, 1918. In his later years, Fleet split his time between homes in Point Loma and Palm Springs.

“Dad was a stickler for education,” Welsch says. “He said that was the best thing you could give a child. He said that a good education could make up for bad shoes or clothes.”

That inclination toward education came out in different ways, both personally and professionally.

“He gave us a summer reading list,” Welsch says. “And he was a stickler for grammar. If you said something the wrong way, he would clear his throat. But, he was a big softie.”

Fleet helped create not only the museum that bears his name, but also the San Diego Aerospace Museum.

“He really wanted to promote the study of math and science,” Welsch says. “If you were to ask him what accomplishment he was proudest of, he’d probably say it was the scholarships he provided for students who needed education.”

Reuben H. Fleet-one for the books, in more ways than one.