There have been at least four air ferry services from Oakland (later Alameda) to San Francisco, two in 1914 and two in the 1930s. These were long before the more well-known helicopter service from Oakland that began in 1961. The route was frequently called "the world's shortest air line."

1914 Aermaide

1914 3

As part of the preparations for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) in 1915, the Chamber of Commerce announced that aviator Weldon Cooke was to begin an aerial ferry service in 1914, and the airplane used would be called The Oakland. Cooke had applied to city officials to create a terminal near the foot of Broadway. 1 Another article mentioned L.Y. Leakes, and noted they hoped to start service within a month. 2

Service began in May 1914, with pilot Silas Christofferson at the wheel of the Aermaide (sometimes written Airmaid), and San Francisco mayor James Rolph as the first passenger. Oakland mayor Frank Mott was to be the passenger on the return trip, but was detained by important business. 3

The takeoffs and landings were in the water, so the government determined that lifejackets were required for each passenger, 4 and later that the planes needed to have red and green lights and a horn for signaling passing craft. 11 Air travel was still very new, and water added a new element. On May 17, the Aermaide was forced to land early and needed to be towed to shore. Passengers Lloyd Tevis and his fiancee, Lee Girvin, were soaked by the waves. 8 A few weeks after that Weldon Cooke dipped a wing into the water and had to be towed ashore. There was no mention of passengers on that flight. 9

In June, Cooke asked the North Beach Improvement Association for help in getting the San Francisco landing moved from the foot of Mission Street to the Jones Street wharf, so that it would be closer to the PPIE grounds. 10

It's unknown when the service was discontinued, but newspaper references fade away after that. Cooke died in September 1914, and Christofferson in 1916. 13

1914 Airy Ferry

Around the time of the inaugural flight of the Aermaide, a competing air ferry was announced, with pilot Roy Francis to fly Florence Dunnock across the bay. 5 A reader of the San Francisco Chronicle had dubbed it the Airy Ferry. 6 But just a few days after the service started, Roy Francis crashed near Yerba Buena (then Goat Island) with company president John Lekus (or Lekas?) aboard. They survived, but the plane was badly damaged. 7 The service may have stopped at that point, because references to the Airy Ferry mostly stop at that point, except the occasional article conflating it with the Aermaide.

1930 California, Stanford, and St. Mary's

in San Francisco, courtesy San Diego Air and Space Museum 12

In November 1929, Air Ferries, Ltd. announced they planned an air ferry service from Oakland to San Francisco with 6 planes that would fly 7AM to 1:30AM. 14 Joseph Tynan, Jr. was the president. The service started with 3 planes, the California, the Stanford, and the St. Mary's, which were christened in January 1930, and service from 7:15AM to 6:00PM. The Oakland end was near the foot of Franklin Street, and the San Francisco end was at Pier 5. 15,16 Special docks with ramps were constructed to allow the planes to roll up out of the water, to make it easier for the passengers to embark and disembark.

Service began February 1, 1930, and the fair was $1.50 for the 6 minute flight. The flights were very popular when the service began. In the first two days, the Tribune reported that over 1,500 passengers had been carried, with 900 on the opening day. Foggy weather delayed the start of flights on the second day. 16 After 8 days of service, Air Ferries, Ltd. announced that 4,138 people had been carried, and said a route to Vallejo would open in about two weeks and a route to Sacramento in about a month. 17

Initially the Loening C-2 amphibious planes were allowed to carry 6 passengers at a time. After additional load testing, they were given permission to carry 7 passengers at a time. 18 In March, the San Francisco to Vallejo route was added along with a 4th plane. As he had been with the Aermaide 16 years before, San Francisco mayor James Rolph was one of the first passengers. 19

January 1929 15January 1929 16February 1, 1929

In April 1930, they had their first accident. An Oakland-bound plane was taking off from San Francisco, and was hit by a wave from the ferryboat Eureka and tipped back into the water. The two pilots and a company employee were trapped in the sinking plane, but were rescued by a tugboat and the plane towed a nearby pier. 20

June brought another, more serious accident. While taking off, one of the planes hit a tugboat, catapulted onto a barge, and flipped into the water. Several passengers were hurt; doctors feared the Mrs. J.E. Hawley would die. 21 Several days after the accident she paralyzed on the left side, but able to speak. Her husband James Hawley filed a lawsuit in October.

August 1930 21

The accidents didn't seem to slow business much. After 6 months operation, Air Ferries, Ltd. had carried more than 46,000 passengers. 22 It was then reported in November that Standard Oil had acquired a controlling interest in the airline. 23

Business continued apace. In August 1931 they announced they were working with Varney Air Service to have package delivery between the Bay Area and Sacramento. 24 In September, they even had a couple get married at 2,000 feet in one of their planes. 25

But in December 1931, they abruptly announced they were shutting down operations at the end of the year. At that point they had carried 78,583 passengers between Oakland and San Francisco, and handled 10,783 parcels in 6 months. 26

1932 Bay Wind

Within days of Air Ferries, Ltd. shutting down, Walter Varney of Varney Air Service announced they were re-establishing the transbay service, with a 5-passenger Sikorsky-39 amphibious plane, the Bay Wind, with a second on order. 27,28,29,30

One of the last references found to the air ferry is about Mrs. Phoebe Winters celebrating her 80th birthday with a flight over the Bay. 31

While Varney Air Service had other problems, such as a March 1933 crash on the Los Angeles to Oakland run that killed 13 people, including 5 members of the Ariso family, 32 references to the air ferry service mostly just fade away. The air ferry service was unlikely to be competitive with the Bay Bridge, which opened in July 1933. Varney eventually became part of Continental Airlines.

Links and References

  1. "The Oakland" To Run On Aeroplane Ferry Oakland Tribune March 17, 1914
  2. Proposed Aeroplane Service Across Bay Salinas Daily Index March 21, 1914
  3. Mayor Passenger in First Air-Ferry Trip San Francisco Examiner May 15, 1915 (p2)
  4. Life Preservers on Sky Ferry Over Bay San Francisco Examiner May 16, 1915
  5. Competing Aerial Ferry Announced Morning Echo (Bakersfield) May 17, 1915
  6. Airy Ferry Is One Winner's Suggestion San Francisco Chronicle May 10, 1915
  7. Airy Ferry Has Fall Into Bay San Francisco Examiner May 19, 1915
  8. Tevis and His Fiancee In Air-Ferry Wreck San Francisco Examiner May 17, 1915
  9. Aviator Takes Dip Into Water of Bay San Francisco Examiner May 26, 1915
  10. Ask For Car Line To Waterfront San Francisco Examiner June 7, 1914
  11. Sky Pilots Perch Side by Side as Aermaide Cruises Oakland Tribune May 20, 1914
  12. 187. Loening C2H, NC65K, Air Ferries, San Francisco courtesy San Diego Air And Space Museum
  13. Christofferson Killed In Fall Of New Biplane San Francisco Chronicle November 1, 1916
  14. To Forge 'Air Link' Between Oakland and San Francisco Oakland Tribune January 29, 1930
  15. "I Christen Thee 'Stanford'" Oakland Tribune January 30, 1930
  16. Contact Oakland Tribune February 3, 1930
  17. Flying Ferries Oakland Tribune February 11, 1930
  18. Increase Plane Capacity Oakland Tribune February 14, 1930
  19. Aerial Ferry to Vallejo Opened Oakland Tribune March 27, 1930
  20. Three Saved As Air Ferry Turns Over On S.F. Bay Oakland Tribune April 15, 1930
  21. Air Ferry Plunges Into Estuary After Collision Oakland Tribune June 2, 1930 (p2)
  22. Air Ferries Carries 46,000 in 6 Months Oakland Tribune September 4, 1930
  23. Standard Oil Reported to Be Owner of Air Ferries Oakland Tribune November 6, 1930
  24. Extension of Parcel Service By Air Planned Oakland Tribune August 5, 1931
  25. Couple Married 2000 Ft. in Air Oakland Tribune September 7, 1931
  26. Air Ferries, Ltd. Will Suspend Oakland Tribune December 24, 1931
  27. Air Ferry To Resume Flight Oakland Tribune February 22, 1932
  28. Contact Oakland Tribune January 6, 1932
  29. Air Ferries Oakland Tribune April 18, 1932
  30. Contact Oakland Tribune December 23, 1932
  31. Eastbay Woman Celebrates 80th Birthday in Airplane Oakland Tribune February 24, 1933
  32. Craft Strikes House, Explodes; 10 Cremated San Francisco Examiner March 26, 1933