Stockton’s Stillborn Aircraft Industry

I like to travel on airplanes. But my attitude would change if I discovered they had a nasty habit of falling apart in midair. In-flight disintegration would surely be a public relations nightmare for any airline or airplane manufacturer and probably shatter the confidence of customers. So it was with efforts during the 1930s to build the Capelis Safety Aeroplane in Stockton.

The Capelis Safety Aeroplane XC-12 (ca. 1938).

The Capelis Safety Aeroplane XC-12 (ca. 1938).

Last week, the San Joaquin County Historical Museum received a small collection of historic material related to the Oranges Brothers Airport, in Stockton, the site of which is currently occupied with houses. Among the contents was a prospectus to raise twenty-five thousand dollars for construction of a factory and hangers, as well two six-passenger airplanes.

The founders had big plans: "Several sizes of airplanes from two to fifty passengers are now being designed," reads the prospectus, "construction of which will begin immediately after the Company is completely established in Stockton." Small planes would be sold to "individual fliers at a nominal cost," and large ones placed with "new proposed transcontinental and transoceanic airlines."

The Capelis was the brainchild of Socrates H. Capelis, later modified by University of California professor John E. Younger. Both men valued safety. The only Capelis ever built, the twelve-passenger XC-12, incorporated such revolutionary features as safety glass, retractable landing gear, and gas tanks that could be dropped in an emergency. Plans called for monocoque construction, "the most rigid of all types," entirely of aluminum, and a cockpit "so designed that the pilot has perfect visibility."

Despite its many innovations, the Capelis XC-12 had a fatal shortcoming: Much of the skin was attached with screws, rather than rivets. The screws vibrated, worked their way loose, and frequently needed tightening. (Pilot to terrified passengers: "Don't mind that attendant inching her way across the wing, she's only securing that panel flapping in the wind.") In 1938, authorities grounded the Capelis XC-12 over safety concerns. Moviemaker RKO Pictures bought it the following year for use as a prop.

Memory of the Capelis Safety Aeroplane faded quickly. In 1943, RKO Pictures apparently scrapped the XC-12 after using it in five movies. The most famous of these was Five Came Back (1939), a melodrama whose positive reviews of Lucille Ball's performance helped launch her career as an A-grade actress.

Stockton's fledgling aircraft industry never recovered after the death of the Capelis, for reasons still needing to be explored.

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