TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE — If the Navy needed to quickly get torpedo warheads to its ships fighting the Japanese in the Solomon Islands, the Navy called Consairway.
When first lady Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to tour the South Pacific to boost the troops’ morale, the White House called Consairway.
From 1943 to 1945, the civilian contract air transport firm flew out of Travis Air Force Base, then called the Fairfield-Suisun Army Air Base, to airfields scattered throughout every corner of the south and central Pacific to supply American forces.
“We were the only non-military airline to support American forces in the Pacific,” said Bob Keefer, a former Consairway flight engineer in a March 1993 Daily Republic interview.
Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft in San Diego created Consolidated Airways – or Consairway – in late 1941 as the company’s air transport division, delivering new aircraft to Army Air Force bases and overseas buyers, according to a history of Consairway.
Its first job was delivering aircraft to Allied nations such as the Netherlands and Great Britain.
Once the war broke out in the Pacific, Consairway provided American troops with a constant flow of war material flown across the Pacific.
Up to then, other air transport companies crossed the Pacific using flying boats. Consairway was the first one to use land-based aircraft.
Consairway moved from San Diego to two hangars at the Fairfield-Suisun Army Air Base in November 1943. Air Transport Command had taken over the base on Feb. 8, 1943, making it a major aerial supply jump-off point for the Pacific War Zone, nine months before Consairway entered the local picture.
Many of the Consairway aircrews flew up to the base, while the ground personnel and families who decided to move with the company had to drive 12 hours to get to their new home.
“The maintenance people alone doubled the population of Vacaville and Fairfield,” said Keefer. “The women had come up a week earlier to size up the two communities.”
“Waterman Park in Fairfield and another housing area in Vacaville was built by the government to house the people,” said former Consairway flier Bob Beeman, who later became a Vallejo lawyer.
The Waterman Park homes weren’t painted, although each had an icebox with ice delivered by Fairfield Mayor Bud Huck. Mud was everywhere when it rained. Waterman Park did have a cafeteria, dining hall and a nursing school, according to Consairway veteran Wes Hodgette in a Consairway history document.
Employees formed a private club called Hangar Five, based in a former stable near Willotta Oaks.
“The building was refurbished and decorated by Consairway personnel. Floors and walls were painted and a bar was built,” Hodgette wrote. “Beer was provided free. Stronger beverages were provided by members and stored behind the bar with their names on the bottles.”
A band made up of employees provided dance music. The club also offered craps tables and slot machines.
On one Fourth of July, a Consairway LB-30, an early transport version of the B-24 Liberator bomber, thundered low over Fairfield as part of a war bond drive, bombing the city with leaflets and $25 gift certificates, Hodgette wrote.
When Consairway set up shop at the Fairfield-Suisun Army Air Base, the base consisted of little more than hangars and a collection of hastily constructed tar paper buildings. The cold wind seldom stopped blowing, Beeman remembered.
With only 17 aircraft, Consairway still launched two flights daily. The Consairway work force grew to 1,00o people by 1944 and a hectic schedule didn’t allow aircrews much time on the ground, Beeman said.
Constantly busy maintenance shops and work stands were able to service two aircraft at a time.
“There was a line of others waiting outside constantly,” Keefer said. “There were already built-up engines ready to hang to replace the worn-out ones coming in.”
“Work went on night and day,” said the retired Consairway flight engineer in a 1993 Daily Republic interview. “It was amazing how much commitment there was.”
Consairway pilots took a dim view of the military weather forecasters’ skills at predicting conditions, taking off no matter what the conditions were. Consairway veterans proudly stated that none of their airplanes ever turned back due to bad weather, adding that the rugged construction of the LB-30 could take it. It also helped that while Consairway was subject to some military regulations, it was free of others, allowing the crews to fly for longer periods of time and in weather that would ground Army Air Force aircraft.
“They got better weather information from Consairway crews returning from the Pacific because they have to fly through the stuff coming back,” Beeman said.
The Consairway aircrews set several records, such as completing a round trip from Fairfield to Australia and back in three days, 23 hours and 20 minutes, as well as flying from Hawaii to San Francisco in eight hours and 55 minutes.
If the cargo could be fitted into an LB-30, Consairway could fly it anywhere the military wanted, even past the guns of Japanese-occupied islands. The LB-30s often got there faster than the military, Consairway veterans said.
Consairway pilots often had more experience than their military counterparts, because the Consairway fliers already had considerable military flying experience under their belts when they signed up for the airline.
Toward the end of the war, rumors started floating around that Consairway would become a commercial airline once the war ended, but maneuvering by a large international carrier eliminated that idea and it spelled the end of Consairway.
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.