AVIATION PIONEER DONALD GORDON IN VALLEY CENTER
Several modern-day air strips dot today’s Valley Center landscape. But the town’s aviation connection actually goes back more than three quarters of a century to the infant days of aeronautics.
Valley Center’s link to aviation’s past is flight pioneer Donald H. Gordon, who built and flew four planes from 1908 to 1917. He began experimenting in Valley Center about 1920 on a little-known flying field that remains in its original undeveloped state along Cool Valley Road east of Cole Grade Road.
Gordon, who grew up in the El Cajon Valley, built and flew a glider and three powered planes on the family’s 160-acre ranch at Bostonia. His was one of the first power flights west of the Mississippi, and was made within six years of the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Earlier, while the Wrights were making their first public flights in 1903, Gordon actually built a glider which took off from the top of the family barn. The contraption collapsed, and plane-building was suspended for several years.
Although he was nearly deaf by 1917, a condition which affected his balance, Gordon nonetheless resumed limited flying in the early Twenties at the Valley Center site, recalled the late historian Grey Wilshin, a friend of Gordon. Wilshin lived on Cool Valley Road on a hilltop overlooking the old flying field. Wilshin, a member of the Library Local History Committee, led a tour of the pioneer aviation site in 1981. He recalled that despite his early flights, Gordon had remained an almost forgotten figure in aviation until 1964 when he was “discovered” and honored by the San Diego Aerospace Museum as “a pioneer inventor, builder and flier of aircraft”. Gordon’s flight history and accomplishments in Valley Center were later uncovered by Wilshin.
Long-time residents along the half-mile flying field on Cool Valley Road recalled hearing stories of the long-ago pioneer flights when they were interviewed for a documentary film produced in 1997 by the Friends of the Valley Center Library. Some residents also mentioned a hangar and barn which once stood on the property. Gordon reportedly lived in the barn. (The film, “Paradise Found: the Valley Center Story” is available on video at the Library.)
Historians say that Gordon did not become famous because he refused to hold public demonstrations as was common among early-day fliers. He moved to Palomar Mountain about 1944, lived in a converted water tower, and remained active on local conservation projects and clearing fire trails until his death in 1968 at age 84.