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El Cerrito's Airport and Airplane Industry

Airplanes held great interest for many American in the first few decades of the Twentieth Century. The citizens of El Cerrito were no different than other Americans in this respect. Old-timers recall that in the 1910’s and early 20’s, there was a landing strip near the county line in El Cerrito, just south of where Harding School stands today. This landing strip was not improved in any way. It was just a primitive grass field with a few rudimentary markers for pilots. It’s key characteristics were that the area was wide-open and that the area was relatively flat. This made it quite suitable for the aircraft of that era.

Pierre (Peter) Allinio, a French Immigrant who was a renowned artisan and plasterer, tinkered with airplanes for a number of years in the basement of his house at 609 Kearney Street (still standing and very prominent). In fact, a long string of aircraft innovations came out of Mr. Allinio’s basement and rear yard.

Mr. Allinio built a number of planes over the years. He patented automatic stabilizers in 1914 and also built a seaplane that year. He proved his automatic stabilizers on a two-seat biplane he built and flew
in 1916. In 1922 he incorporated his automatic stabilizers on a five-seat model he built. Unfortunately, the advent of gyroscopic autopilots all but eliminated the need for Allinio’s automatic stabilizers. In 1919 he actually drew up plans for a 100-passenger aircraft. He built a five-seater biplane in 1928.

An El Cerrito enterprise of great interest in the late 1920’s was the Capelis Safety Aeroplane Corporation Limited and the construction of the company’s first airplane. The aircraft was put together in the building on the southeast corner of Central Avenue and San Pablo Avenue. Samuel H. Capelis, the inventor, was President; Charles M. Zimmerman was Vice President; L. A. Sirard, publisher of the El Cerrito Journal, was Secretary; and Thomas Phillips was Treasurer. The Board of Directors included a number of well-known citizens including John Grondona, Carlo Fara, W. J. Prater, Charles De Long, Harry C. Schroeder, George Zanes, and several others.

Mr. Capelis was of Greek descent and lived at 7115 Donal Avenue in El Cerrito, about where Castro School now stands. He was well known for the berry farm his family ran on this property, from which they also sold rabbits and goats.

It has been said that the Capelis plane was the first plane with twin motors located on the wing, and that he also invented a special safety stabilizer of some sort. Their first plane was transported to the Oakland Airport, where the Capelis Corporation held their Board meetings, for its first flight. This first flight, which was quite successful, included a pass over El Cerrito. Hundreds of local residents, some of whom were said to have invested in this venture, were outside waving at the plane as it passed over. It was rumored at the time that some of the investors were from another airplane manufacturer, who saw the plans of the Capelis airplane and used them for their own benefit.

The following notes were taken from the El Cerrito Journal of Thursday, May 22, 1930. “One week before this date, the state granted a permit to the Capelis Safety Airplane Corporation Limited to operate a ferry service. The Corporation would also continue with its plan to construct the monster ‘Safety Aeroplane’ designed and patented by Capelis to carry a larger number of passengers than has yet been carried by any heavier than air machine. It is the present plan of the Corporation to eventually build a factory in El Cerrito where the larger planes will be constructed and marketed. The starting of the ferry service is secondary to the plans to build planes.”

Then on Thursday, July 24, 1930 the El Cerrito Journal noted Capelis Safety Aeroplane Corporation Limited was awarded a lease on the Berkeley Municipal wharf at the foot of University Avenue for five years during which time “the Corporation intends to operate an airplane ferry service between Berkeley and San Francisco and at the same time operate to several other points in California.”

The awarding of the lease to the Capelis Corporation was made at the submission of its bid at the public auction held by the Berkeley City Council and at which several other companies were expected to bid. However, the local company’s bid was the only one submitted when the time for bidding arrived.

“The Capelis Safety Aeroplane Corporation Limited, which is composed almost entirely of El Cerrito, Richmond, and Oakland businessmen, intends to start operation of the airplane ferry service as soon as the remaining details of the organization are completed. The Corporation does not intend to abandon its original interest of building airplanes but on the contrary will continue along that line as well as operate the air lines.”

The company unfortunately failed after a couple of years and there is not a lot of information available as to what was the exact invention that Capelis designed, the date of the plane’s first flight, the exact reason why the corporation failed, etc. All of the work the company did do took place in the building at the southeast corner of Central Avenue and San Pablo Avenue. This building is still in use today.

A significant amount of the design for the Capelis airplane was based on the earlier and concurrent work of Peter Allinio. In 1929 Peter’s Allinio’s son Pierre (Jr.) built two scale models of Harry Capelis’ proposed aircraft. Mr. Capelis used these two models to raise a considerable amount of money. Also at this time a man named Younger, who had been a teacher of aeronautical engineering, was put in charge of building the first full-sized aircraft. Instead of building the aircraft according to the model, however, he built a standard twin-engine monoplane. Unfortunately the plane turned out to be overweight and not capable of carrying a reasonable payload. Apparently neither the stockholders nor Capelis realized that the plane being constructed did not match the models.

Thus ends the tale of El Cerrito’s dizzy fling with airplanes.

At right, The “airfield” was located behind the home of young Arnold Anderegg, whose father ran a dairy on Behrens near “B” Street. ECHS photo, ca. 1918.

Copyright Mervin Belfils, October 1975
Copyright El Cerrito Historical Society, June 2006