The National Air Races began in 1920 and the first Pulitzer Trophy race was held at Cleveland Airport in 1929. This event helped make the races a major American event and was important in promoting air travel and advancing aircraft research and development. With the exception of 1930, 1933, 1936, and the war years 1940-45, the races were held in Cleveland until 1949. (Encyclopedia of Cleveland History)
In an effort to promote public safety during these events, the Cleveland Division of Police became the second local police agency in the United States to establish an air force, the New York Police Department being the first. In 1931, Cleveland Public Safety Director Edwin D. Barry sought authority from Cleveland City Council to deputize several former World War One pilots as special police officers and establish the Cleveland Air Police. Described in The Cleveland Plain Dealer on April 24, 1931:
Low flying aviators will join other traffic offenders in “telling it to the judge” when Cleveland’s newly formed aerial police squadron goes into action several weeks hence and begins patrolling the great open spaces above the city with an eye to violators of the air code.
Organization of the squadron, second of its kind in the country, was announced last night by Safety Director Edwin D. Barry. Fourteen Cleveland pilots, all with long records of achievement in aviation, will compromise the personnel.
Police Chief George J. Matowitz will have command of the unit, members of which will serve without compensation, although they will wear special police uniforms patterned after those of the New York squadron, and will wear badges designating their rank and bearing the words “Cleveland Air Police” and a wing insignia.
Drills for the unit will be held twice a month, Matowitz said, with emphasis on formation flying for escort work. One of more of the squadron personnel will be on duty at Cleveland Airport on all special occasions and on Sundays. No member of the force will perform any police duty other than that necessary in connection with escorts and violation of air regulations.
In direct charge of the unit will be Clifford W. Henderson, manager of the National Air Races, who will have the title of flight commander. There will also be two captains, nine lieutenants, a flight surgeon, a provost marshal and an adjutant.
At the beginning, members of the squadron will make their own arrangements for the planes they will use. Later plans for raising funds to purchase ships will be considered.
Functions of the unit will not be confined to aerial traffic patrol alone, Chief Matowitz said. The squadron will also serve to find and aid persons in distress on the lake, to escort visiting famous flyers and army and navy delegations, and especially to keep order during the national air races.
“The Chief and I felt for some time that with the increasing number of planes that use Cleveland Airport some provision should be made for adequate policing of the air,” Director Barry said. “After Commander Henderson told us of a near calamity during the Chicago air races, we determined to form a squadron of police flyers.”
“It will be the duty of Cleveland’s flying police to escort flying dignitaries who may visit the city and to enforce observation of all state laws covering flying. These laws have been patterned after those of the United States Department of Commerce.
The new arm of the law may also be called on to transport officers to other cities or to bring back prisoners, Chief Matowitz indicated. Ships, trains and automobiles often prove too slow or dangerous and planes have been used this way elsewhere about the country, he added. If the unit demonstrates a practical value, the city undoubtedly will see fit to organize a permanent, compensated unit, the police heads promised.
The local flyers who will comprise the Cleveland Aerial Police are as follows:
- CHIEF GEORGE J. MATOWITZ, who said that he might now have to learn to fly.
- FLIGHT COMMANDER CLIFFORD W. HENDERSON, 500 hours flying time and a lieutenant in the air corps reserve.
- CAPT. E. W. (POP) CLEVELAND, a commercial pilot since 1912 with 7,000 hours and a flying instructor during the war.
- CAPT. GERALD H. McCLELLAND, 2,700 hours time, lieutenant senior grade, United States naval aviation reserve.
- LIEUT. WARREN D. WILLIAMS, eleven years a mail pilot on the New York-Chicago route, 9,000 hours flying time.
- LIEUT. SAMUEL J. TAYLOR, hero of the forced landing of a passenger plane in the city several years ago, and now a pilot on the New York-Chicago mail-passenger airline, 5,000 hours.
- LIEUT. SAMUEL J. SAMSON, holder of the Cleveland-New York and New York-Cleveland passenger plane speed records. A pilot on that route with 8,000 hours flying time.
- LIEUT. FRANK BURNSIDE, a pilot since 1911, now engaged in aeronautical research work in Cleveland. An army instructor during the war and a mail pilot afterward. Nine thousand hours of flying time.
- LIEUT. LEE PECK, war pilot and president of the Cleveland Aviation Club.
- LIEUT. E. H. ZISTEL, war flyer and major in command of the 112th Observation Squadron, Ohio National Guard. Three thousand hours.
- LIEUT. EDWIN G. THOMPSON, president of the Thompson Aeronautical Corp. and one of Cleveland’s first private plane owners.
- LIEUT. EDWARD REMBERT, vice president in charge of sales, Great Lakes Aircraft Co. Formerly a lieutenant in the United States navy aviation branch, 3,000 hours flying time.
- LIEUT. CLIFFORD GILDERSLEEVE, executive vice president, National Air Race Corp. Lieut. Gildersleeve will serve as treasurer of the police squadron.
- FLIGHT SURGEON DR. HERBERT WRIGHT, an officer of the 112th Observation Squadron.
- PROVOST MARSHAL – LIEUT. COL. THOMAS J. HERBERT, air officer of the 37th Division, O.N.G. and counsel to the Ohio Public Utilities Commission.
- ADJT. J. P. BUCKEY, secretary to Traffic Commissioner Edward J. Donahue. Buckey, active in organizing the police squadron, is now learning to fly at the Lake County Airport, Willoughby, O.
(Reprinted from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 24, 1931)
Cleveland Police Museum Trustee and Cleveland Air History Expert Thomas Matowitz reflected on this unique police activity:
A few years back I wrote a book about Cleveland’s National Air Races. During the course of my research, I made several new friends. Recently one of them contacted me with a question about an unusual badge. Very high quality and made of brass, it closely resembles standard CPD badges from the 1930s. This is how it differs. Instead of saying Cleveland Police, the scrolls on the badge read Cleveland Air Police. In the center where rank or a badge number would normally be displayed there is an emblem with wings. Finally, the rank on the badge is given as Colonel, something never found in CPD rank structure.
A Plain Dealer article from April 1931 provides the background on this extraordinary badge. Safety Director Edwin Barry suggested the creation of a police unit detailed to provide a range of aviation related services. These included security during the air races held in Cleveland during most Labor Day weekends. Newly appointed Chief of Police George J. Matowitz also declared that airplanes would provide a much more secure method of transporting prisoners compared with the then standard method of using ships or trains.
Fourteen civilian volunteers offered to take up these duties, and their number included several men with remarkable resumes. Lieutenant Errol H. Zistel was a Sopwith Camel pilot in France in WW I. After the war he remained in the military until 1957. He served as commander of the Ohio Air National Guard and was buried in Lake View Cemetery when he died in 1968. Captain E. W. “Pop” Cleveland was the chief pilot for Cleveland Pneumatic Tool and a contestant in a number of air racing events. His later service to the CPD included taking Chief Matowitz and his sons for a flight in a Staggerwing Beech one night during WWII so the Chief could judge for himself the effectiveness of a wartime blackout.
Flight Commander Clifford Henderson was the skilled promoter whose public relations skills drew crowds of 100,000 people a day to the National Air Races at the height of the Great Depression.
The idea of an air police force was typical of the CPD’s innovative thinking and practically unique in the United States at the time. Unfortunately, the grim realities of the Depression intervened with the result that it would be many years before the department took to the air on a regular basis.
Many thanks to Joe Stamm for bringing this rare CPD artifact to our attention, and to Bob Cermak whose research uncovered the remarkable story behind it.
On August 28th, Safety Director Barry swore in Cleveland’s Air Police that consisted of a Flight Commander, three Captains, four Lieutenants and a Flight Surgeon for duty at the National Air Races. Their duties were enumerated by Captain J. Paul Buckey, secretary to Traffic Commissioner Edward J. Donahue as to serve as an escort to visiting notables, to keep people off the flying field at the air races, and to maintain order on the field in the case of an accident.
In April of 1932, two Cleveland Police Officers were awarded their pilots licenses after completing 20 hours of flying (10 in solo flight) at Lake County Airport. Patrolman Roy R. Wieland #1083 of the Traffic Division and Patrolman Ralph E. Darling #764 of the Eleventh Precinct wanted to be prepared in the event the Air Police became a permanent addition to the Department. Sergeant Frank Horazdofsky of the Traffic Division also began his flight training.
Then Safety Director Frank J Merrick asked the Law Department to draft an ordinance to control flying over the city in compliance with the United States Department of Commerce recommendations for universal ordinances on aviation. The Director then appointed fourteen “volunteer air policemen” to enforce the ordinance when it became effective. The group also agreed to assist in rescues on Lake Erie, transport Detectives on out-of-town emergency trips, and serve as escorts to dignitaries who may come to Cleveland by plane.
Written by Cleveland Police Historical Society and Museum volunteer Commander Robert Cermak, Ret.