Spence Titley is a name-dropper — and he has the autographs to prove it.
He possesses a copy of a logbook with signatures from pilots who flew into Davis-Monthan Aviation Field, as it was then called. It’s a veritable “who’s who” of early aviators. Years later, in part of another logbook, he was able to get autographs of pilots who would later walk on the moon.
Some of those early pilots who flew into D-M and who signed the register were the rock-star celebrities of their time: Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Wiley Post. Another pilot was actor Wallace Beery.
Titley, 88, is a self-proclaimed cowboy, student and soldier, as well as a retired professor of geosciences at the University of Arizona. He was also a former pilot himself.
“I liked nothing else but to bore a hole in the sky,” he says.
For Titley, in his role as a geologist, flying was as much a tool as a rock hammer or a hand lens.
“I liked to fly around with my students to view geologic formations from above.”
Flying, he explained, was stimulated by his work for the United States Geological Survey. While flying he learned that color in rock formations, particularly reds, yellows and purples, helped determine the existence of oxidized minerals in the area. With that information he also came to the conclusion there was a possibility of copper ore in those areas.
“Aerial reconnaissance became a useful tool for us to look for big ore bodies,” he says.
It was through his close friendship with fellow pilot John Sumner, who was also a UA geophysics professor, he received a copy of the register or logbook from D-M in the late 1980s or early 1990s.
“We were good personal friends and we were good professional friends,” he said.
Sumner, a decorated World War II and Korean War pilot who was killed in a plane crash in 1993, may have been involved in copying the original D-M logbook, which is how Titley was able to get his copy, he said.
The D-M register, with all its signatures, has a history all its own.
Starting in 1925, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Dewey Simpson was a one-man unit tasked with maintaining the aircraft refueling operations for transcontinental flights coming into the old South Sixth Avenue airfield, according to the book, “High in Desert Skies” by author William D. Kalt III.
Meanwhile, after going through several name changes, the field was officially named in 1925 after two local pilots: U.S. Army Lieutenants Samuel Howard Davis and Oscar Monthan who died in separate airplane crashes after World War I.
The South Sixth Avenue airfield later became the Tucson Rodeo Grounds.
Dewey was also in charge of the register. It is this book that has the names of the pilots, passengers, the type of aircraft, information on their previous port and their next destination, from all aircraft that flew into both of Tucson’s municipal airfields from 1925-1936, Kalt wrote.
As aircraft technology improved and planes got bigger for transcontinental flight, Tucson’s runway became too short so the city looked for a larger plot of land to create a new airfield.
It settled on some mostly vacant land out of town. It was way southeast, along what is now in the area of South Alvernon Way and Golf Links Road.
On Sept. 23, 1927, Lindbergh, who had recently gained international fame after he flew the first solo trans-Atlantic flight in his Spirit of St. Louis, formally dedicated the airfield.
At the time of the dedication, Tucson became the largest municipal-owned airport in the country, according to the D-M website.
For some other pilots on the logbook, they became major, if not pivotal, influences during WWII.
Jimmy Doolittle, who in aviation circles was already making a name for himself for his record-breaking feats and technological skills, was just an Army lieutenant passing through when he landed in 1927.
Another junior officer, Lt. H.S. Vandenberg came in 1928. Vandenberg, among his many accomplishments, would become the commanding general of the 9th Air Force in World War II, the second Air Force Chief of Staff and later, the second director of the CIA. The U.S. Air Force base in California is named in his honor.
Claire Chennault, best known for the exploits of the Flying Tigers in China before the start of America’s involvement in WWII, landed at the airfield twice, first as a lieutenant in 1927 and by the time he landed again in 1930 he was a captain.
During WWII, Gen. George S. Patton called him “the best damn general in the Air Corps,” but when Otto Paul Weyland signed the register on Oct. 2, 1926 he was a second lieutenant flying in a Douglas O-2C.
Weyland would become the commander of the 9th Air Force during WWII and later the commander of the Far East Air Forces and head of the United Nations’ air forces during the Korean War.
On June 1, 1931, four pilots flying two planes signed the register, but their names are hard to read. They stopped in Tucson on their way from Norfolk, Virginia. They were flying the Navy’s new two-seater, the Vought O3U-1 “Corsair II” and were headed for San Diego, to catch up with their home station, the USS Arizona.
The signatures in Titley’s possession are copies. It is bound with a blue cover that is much smaller than the original copy which now resides in the office of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force in Washington , according to public information officer Staff Sgt. Christopher Drzazgowski.
However, if you go to https://dmairfield.com, their website has the register online.
Some of the signatures in Titley’s copy are clear in places and hard to read in others but tell of pilots and passengers who flew into Tucson when air travel was still new and still beyond the norm.
But by 1964, America’s aviation desires and passions were beyond our previous horizons. The U.S. was in an all-out sprint to be the first nation to safely land on the moon — and Spence Titley wanted in.
Flying, for him, had become important because he had hoped it would lead to grander things — space flight — but his age got in the way. He was one month too old for the program.
Still, by using his skills as a geology teacher, he found a way to be a part of history.
Titley had been working with the USGS mapping the moon at night using the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope on Kitt Peak.
Science was becoming an important aspect of the moon mission and so for a short time he worked directly with a new breed of pilots called astronauts who were themselves part of NASA’s Apollo program.
He worked directly with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Alan Shepard, Michael Collins, Wally Schirra, Jim Lovell, Gordon Cooper, Ed White and many more looking at possible landing sites on the moon.
“I was really impressed with them, especially because we knew who they were and what they were going to do,” Titley says.
They were excellent, anxious, attentive learners and they were “very friendly in a business sort of way.”
As a group they were very informal. They didn’t use titles and were unpretentious and self-assured, but there was not a single astronomer in the bunch, Titley said, smiling.
The astronauts came in four different groups on four different occasions.
On the first short visit, he roomed with Roger Chaffee for a couple of hours at one of Kitt Peak’s sleeping facilities before going to the viewing room one evening.
Years later, Chaffee was killed with White and Virgil “Gus” Grissom during a pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission on Jan. 27, 1967.
On May 21, 1964, the last group came for their training and Titley went to D-M’s flight line to pick up some astronauts.
Titley watched astronaut John Young pull up in his F-102 Delta Dagger. The future commander of Apollo 16 and the ninth person to walk on the moon climbed out of his cockpit, got on the wing, reached in back and put on a cowboy hat.
All the astronauts involved in the program signed a logbook during their one-night stay at the observatory — and yes, Titley has a copy of their autographs too.
Titley has been grounded since 1982-83. Work got in the way but not before he logged between 700 and 800 hours flying around Arizona and New Mexico.
“I had too many commitments with teaching school and became too heavily involved in my research …flying got squeezed out of the way,” he says.
Much has happened in his life. In geology circles he is well known and respected because of his scientific writings and years of teaching.
“I don’t have any regrets,” he says, adding a Longfellow quotation his grandmother used to say to him: “Lives of great men all remind us, we can make our lives sublime, and, departing, leave behind us, footprints on the sands of time.”
Still, he continues to write books on geology and feels there is much to do … before he signs off.