Runway of the Stars

Written by Paul Pierce (unknown publication and date)

The custom-built Duesenberg roadster rolled to a stop in front of the Spanish-style terminal building. A chartered Cadillac limousine and a Roll-Royce pulled in behind it. The beautiful people had arrived at the airport.

Today we would call them jet-setters. In 1928 no one had ever heard of a jet engine. The airport was Grand Central Air Terminal, just across the river from Griffith Park. It was actually in the City of Glendale, but it was the main airport for Los Angeles (until United Airport opened in Burbank in 1930.). It was the arrival and departure point for movie stars and business tycoons, as well as such aviation celebrities as Amelia Earhart, Eddie Rickenbacker, Glenn Martin and Charles Lindbergh.

Hollywood's elite - the men in camel's hair polo coats, the ladies swathed in furs - would arrive in their handcrafted automobiles like gods and goddesses in their chariots and, after a farewell party, would board the Ford Tri-motors or the Fokker monoplanes and fly to New York; or, as the bible of show biz, Variety, put it, "wing to Gotham".

Winging to Gotham on the first scheduled airliners took 48 hours and it wasn't all winging. The service was pioneered in 1928 and became regularly scheduled in 1929. The planes flew in daylight only. As darkness approached, landings were made near a railroad stop and passengers spent the night sleeping comfortably in Pullman accommodation.

In the morning, it was back to the airways again and another long day at cruising speeds of about 110 miles an hour, less head winds. After another night on a train, on the morning of the third day the travelers would arrive in New York City area at whatever airport happened to have weather fit for landing. At that, it was faster, if not better, than the crack trains which took five days. By 1930, the trains were phased out of the airline operations and Trans World Airlines (TWA) offered a 36-hour service including a 10-and-one-half hour hotel stopover in Kansas City.

Planes carrying only mail were proving the safety of night flying, and Charles Lindbergh had been hired to map out routes for a straight-through service. In 1932, TWA's tri-motored Fords flew the first day-and-night cross-country service in 24 hours and 42 minutes, and by 1934, Douglas DC-2s whacked the time down to 16 hours and provided the first real luxury airliner.

By the time the first day-and-night service was established in 1932, Grand Central Air Terminal proudly advertised that, as "the quickest and easiest airport to reach in the Los Angeles area," it was handling 3,000 passengers a month. It conveniently did not mention that most of the passengers were students and private fliers taking off for short hops around the airport pattern.

Today, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) handles an average of 2.7 million passengers a month (1981 figures), and that is just passengers on airlines, not general aviation traffic. In those early days, however, LAX was just emerging from a single runway across a bean field and was known as Mines Field.

Grand Central also had but one runway, roughly east and west (north-west by south-east / webmaster) along the Los Angeles River bank. Just across the river, where the parking lot for the Los Angeles Zoo is today, was a large dirt field used as home base for the 40th Division Aviation Squadron, now known as the California Air National Guard.

Grand Central, just over the hill from Hollywood and just down the road from Warner Brothers Studio, was home for the dashing fliers of the movie colony. Charles Correll, Amos of Amos'N'Andy, kept his Stinson monoplane there. Later, Edgar Bergen and Jimmy Stewart had private planes there, and so did many members of the Aviation Country Club, a group of business and entertainment leaders who used to fly away en masse for weekend gatherings at desert or coast resorts.

But the real glitter of Grand Central sparkled from the tiny terminal building, the arrival and departure point for Hollywood's stars, directors and producers. Flying in those days was not the routine commuting that it is today. Every flight was an adventure. There was no such thing as airline regulation. If you were a pilot with an airplane, you could call yourself an airline. Varney flew single-engined Lockheeds to San Francisco and T. Claude Ryan used his single-engine ships, forerunners of Lindbergh's plane, to carry passengers to San Diego. Maddux was one of the first lines with multi-engined equipment

There were tri-motored and even four-motored airliners to inspire confidence in the passengers, but very few of them would maintain level flight with an engine out. Boeing, which today builds our biggest airliners, was selling its single-engined mail planes which could handle up to four passengers in an enclosed cabin; the pilot flew from an open cockpit behind them

Joe Gilpin had a three-airplane airline running from Grand Central to San Diego using tri-motored Bach Air Transport monoplanes built out of plywood. They had a big engine in the nose and two smaller ones under the wings which were mainly there for reassurance.

The little one-man airlines and the homemade airplanes were only around for a few years. In the heyday of Grand Central the handmade planes were giving way to the first ships that could really be called airliners, planes like the well-engineered and well-built tri-motored Fords and the Fokkers.

TWA commissioned Santa Monica-based Donald Douglas to build an airliner which would fly higher, farther and faster. The result was the DC-1. When it passed all its tests in 1933, it became the production line DC-2. American Airlines' search for a transcontinental plane led to the 1936 introduction of the highly popular DC-3.

With the coming of the big airplanes, big airports were needed and Grand Central's one short runway couldn't survive. Passenger service was shut down. The field was used for P-38 fighter training in World War II, but finally the whole airport was closed and is now a big complex of factories and engineering plants.

So Grand Central - heaven for starry-eyed kids who wanted to fly in the early days - is no more. Would-be pilots used to wash airplanes for free flights with the Wilson brothers, Roy and Al, at the old field. One of the Wilson airplanes was a Ryan monoplane, just like Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis except that this one had an open-front cockpit for two instead of the huge gas tank that blocked Cindy's forward vision and forced him to fly to Paris using a periscope to see ahead.

Thomas B. Slate had a big hangar at the southeast corner of the field where he spent several years trying to build an all-metal dirigible. It never got off the ground. A pilot named Wally Timm did his own engineering, building and testing, and came up with a nice-flying little airplane. The Timm sold very well as a production model.

All this backyard aviation was the lifeblood of Grand Central Air Terminal, but the real claim to fame of the airport was the coming and going of such celebrities as Clark Gable, Knute Rockne, Louis B. Mayer, Mary Astor, Jack Warner and Joe E. Brown. Most stars and movie moguls of the late '20s and early '30s probably took off or landed there at least once.

The early flights, in the plane-train era, always took off very early in the morning, but that was no reason for skipping a gala plane-side bon voyage party. There would be champagne and ladyfingers and kisses all around before climbing into the waiting Tin Goose and winging away into the sunrise. Arrivals were a different matter. Incoming passengers were usually tired, slightly deaf and sometimes airsick after a day or two cramped into a small, unpressurized airplane which flew at low altitudes.

These were the very first years of the aviation boom which was started by Lindbergh's solo flight to Paris in 1927. Celebrities such as Carol Lombard, Cecil B. De Mille, Mary Pickford and Samuel Goldwyn led the way and many of them became real aviation buffs.

One glorious sunny Sunday, Grand Central staged an open house. Three Ford Tri-motors flew over in formation, and after landing they were put to work taking the public on free rides around the airport. A pretty young lady did a parachute jump. Tex Rankin flew his little Great Lakes biplane down from Seattle and did a couple of outside loops for the crowd. Colonel Lindbergh was an advisor to TWA and he flew in for the occasion in a U.S. Army Air Corps pursuit plane and thrilled observing pilots with his skill in making a carefully controlled, power stall final approach over the fence, then a very short landing run.

Days like that, and the days the stars like Tom Mix, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery and Barbara Stanwyck came to fly, made Grand Central a place of unforgettable memories. You didn't see the celebrities walking through a huge terminal with a thousand others to board monstrous jets. You saw them arriving in sports cars and limousines, dining at the Sidewalk Cafe or having a drink in the Cockpit Bar. Then they would take a few steps to a little airplane that waited in front of the terminal and "wing to Gotham" or some other fabled destination.

The next time you have occasion to wing to Gotham or anyplace else, be grateful that you can do it at 35, 000 feet, over the weather and with a drink in hand. But also try to envision what you missed, what it was like to be a starry-eyed observer at Grand Central Air Terminal.

Written by Paul Pierce. Unknown publication and date.

I don't know what publication this is from. There is a small 'looks like a 'W' insignia' at the end and there is part of an article called ' The Poinsettia King'. I hope someone can tell me where this is from so I can credit it correctly and also get better copies of the photos in the articles; they look interesting but my copy is very poor quality.

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