Permission to use this piece, in whole or in part, must be obtained from John R. Dickson, Burbank, CA.(818) 529-4815. Thank you for respecting my time and effort.

For further information on the

Aviation History of the San Fernando Valley CLICK here.

Ron Dickson (818) 529-4815

November 11, 2003

3918 words

Aviation comes to the San Fernando Valley

December 17, 2003 marks the 100 anniversary of the Wright brother's first powered flight. Pioneering aviators have flown the San Fernando Valley skies since Roy Knabenshue manhandled his "California Arrow" dirigible over Glendale in 1906. The first International Air Meet in the United States was held in January 1910 at Dominguez Hills, California. The 10-day event featured the first flight on the west coast, which was made by Glenn Curtiss. There was also an airplane versus auto race from Dominguez Hills to Pasadena and back.

After World War 1 (1914-19), surplus "Jenny" bi-planes and Army Air Corps 'birdmen' were plentiful and aviation spread to dusty airfields all over the country. The railroad ran east from Los Angeles and turned north through the dusty farmland of the San Fernando Valley. A branch turned west from the Burbank stop and headed for the coast. Aviation would follow these tracks as new factories and increased population pushed aviation further out towards the desert and Edwards Air Force Base.

In 1911, Thadeous Llowe was flying dirigibles from the roof of the Raymond Hotel in Pasadena, with plans for regular trips to downtown Los Angeles. His air service never matured but his grand daughter would become famous as "Pancho" Barnes, movie stunt pilot, adventurer and originator of the "Happy Bottom Riding Club" near Edwards Air Force Base.

Throop College in Pasadena had the first wind tunnel in the west in 1917 and established the first programs of aeronautical design and application in 1918. Now called California Institute of Technology (Caltec), it ran its wind tunnel 17 hours a day, 7 days a week during the WWII, running tests on aircraft made in the area. Many aeronautical engineers came from Caltec. Frank Malina began liquid rocket research in at Caltec in 1939. He was moved to a remote location in the Arroyo Seco after one of his rockets exploded in the basement. That area is now Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a subsidiary of Caltec. Another graduate, Roy Marquardt, established a research laboratory and factory adjacent to Van Nuys airport to build ramjet engines.

Griffith Park Aerodrome, Los Angeles

The first officially organized airport in the San Fernando Valley area was a dirt field located on land donated by the Griffith family inside a bend of the Los Angeles River. It was built in 1911 for the Aero Club of Southern California, whose members created some of the first airplanes to fly in the west.

Glenn Martin established an aircraft factory there and he used the field for flight operations until 1916. Martin taught a Washington state lumberman named William Boeing to fly at Griffith Park airdrome. Boeing bought a Martin bi-plane with pontoons and had it shipped to his home in Seattle. The 115th Observation Squadron of the California Air National Guard moved on to the field in 1927.

The airport was closed in 1942 when the Air National Guard moved to Van Nuys airport. After WW II the area became Roger Young Village, housing returning veterans and their families in quonset huts. Today, the area is a parking lot for the L.A. Zoo.

Brand Park, Glendale

Leslie C. Brand looked down on the Los Angeles (Griffith Park) airport from his estate in the Verdugo Mountains (now the Brand Library). Seeing the flying activity below, he wanted to fly himself, and the "father of Glendale" and a major real estate developer of the San Fernando Valley wanted the best. In 1916 he hired Waldo Waterman to build an airplane powerful enough to fulfill his dream of flying from his Glendale doorstep to his ranch at Mono Lake, California.

On April Fools day in 1921, Brand held the worlds first "fly-in" party; no one was allowed entrance except by air. Landing on the steeply sloped area in front of the Brand home was tricky but over one hundred people arrived safely by airplane including film stars, business tycoons and military pilots from all over Southern California. Brand was an avid aviation enthusiast and even during prohibition, his liquor bar was always open to any visiting aviator.

Movie aviation in the San Fernando Valley

The San Fernando Valley was mostly open farmland with only a few small towns and very few people; it was perfect for early aviation. Hundreds of movies and shorts were filmed in the San Fernando Valley, including 'Dawn Patrol' which was filmed in Chatsworth in 1929. Pilots flew from Griffith Park and Glendale to perform crazy stunts all around the Valley.

When Carl Laemmle opened 'Universal City' in March 1915 he hired Frank Stites to perform a 'bombing' stunt at the opening ceremonies. Simulated explosives went off too close to Stites biplane and he was killed when he crashed into a ravine near Lankershim Blvd.

Roy and Tave Wilson, two early stunt pilots, opened a small dirt airstrip named 'Wilson Airport' just west of the Burbank airport. The hangar he used is still there on Sherman Way, used today as a cabinet shop.

Howard Hughes wanted to make the ultimate aviation war movie with as realistic air combat as possible. In 1927 he gathered what became the largest private air force in the world on farmland in Van Nuys to begin filming "Hells Angels". His money came from manufacturing oil well equipment and the field was named 'Caddo', after the subsidiary that he wrote checks from. An airfield built to resemble German facilities was set up at the western end of the San Fernando Valley in Chatsworth.

Pancho Barnes flew all around the Valley, stunting for films and setting speed records. She opened her home in San Marino to aviators and the Hollywood crowd. In 1929 the Associated Motion Picture Pilots was organized by a crowd at her home to help make movie flying safer.

In 1925 Arrigo Balboni, a barnstormer who crashed his war surplus 'Jenny' near Tehachapi, learned that he could get more money by selling parts from the wreck than by repairing and selling it whole. Balboni settled on a vacant lot on Riverside Drive near the Los Angeles River and began collecting and selling parts from aircraft wrecks. Business was good and his guest book contained the names of all the notables who flew during that period. A flood finally moved him out of the area, literally.

Glendale Airport

In 1922 the City of Glendale bought 33 acres adjacent to the Southern Pacific RR tracks and cleared a 1200-foot runway for the Glendale Municipal Airport. When it opened in March of 1923 it was the first paved runway in the west and the first municipally owned airport in Los Angeles.

The first hangar built there was for the 'Kinner Airplane & Motor Corporation'. Bert Kinner made Amelia Earharts first airplane, the Kinner 'Airster', at Glendale airport in 1925.

The Slate Dirigible Company was located at Glendale airport. Capt. Thomas Benton Slate created a sheet metal dirigible made of ribbed aluminum. When rolled out of it's hangar in January of 1929, the sun hit one side and the metal distorted enough to lose all its lifting gas; a dead end on the evolutionary trail of aviation.

Up the railroad tracks from Glendale, Al Menasco established a business in Burbank rebuilding war surplus engines. Menasco's own 'Pirate' engines would make history in the air-racing arena. Later, his company made landing gear and other assemblies for Lockheed and other companies for the war effort.

Jack Northrop, after a short stint with the Loughead brothers in Santa Barbara, worked in Glendale developing new sheet metal construction methods. He teamed up with Menasco to build new, modern, metal aircraft. When Al brought his friend Bill Boeing by to see Northrop's work, Boeing bought the business and moved it to his new airport in Burbank.

Charles Lindbergh

In May of 1927, Charles Lindbergh flew the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean and the world caught on fire with aviation madness. The 'Spirit of St. Louis' that Lindbergh flew was built from plans of the "Cruizair", originally built by Waterhouse & Royer at Glendale airport in 1926.

Lockheed Company, Empire China factory, Burbank

By 1927, the Lockheed Company had gained worldwide attention with its innovative wooden "Vega" aircraft. Designed by Jack Northrop, an architect the Loughead brothers had first hired in Santa Barbara, the Vegas monocoque fuselage was made in two halves like a plastic airplane kit. Hundreds of plies of wood were molded with glue into shapes in concrete molds. After curing, the halves were joined together with wooden rings. The construction method was so strong that the Vega was the first airplane to have a 'cantilevered' wing with no external wires or braces to cause drag. The Lockheed Vega was the fastest ship available at the time.

In 1928, needing more space, the Lockheed Company moved from its Hollywood location to an unused china manufacturing plant north of Burbank. The plant sat all alone, in the weeds between the Southern Pacific railroad tracks heading north and west from Burbank Junction. Early photographs show cone shaped chimneys from the china kilns still sticking through the roof of the building while aircraft were being made inside. The two distinctive curve-topped hangars built nearby said "Lockheed Aircraft" on the roofs. Aircraft were taxied out through the sagebrush to take off and land on a dirt strip parallel to the railroad tracks.

Everyone seeking speed and performance came to Burbank and the Lockheed factory. Frank Hawks, Jimmy Mattern, Laura Ingalls, Rugh Nichols, Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith, Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Roscoe Turner, Wiley Post, Howard Hughes, they all came to the cobbled up old buildings on Empire Ave. As was said at the time, "It takes a Lockheed to beat a Lockheed".

1929 Lockheed Aircraft was bought by Detroit Aircraft Corp, in its effort to become the 'General Motors of the air'. Shortly thereafter, the stock market crash of 1929 took them into receivership. Lockheed Aircraft was temporarily down but it was not out. Lockheed survived the Depression and became a world leader in commercial and military aviation, but that is another story.

The original Lockheed plant, once known as the birthplace of the fastest airships in the world, also home of the Hudson, the P-38 and the birthplace of the Lockheed Skunk Works, is now covered by the Empire shopping Center. Not a single Lockheed building has been saved for its historic significance.

Metropolitan Airport, Van Nuys

Metropolitan Airport was officially dedicated on Dec 17, 1928 on the 25th anniversary of the Wright brother's flight. Waldo D. Waterman was the first airport manager and he also worked for the Bach Aircraft Company as test pilot and engineer. The original dirt runways were 1000' wide and 4000' long; today the main runways run north south while the old runways are used as taxiways.

The name was changed to "Los Angeles Metropolitan Airport" in 1929 when there were 81 airplanes operating from the field and three airplane manufacturers. It has been used extensively by the motion picture business and the military. The hangar used in the closing scene of Casablanca is still there on Waterman Ave. The Air National Guard unit stationed at Van Nuys referred to itself as "the Hollywood Guard" because of its participation in so many movies and commercials.

Many aviation records were set from Metropolitan Airport. In 1929 Army Air Corps Major Carl Spatz set an endurance record of more than 150 hours aloft in the "Question Mark" while developing mid air refueling techniques for the Army.

On that same day, Bobbi Trout set an all day solo endurance record of 17 hours and 5 minutes aloft. Bobbi and Elinor Smith would trade endurance records back and forth until they teamed up to make a world refueling record for women, also from Metropolitan Airport.

In 1930, Pancho Barnes set a speed record of 196 miles per hour in her Travel Air racing plane at Metropolitan Airport in Van Nuys.

Lockheed established a Naval aircraft operation there during WWII and the Skunk Works operated U-2 spy planes from the airport during the Cold War era.

Its name has changed from Van Nuys Army Air Field (1942-1948), San Fernando Valley Airport (1949-1956) to Van Nuys Airport since 1957. The historic Air National Guard area, once used for the annual air expo, has been flattened. Van Nuys Airport is the world's busiest general aviation airport and still home to vintage and racing planes and special projects.

Grand Central Airport, Glendale

In 1929 Glendale Airport was reorganized to become Grand Central Airport. Managed by Major Corliss C. Moseley, co-founder of Western Airlines, it was to become the western birthplace of the scheduled airlines. Charles Lindbergh himself took off from Grand Central in July 1929 on the first scheduled passenger flight in the west, flying for TAT (Transcontinental Air Transport) on the 'Lindbergh Line'.

Howard Hughes began secretive aircraft development in a small building near the airport. This was the beginning of the Hughes Aircraft Company. He and a small group of engineers developed the 'R-1' racer. In 1935, Hughes set a speed record of 352 m.p.h. in the sleek racer In 1936 he set a transcontinental record of 7 hours and 28 minutes from Glendale to New York, a record that would stand against all other aircraft including the military, for the next decade.

Before WWII the 'Curtiss-Wright Technical Institute' was established there to train aviation mechanics and engineers. Colonel Corliss C. Mosely was the airport manager and also the western outlet for Curtiss-Wright engines.

In 1932, Joe Plosser established the Grand Central Flying School. Students at "Plosserville" included Howard Hughes and Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan.

In 1939, with war raging in Europe, the Army Air Corps needed pilot training schools. General 'Hap' Arnold of the Army Air Corps and Major Mosely, using Plosser's flying school as a start, established a 12 week force of basic flying skills. Movie studios complained about airplane noise interrupting their shoots and chickens in the area stopped laying eggs during this 'birth of an air force vital to our nation' but the effort continued and thousands of pilots and mechanics learned their trade at 'Cal-Aero' field in conjunction with ground school at Glendale College. They flew training missions all over the Valley until finally forced to move further out by developing neighborhoods.

After the Battle of Britain decimated the Royal Air Force, Americans trained in Glendale volunteered to fly in the "American Eagle Squadron" in defense of Europe, while our country was still officially isolationist and uninvolved.

During WWII the 319th Pursuit Squadron of P-38s was tasked from Grand Central with air defense of the Los Angeles area. The 'Los Angeles Air Raid' occurred one night in 1942, sending bullets and tracers up over a nervous city.

Not long after the Pearl Harbor attack, forty Wright R2600 engines were received at Cal Aero for inspection and modification. These engines powered the Doolittle Raiders on their mission to Tokyo early in WWII.

Grand Central was a 24-hour a day operation throughout WWII.

After the war, thousands of surplus aircraft were cycled through Cal Aeros shops in preparation for shipment to overseas customers. In 1947, civic interests shortened Grand Centrals runway to prewar length, limiting newer and larger aircraft from landing there and relegating the field to civil aviation and non-scheduled airline work.

The Korean War sparked an increase in activity at Grand Central.

In 1955 Mosely formed the Grand Central Rocket Company to test solid rocket propellants among the old revetments around the field. This effort became a major producer of rocket fuels and was eventually sold to become the Lockheed Propulsion Company. With the end of the Korean War the end of Grand Central was near.

Grand Central Airport closed in July of 1959, the end of an era.

The Grand Central Airport terminal building is still there at 1310 Airway St. in Glendale, along with 2 original hangars. The peeling paint reveals Spanish tiles from 1928 and company names from the grand early days of aviation.

There is a great book about Glendale called "Madcaps, Millionaires and 'Mose'", written by longtime Glendale resident John Underwood. There is a video called "When Glendale Ruled the Skies" available from the Glendale Library. A timeline hangs in the Glendale Library, showing Grand Centrals history along with that of Walt Disney 'Imagineering', a long time renter at the old airport.

United Airport, Burbank

Boeing Air Transport Corporation, after surveying all of the Los Angeles area, selected a remote section of sandy farmland a few miles northwest of the railroad stop named "Burbank". Designed and built by the Austin Company, United Terminal in Burbank was the 'worlds first million dollar' airport and the major airport in the Los Angeles area. It's runways were made by disking oil into the existing river sand several times until a dense but flexible 'asphalt' was made. This allowed bigger planes to land safely while smaller planes would use the wheat fields between the paved runways, the wheat being important to keep the 'tail draggers' from ground looping.

The first airmail flight left Burbank on November 16, 1929, the day after the airports incorporation.

The airports official opening day on May 30, 1930 gathered the entire west coast Army Air Corps from San Diego.

Bobbie Trout won the opening day race. Bobbi, the 'Queen of the San Fernando Valley Skies', passed away this past January and she lies in rest in the 'Portal of the Folded Wings-Shrine to Aviation' located at Valhalla Memorial Park in Burbank.

In Glendale in 1927, Jack Northrop developed production technics to make metal wing structures, replacing the wood and cloth commonly used. William Boeing purchased Northrop's 'Avion' company and moved it to United Airport in Burbank in 1928.

Using Northrop's multicellular metal construction design, they made a prototype called the 'Avion'. This novel aircraft, mostly wing with twin trailing booms, was the forerunner to Northrop's flying wings of the late 1940's and the B-2 bomber of today. When test flown over Burbank by Eddie Bellande it demonstrated that, as Northrop had said, "The cleaner the airplane, the better it will fly."

In the Avion factory they made the Northrop 'Alpha' for Transcontinental & Western Airlines (TWA) and the Army Air Corps. It was the first all metal fuselage with a streamlined NACA cowling.

Burbank was the major airport for the Los Angeles area from 1934 until the mid 1950's, when the airlines moved their operations to Los Angeles Municipal Airport, now LAX. From many small outfits, a few survived into the modern air travel industry we see today. An early airservice named 'Varney Speed Lanes' eventually became Continental Airlines. Transcontinental Air Transport merged with Western to become Transcontinental and Western Air and eventually Trans World Airlines, TWA.

When the major airlines left Burbank, the void was filled with nonscheduled operators. The 'non-scheds' were organized by individuals who looked for any niche market to fly for. Up and down the western coast and into Nevada and Arizona, small airlines provided service for the more ordinary traveler who just needed to get to Fresno, Reno or some other destination. Paul Mantz, Poddy Mercer, John Maddux, Walter Varney, men who started the airlines, are remembered by only a few. From the dozens of airlines dreamed up, most have disappear today. Even those that survived the regulations, merging and reorganizing were not safe, as the 'heritage' companies which swallowed up the smaller airlines have now succumbed to reorganization or bankruptcy.

In the 1940's, air cargo companies began to use Burbank airport. Twelve pilots from Claire Chennaults volunteers in China organized National Skyway Freight Corporation in 1945. This group moved into Burbank in 1957 and was renamed Flying Tigers Airline. Heavily loaded Bud 'Conestoga's' and 'Constellations' flew in and out of Burbank carrying everything from freight to animals to orchestras. Burbank was a busy place.

Bendix Races, Burbank to Cleveland

Vincent Bendix, owner of an aviation parts company, wanted to help develop aircraft speed and reliability. In 1930 he established the Bendix Race, a transcontinental speed derby, to be flown by anyone brave enough to attempt it. Planes would take off from the finest airport on the west coast, in the hometown of the Lockheed Company, builders of the fastest ships available, Burbank, Ca. The Bendix Race started at Burbank Airport 7 times, beginning in 1931.

In the first Bendix race in 1931, six of the eight entrants were Lockheed Burbank products and they were favorites to win the race. But Jimmy Doolittle, flying his Laird "Super Solution", won the race to Cleveland in 9 hours and 10 minutes.

In 1935 Cecil Allen flew the Gee Bee R-1/2 hybrid called the 'Spirit of Right' from Burbank airport. He was the last to take off, leaving in a fog at 3am. He was found dead in a potato field about a mile east of the airport the next morning. Expanding the envelope of aviation carried great reward and great risk.

The last Bendix from Burbank was in 1939; the war interrupted the next few years. After the war, the race started in Van Nuys and then moved to Rosamond, in the desert near Edwards AFB.

In 1934, when the airlines moved from Alhambra and Grand Central airports to Burbank's new modern facility, they objected to a field named for one of their competing airlines. To maintain the location code and initials cast into the terminal building, they renamed the airport Union Airport, still 'UA'. This lasted until the Lockheed Company bought the airport in 1940 in preparation for war effort and it was renamed Lockheed Air Terminal. The original 1930 terminal, though burnt and remodeled, is still standing inside the newer stucco wall put up by Lockheed in 1940. The steps that lead into Burbank airport today are the same ones used by Earhart, Lindbergh, Hughes and the rest.

Portal of the Folded Wings-Shrine To Aviation, Burbank

On December 17th 1953, on the 50th anniversary of the Wright brother's first flight, a landmark structure just south of the Burbank airport was dedicated to "the honored dead of American aviation" as the 'Portal of the Folded Wings'. Located in Valhalla Memorial Park, the ornate 1924 structure is a National Historic Registry building containing the remains of over a dozen pioneering aviators.

The internees include: Walter Brookins, who flew with the Wright brothers exhibition team; Colonel Warren Eaton, first to build a functioning airplane in California; Bert Kinner, who built Amelia Earharts first airplane; Roy Knabenshue, Americas first dirigible pilot; Matilde Moisant, second licensed pilot in the U.S.; J. Floyd Smith, test pilot and instructor for Glen Martin; Carl Squire, who sold Lockheed aircraft to the Lindbergh and Evylin 'Bobbi' Trout, the Queen of the San Fernando Valley skies. Bobbi, who passed away last January at the age of 97, flew the opening day races at Glendale (1928), Van Nuys (1929) and Burbank (1930) airports.

Charlie Taylor is also buried at the Portal of the Folded Wings. He is the man who built the engine for the Wright brothers. He was the 'third Wright brother', the man that allowed the Wright glider to become the Wright Flyer. As the world looks to Dayton, Ohio and to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina this coming December 17th, they should be looking also to Charlie Taylor and to Burbank.

Rocketdyne Santa Susana Field Laboratory, Canoga Park

In 1947 North American Aviation test fired a first article rocket engine in their parking lot near Los Angeles International Airport. They recognized a need for a safer, more remote location. Searching way out past the city, they settled into a natural bowl in the mountains above Chatsworth. Throughout the 1950s and the space race, from Sputnik to the moon, the skies of the western San Fernando Valley would glow with the light of liquid fueled rockets motors being tested as a low rumble came across our houses and streets. With names like Navaho, Redstone, Thor, Atlas and Jupiter, the engines tested at the west end of the Valley launched our first satellites and our first astronauts into space.

Pioneering test flights, aircraft manufacturing, machining, sheet metal, pattern making, plating, electronics, plastics, assembly, maintenance, landing gear, flight systems, safety equipment, control valves, computer systems… you name it and it was designed and built here in the San Fernando Valley. The skies here no longer roar with the sound of freedom from pioneering aviation but we live daily with the legacy of the men and women who made history here.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of manned powered flight, we in the San Fernando Valley and Burbank area can be proud of the contribution made by our neighbors and ourselves. From the Wright brothers first flight, to the moon and beyond, this area had contributed greatly to the advancement of aviation. We should take a moment from our fast moving lives to remember those who gave so much for our future.

Centennial of Manned Powered Flight

On Dec. 6th, 2003 the 'Portal of the Folded Wings-Shrine To Aviaton' well be (was) re-dedicated to "the honored dead of American aviation", enforcing it's important place in honoring the men and women who made aviation history in this country and in this area.

Ron Dickson Burbank, Ca

Permission to use this piece, in whole or in part, must be obtained from John R. Dickson, Burbank, CA.(818) 529-4815. Thank you for respecting my time and effort.
Contact Mr. Dickson
For further information on the Aviation History of the San Fernando Valley CLICK here.
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