It was like nothing America had ever seen before. Over 11 days in January of 1910, more than 200,000 people flooded Dominguez Field in Los Angeles County. They were there for the Los Angeles Air Meet, to witness aviation pioneers such as Glenn Curtiss, Didier Masson, and Charles Willard take to the sky in powered airplanes.
“This was only the second demonstration of powered flight ever made in the world,” says filmmaker Peter Jones. “And it was in Los Angeles because of these risk-taking people—the Chandler family, and also William Randolph Hearst… who, with Henry Huntington, sponsored the Los Angeles Air Meet.”
These titans of early Southern California saw potential in the death-defying spectacle. “A lot people just looked at these flying machines as entertainment, daredevil entertainment,” Jones says. “But they thought there could be something to this as a real industry. And they were right. And so that created Los Angeles as the place where this kind of new thing was happening.”
This pivotal event would help cement Los Angeles as the center of the burgeoning aviation and aerospace industry for decades to come. This fascinating, strangely forgotten history is recounted in Blue Sky Metropolis, a new four-part documentary produced by KCET in partnership with Emmy-Award winning Jones.
Part of the PBS “Summer of Space,” featuring programming honoring the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing, Blue Sky Metropolis premiers 8 p.m. Sunday on KCET. Narrated by actor Tony Goldwyn, the series tracks the history of SoCal aerospace pioneers and boosters, including John Northrop, Donald Douglas, Amelia Earhart, Howard Hughes, Walt Disney, Wernher von Braun, and the rocket-mad folks who started the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Their stories are close to Jones’ heart. An LA native, he is a product of the of the aerospace industry—his father was an aerospace engineer at Northrup Corporation for 40 years.
As the documentary explains, Los Angeles from its founding was a hugely engineered product. “This was a city that basically engineered and invented itself with people who said: ‘You know, we don’t have our own port, let’s build a manmade port,” says Jones. “So we created the Port of Los Angeles. We don’t have water… Let’s bring water from Central California.”
This SoCal pioneer spirit—of making the impossible possible—would nurture not only the early aviation and aerospace industry but also its unlikely partner in crime, the entertainment business.
“It is not a coincidence that you have these two industries, Hollywood filmmaking and aviation and aerospace, coming of age in Southern California,” says Jones. There was ample cheap land, and the weather was ideal for year-round filming and flying. LA’s open-shop, anti-union stance also meant that workers were cheap and plentiful.
From the start, the entertainment, journalism, and aviation industries formed a tight alliance. At the fabled Los Angeles Air Meet, none other than newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst took a powered flight. He (or one of his lackeys) then penned a soaring, idyllic tribute to the experience, although he had been scared to death on the loud, rickety plane
Soon savvy SoCal aviation pioneers including Earhart, Hughes, and William Jenifer Powell became charismatic celebrities. Powell, a pioneering black pilot, would even open a flight school in Los Angeles that would train several future Tuskegee Airmen.
During the 1910s and ’20s, LA caught aviation fever. Dozens of small aircraft manufacturers sprung up along with future mammoth manufacturers such as Lockheed, Douglas, North American, and Northrop. Angelenos envisioned a future where personal planes would replace cars. “There were 53 airfields within 30 miles of City Hall, because people really thought there’d be a plane in every garage, not a car in every garage,” Jones says.
The Depression would put many of these smaller operations out of business. Many of the small municipal airports would be turned into golf courses. But with America’s entry into World War II, the Southern California aviation industry would come roaring back to life, creating the planes that helped to save the free world.
At the direction of FDR, it was Donald Douglas, of Douglas Aircraft, who would spearhead the massive effort, calling together all the major players in the industry. “He organized them and said let’s work together, let’s in fact even build each other’s airplanes,” Jones says. “He presided over the greatest industrial mobilization in history. Here in Southern California, 2 million workers built 300,000 airplanes in four years, an achievement that is just unprecedented on such a big scale. It never will be equaled.”
The huge number of jobs available at the massive aviation plants during World War II would bring thousands of people into LA. Women were employed in record numbers, making up 70 percent of the workforce at Douglas Aircraft during the war. Huge numbers of African Americans poured into the city to find employment at these war industry plants. Downtown’s Little Tokyo—forcibly deserted when Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps—was renamed Bronzeville, as 80,000 black and brown people occupied a community that formerly housed 30,000.
“Such social change happens not because anybody is feeling progressive, but because they need bodies,” Jones says.
To keep these workers safe at plants the size of several football fields, Disney was called in to camouflage some plants from the air, building fake villages on the roofs.
“They took netting and on top of the netting they could construct very lightweight [fake] homes,” Jones says. “So, from the air it really did look like a suburb. And underneath was a plant full of 30,000 employees. That’s the thing, in the plants a shift was 30,000 people working an eight-hour shift and then another 30,000 would come in, and they worked around the clock in eight-hour shifts. So, you had 100,000 workers a day coming in and out and they were camouflaged because there really was a fear after Pearl Harbor that the Japanese could bomb Southern California. This was a target because this was where they were manufacturing so many aircraft.”
Not only did the aviation and aerospace industry help win the war, it also forever altered LA’s geography and architecture, with new styles such as Space Age and Googie. According to Jones, communities like Burbank were created around Lockheed, Santa Monica around Douglas Aircraft, Inglewood and Hawthorne around Northrop.
“It’s incredible what they were able to do building the suburbs of Southern California during the Cold War basically to house people in the aerospace industry,” Jones says. “Suburbs really emerged and were built just to service the mass of people that came here during World War II to work in the industry.”
One example is the city of Lakewood, a cookie-cutter community built with assembly line efficiency. “Douglas aircraft invested because they had a big plant there in Long Beach,” Jones explains. “They basically created this suburb of Lakewood for base workers.”
As the new PBS series explains, even Disneyland in many ways was a by-product and advertisement for the aviation and aerospace industry, with its futuristic rides and attractions. “It’s interesting because Hollywood is so expansive and loves to talk about itself and loves publicity, aviation and aerospace is the opposite because you have a culture of secrecy and confidentiality,” Jones says.
That’s probably part of the reason that much of aviation history has been underreported. “This is why people who were born and raised here are still sometimes shocked, when they realize that aviation and aerospace was a bigger industry than entertainment for most of the 20th century,” Jones says.
Blue Sky Metropolis aims to bring this important piece of LA history back into Angelenos’ consciousness. The series concludes with a look at LA’s modern aviation and aerospace industry, including companies like Virgin Orbit, SpaceX, and Relativity, a recent start-up founded by twenty-somethings who build rockets with 3-D printers. As Jones says, LA has always had “an entrepreneurial spirit that was very welcoming of risk takers and dreamers.”