California’s air heritage

Dennis Parks is Curator Emeritus of Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

Aviation was introduced to California — and Californians were introduced to aviation — via a spectacular 11-day event held at Dominguez Ranch outside of Los Angeles in January 1910. Aviation activities were common in the eastern United States, but no airplane up to this time had flown publicly west of the Rocky Mountains.

The roots of the California event can be traced to August 1909 at the first International Air Meet at Rheims, France. The event was a great success, drawing thousands of spectators to view the new field of aviation. Among the participants was American aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, who came back to the states the winner of the Gordon Bennett Speed Race.

Following the Rheims meet, enthusiasm for aviation began to increase in the United States. Two air show pilots, Charles Willard and Roy Knabenshue, discussed holding a meet in the winter, with Los Angeles being a good choice for weather reasons.

After receiving a promise of participation from Curtiss, they were able to garner support from local sports promoters for an event to be held at the Dominguez Ranch south of Los Angles. During 11 days in January 1910, some 226,000 spectators watched pilots like Curtiss, Willard, Lincoln Beachey and Charles Hamilton put their machines through record-setting paces.

At the time of the Dominguez meet, orange groves, avocados, and the new motion picture industry represented just about the sum total of industry in southern California. With the state’s introduction to aviation, this would change through the efforts of a few aircraft designer-builders who would lay the foundation for a huge aeronautical industry in the state. Among the people to develop the new industry were Glenn Martin, Allan Loughead and Donald Douglas.

GLENN MARTIN

Even before the first air meet at Dominquez, a young auto mechanic, Glenn Martin, was at work developing his first airplane at Santa Ana. In 1909 he completed a small pusher biplane of the Curtiss style with which he taught himself to fly. After perfecting his aircraft, he embarked on an ambitious exhibition schedule over the next two years, which earned him $12,000. In May 10, 1912, he set records in a Newport Beach-Catalina Island flight. Seeing a future in the manufacture of aircraft, Martin formed his company in 1912.

Glenn Martin exhibiting one of his early machines at a fair at Wahpetor, N.D., in 1912. Photo courtesy Museum of Flight

By 1913 Martin had shifted from pusher type aircraft to tractor type with the propellers in the front. Known as the Model T, it was produced in small numbers, with one of the first delivered to pioneer airman William Boeing.

 

Martin’s first significant aircraft was the TT (for Tractor Trainer). An Army order for 25 aircraft would make Martin one of the most successful aircraft manufacturers of his time.

Martin pioneered new production methods for this airplane. Until this time airplanes were built one by one. However he decided this was not efficient and started a new principle of construction by building all the parts first and then assembling the airplanes as they moved along an assembly line.

ALLAN and MALCOLM LOUGHEAD

The story of Lockheed Aircraft begins with Allan and Malcolm Loughead. The brothers, both involved in the auto industry, first became fascinated with aviation after witnessing glider demonstrations. In 1910 Allan joined his half-brother, Victor, in Chicago where he learned to fly. After returning to California, Allan and Malcolm built their first aircraft, a two-seat flying boat, the Model G. In 1915 the brothers brought their plane to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, where they flew some 600 passengers for 10-minute rides, netting $4,000. With that small fortune, the brothers started the Loughead Aircraft Manufacturing Co. in Santa Barbara.

Their first project was the F-1, the world’s largest seaplane, able to carry 10 passengers. After World War I, the company built the S-1, a single-seat biplane for civilian use. This design pioneered the molded plywood fuselage design that would be used in many famous Lockheed aircraft. However, the plane’s $2,500 asking price was too much for the typical buyer. Financially strained, the company, which changed its name to Lockheed Aircraft in 1918, closed in 1921.

The first Loughead was a seaplane known as the Model G. The story goes they called it a G so people wouldn't think it was their first airplane. Photo courtesy Museum of Flight.

Then in 1926, Allan Loughead secured the money to form the Lockheed Aircraft Corp. Using the innovative construction of a single bodied hull from the earlier S-1, the company produced an incredibly successful high-speed monoplane, the Vega, which quickly became a popular choice for many of the world’s top aviators, including Amelia Earhart, Wiley Post, and Frank Hawks.

 

DONALD DOUGLAS

Donald Douglas received one of the first aeronautical degrees in the United States, earning his B.S. degree in 1914. His interest in aviation can be traced to 1908 when, as a 16 year old, he witnessed Orville Wright fly at Fort Myer, Virginia. In 1915 he was hired by Glenn Martin in California as an engineer. In 1916 he became the chief aeronautical engineer for the Army Signal Corps. After World War I, he rejoined the Glenn L. Martin Co., now in Cleveland, where he designed the first Martin bomber.

In 1920 Douglas formed his own company and designed and built a two-place biplane called the Cloudster. It was the first airplane to carry a useful load equal to its own weight. Its design was later used in developing the Navy’s first torpedo bomber.

The first Douglas was a huge Liberty V-12 powered machine that was designed for a transcontinental flight. After the flight proved unsuccessful, it was sold to Claude Ryan, who converted it to a passenger plane. Photo courtesy Museum of Flight.

In 1924 Douglas made his first significant contribution to aviation when U.S. Army flyers, using Douglas World Cruisers, made the first trip around the world in five months, 22 days. The basic design of the very capable World Cruisers led to several successful aircraft designs by Douglas for the Army, the Navy and the Post Office mail service, making Douglas one of the largest aircraft manufacturers in the United States.

 

ARSENAL OF AIR POWER

California had many other examples of designers who would create large aviation enterprises, including Jerry Vultee, Claude Ryan, and Ruben Fleet. All of these companies would become critical during World War II when the U.S. aircraft industry experienced such huge growth that it became the largest single industry in the world.

From eight companies in Los Angeles and San Diego — Consolidated, Douglas, Lockheed, North American, Northrop, Ryan, Vega and Vultee — came the largest percent of all American war planes produced in World War II.

The results of the wartime efforts were amazing. In 1939, the U.S. produced a measly 5,865 aircraft. From January 1940 through Aug. 14, 1945, America produced 303,717. The largest aircraft companies in California produced more than 121,000 aircraft, 39% of the total.

Dennis can be reached at dennis@generalaviationnews.com.

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