YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Jack Smith

The men who matched our mountains also had their heads in the clouds

April 30, 1985|JACK SMITH

A year from now, the people at the Jet Propulsion Lab will shoot a spacecraft toward Jupiter in Project Galileo--a mission that its chief scientist calls "close to being impossible."

It will be nothing new for us here in Southern California; we have always lived close to the impossible, out at the edge of our dreams.

Recently PSA magazine had an issue dedicated to "Magnificent Dreams: The West's Top Projects," and asked me to write an introduction about the kind of dreamers we were.

"We have all come from somewhere else, we Westerners," I began. "We are adventurers and dreamers. We are still young. We are turned toward the future.

"It's said that the continent tilts our way, and everything loose slides in. A joke full of truth. We are loose indeed. We are not bound by layers of history and tradition and bias. We are free to invent ourselves. And that is what we have done.

"Our big industries were not brought into being by graduates of the Harvard Business School or by corporate boards, but by loners, mavericks and visionaries. They were driven here by the westering spirit--by a hunger for big sky, land's end, freedom, newness and raw challenge; and indeed, they sometimes had a few screws loose. . . . "

In a recent book called "California Wings: A History of Aviation in the Golden State," William A. Schoneberger tells the stories of that generation of dreamers who put America into the air. Even though the Wright Brothers first flew in North Carolina and there were other pioneers in Europe, the aircraft industry was almost a Southern California phenomenon, and it was started by a handful of tinkerers, stunt pilots and mavericks.

Perhaps it all began on a windy day in February, 1905, when Capt. Tom Baldwin raced his 10-horsepower dirigible California Arrow against one of the era's fastest automobiles, a Pope-Toledo, from Chutes Park in Los Angeles to the Raymond Hotel in Pasadena. Despite hard side winds the dirigible was landed on the hotel grounds two minutes ahead of the car.

Arthur Raymond, whose father was owner of the hotel, and who later was chief designer of the DC-3, remembers that his devotion to aviation dates from that excitement. (Raymond, you may remember, is the man who had so much trouble trying to spray-paint his swing.) The motor for that dirigible had been built by Glenn Curtiss, a young Hammondsport, N.Y., motorcycle maker who later came to San Diego to build aircraft.

Meanwhile, Glenn L. Martin, whose family had moved from Kansas to Santa Ana for his mother's health, secretly built a pusher-type biplane in an abandoned church and rolled it out four miles to the Irvine Ranch, where, at dawn, he flew it--for 12 seconds. It was the first powered flight of a heavier-than-air machine in California.

The first Los Angeles international air meet opened on Jan. 10, 1910, on a mesa at Dominguez Ranch. Eleven airplanes, three dirigibles and one balloon were entered. Special Pacific Electric Railway cars brought a crowd of 20,000. Probably not one of them had ever seen a plane in flight.

At 9 o'clock Glenn Curtiss himself took off in a yellow-winged Curtiss biplane, rounded the pylons at 50 feet or so, and landed on the infield. The crowd cheered, amazed and exhilarated. They had seen proof that man could fly.

The word of this miracle traveled, and next day the grandstands were filled. The 10-day meeting focused the world's attention on Los Angeles.

In 1912, incorporated as the Glenn L. Martin Co., Martin moved into an abandoned cannery, and then into an industrial warehouse on South Los Angeles Street in Los Angeles. On May 10 of that year he made a record over-the-water flight from Newport Beach to Catalina Island in 37 minutes.

The industry was seeded by bright men from Martin's shop. Lawrence Bell, who later built America's first jet, was his first shop foreman; Donald Douglas was his first engineer; William E. Boeing was an early student.

In 1920 Douglas started his own plant in the back room of a downtown Los Angeles barbershop. In 1922 he moved to an abandoned motion picture studio in Santa Monica.

In 1916 Allan Loughead (Lockheed), a self-taught barnstorming pilot, and his brother Malcolm, a mechanical wizard (he invented the hydraulic automobile brake), had moved their new airplane company from San Francisco to a garage in Santa Barbara. One of their hired men was an inventive young man named John K. (Jack) Northrop.

They moved to a garage in Hollywood, where they developed Jack Northrop's design for "the beautiful Lockheed Vega"--the glamour plane of the era. It was to be flown in historic flights by Frank Hawks, Wiley Post, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Sir George Hubert Wilkins and Roscoe Turner.

T. Claude Ryan had been turned away from the Martin plant as too inexperienced, but he got flight training in the Army, and in 1922 he started his Ryan Flying Co. with a $400 surplus Jenny.

He bombarded Southland towns with leaflets saying: "Fly with me. Take a real trip through the clouds. Ryan the aviator is in your city!"

In 1925 Ryan designed an airplane called the M-1, and he got Jack Northrop to come down weekends and work on it. With Ryan's help, it became the sleek, efficient monoplane which, in its most famous variant, was to be known as the Spirit of St. Louis.

Those are only a few of the heroes, a few of the stories in "California Wings." Now on to the planets.

Los Angeles Times Articles