Climbing south out of John Wayne Airport on one of the many commercial flights that depart each day, if the plane is banked just right and the air is clear, some of the passengers can make out a flagpole at the approach to Balboa Pier in Newport Beach.
At the base of the pole, engraved on the tarnished plaque that is California Registered Historical Landmark No. 775, is the brief story of an event whose influence accounts in part for the fact that the passengers are up there at all.
"First Water-to-Water Flight," it reads. "Glenn L. Martin flew his own plane, built in Santa Ana, from the waters of the Pacific Ocean at Balboa to Catalina Island, May 10, 1912. This was the first water-to-water flight and the fastest over-water flight to that date. Martin, on his return to the mainland, carried the day's mail from Catalina--another first."
Newport Beach is not Kitty Hawk, and Glenn Martin is not Orville Wright. Yet in aviation circles, Orange County has always been considered fertile territory for innovation, daring and progress in the air.
A fresh reminder of the county's status in the aviation world appeared recently with the third printing of "From Jennies to Jets," a book tracing the history of flight in Orange County. Written by Vi Smith, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, the third edition examines aviation in the county from the first powered flight here ("Jennies" refers to the Curtiss JN4Ds flown in the early 1900s) to the burgeoning aerospace industry of the 1980s.
The book points out that many of the most accomplished and famous pilots, designers and aviation business people in the history of flight have worked and flown here.
From the earliest days of aviation to the present, Orange County has seen:
- The first airplane to fly successfully in California. Built by Glenn Martin in an abandoned Methodist church at the corner of 2nd and Main streets in Santa Ana, it flew for 12 seconds eight feet above the James Irvine ranch Aug. 1, 1909.
- Martin's water-to-water flight in 1912.
- Pioneering parachute jumps at about the same time by 4-foot, 8-inch daredevil Georgia (Tiny) Broadwick.
- The establishment, in 1923, of Eddie Martin Airport, now John Wayne Airport, one of the busiest in the country.
- Numerous attempts at world speed, altitude and endurance records.
- Howard Hughes belly-flopping his small monoplane into a beet field in Santa Ana while trying to set a speed record in 1935.
Flying visits by Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.
- A total of 34 airfields operating in the county at once, in 1934.
- The legendary stunt flying of Paul Mantz, Frank Tallman and Frank Pine.
- The establishment of a burgeoning aerospace industry, fed by a dozen major corporations.
Why should Orange County, known in its early days for nothing more glamorous than citrus crops and bean fields, have become a mecca for pioneers of the air, a favorite haven for some of the most flamboyant and skilled fliers of their times?
"There were only a few of us (pilots) down here in those days, but we all had aviation in mind," said Eddie Martin, the last of the innovative Martin family, which dominated Orange County aviation during the 1920s and 1930s (the flying Martin brothers--Johnny, Eddie and Floyd--were not related to Glenn Martin).
'This Was the Ideal Place'
"I've always preached that this was the ideal place in the U.S. to fly and teach students, mostly because of the open country. There was nice air, with a gentle breeze from the southwest, and you could set down anywhere if you had to."
Martin, with help from his brothers, not only established what was to become John Wayne Airport but started a flying school there that still exists as Martin Aviation. With his brothers, he built and flew planes and played host to famous aviators from around the United States. As a pilot for American Airlines in the 1930s, he once flew Eleanor Roosevelt and her son, Elliott, from El Paso, Tex., to Burbank. His early pilot's license from the National Aeronautic Assn. is signed by Orville Wright, who was chairman of the NAA. Now 84, Martin lives in Santa Ana.
"It was strictly a Western-type frontier out here," he said. "There were no legal limitations on aviation. You could do whatever you wanted to do."
And they did. Martin and dozens of other adventurous fliers took off and landed early craft on beach sand and dirt roads, swooped, stunted, dived, rolled, went for altitude, went for speed, tested the strength of their planes--always secure in the knowledge that if something went seriously wrong there would be hundreds of square miles of open, flat land to glide down to.
"We had forced landings about every 25 to 30 hours in those old ships," said Martin. "But in this area, that sort of thing was just duck soup."
Open Fields, Few Cars