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Airlines' Move to L. A. Airport Shrouded in Thick Fog

April 19, 1987|ROCKEY SPICER | Special to The Times: Spicer is a Tarzana free-lance writer

Forty years ago, Los Angeles International Airport became the area's major air terminal--the fifth local airport to handle commercial flights since regularly scheduled airline service began here April 17, 1926.

In 1947 it wasn't called Los Angeles International Airport--or LAX, as it's popularly referred to.

American, United, Pan American, TWA and Western--the five major airlines then operating here--moved piecemeal to the new airport as facilities were completed.

The Los Angeles Times on Nov. 1, 1946, announced that $4 million worth of hangars and maintenance buildings "are being rushed by four major airlines at Los Angeles Airport."

Move From Burbank

Until they were completed, the airlines continued to use Lockheed Air Terminal (now Burbank Airport or Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport) as their Los Angeles terminus, as they had since the 1930s.

The new airport was officially named Los Angeles Airport on July 9, 1941, but unofficially it was called Los Angeles Municipal Airport. Whatever its name, it was not ready for the airlines in early 1947.

The passenger terminals, which were to be housed in temporary, two-story wooden frame buildings on the north side of the field, east of Sepulveda Boulevard, were still under construction.

There was no restaurant until Mike Lyman's Flight Deck on the second (and top) floor of the main terminal building opened several months later to augment a bar.

The airport was so pastoral that jack rabbits lived along the runways and would stand at attention in the weeds watching the planes take off and land.

Plane Clipped Pole

Western Airlines, for whom I worked as news bureau manager, had its hangar ready in late 1946. After completing their flights to Lockheed Air Terminal, WAL planes often deadheaded to Municipal Airport for maintenance.

When a major storm hit Southern California on Christmas Eve, 1946, one of our DC-4s clipped a telephone pole at the east end of the runway when landing. Luckily, it was a glancing blow and the plane landed safely.

The near disaster cast a gloom over the move to Municipal Airport. Most of the airlines' flight personnel had opposed leaving Lockheed Air Terminal.

Leading the opposition was C. N. (Jimmy) James, WAL's vice president of operations, who had flown the nation's first regularly scheduled airline flight into Los Angeles from Salt Lake City.

History of Heavy Fog

James said that Municipal Airport had a history of being socked in by fog during winter months, dating from its days as Mines Field, known principally in the '20s and '30s for its air races that drew such prominent pilots as Charles A. Lindbergh, Roscoe Turner, Jimmy Doolittle and Wiley Post.

James asserted that each of the airports that had handled commercial traffic into Los Angeles had better flying weather conditions than Municipal Airport, and that the original commercial airport, Vail Field, now a residential area in Montebello, had the best fog-free conditions of any.

Alhambra Airport, where Western Airlines in 1930 completed a million-dollar terminal with passenger-loading satellites much like those at LAX today, and Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale, were other early commercial airports.

I wish I had a dollar for every night I started for LAX, which became Los Angeles International Airport Oct. 11, 1949, to cover the arrival or departure of a newsworthy passenger, only to have to race by car to Burbank, the nearest alternative airport when LAX was socked in.

Returning to Burbank

Within three months, the airlines, which had reduced their service into Lockheed Air Terminal, again began increasing flights to Burbank.

This was because Municipal Airport was socked in so often in early 1947 that planes regularly had to land at Lockheed. Passengers were complaining about uncompleted facilities at Municipal and political and public pressure from San Fernando Valley communities.

"They're coming back to Burbank--the airlines which went into fog-bound Los Angeles Municipal Airport last December and inconvenienced two million people," gloated the lead paragraph of a front page bannered story in the Burbank Review, March 15, 1947.

During the late '40s, the fog persisted at Municipal Airport, much to the concern for safety by the pilots, annoyance of passengers because of delayed and diverted flights, economic unhappiness of airline executives and embarrassment of airport and city officials.

FIDO Experiment

The U.S. Navy had been experimenting with a system of gas burners lining an airfield at Arcata, Calif. When the field got socked in, the Navy lit the burners and a clear pathway was burned through the fog, it was said.

City officials approved the installation of FIDO (Navy lingo for Fog Intensive Dispersal Of) at Municipal Airport over the skepticism of airline pilots.

FIDO was installed along the main runway at a cost of $350,000.

A pea souper occurred two nights later. The L.A. press corps, which I had alerted, and I stood along the main runway to watch the demonstration. FIDO was lit. The flames from the gas jets shot about 10 feet high.

A Western DC-4 took off, and after making several passes at the field, the pilot radioed that he couldn't see the ground and was going to land at Lockheed.

Not long thereafter, FIDO was quietly removed.

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