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Celebrate! Volume Ii : Orange County's First 100 Years : Catalysts For Change : Eyes On The Sky

October 16, 1988|KIM MURPHY | Murphy is a Times staff writer.

After a false start, the county's age of aviation sputtered to life in a bean field. Before long, the setting of flight records seemed commonplace.

A group of spectators had gathered at McFadden's pasture shortly before dawn, their eyes fixed on a gawky construction of spruce spars, curved bamboo ribs and neatly stitched white muslin. The ungainly structure had been painstakingly pieced together over a year's time, and on this late summer morning just a few years after the Wright Brothers first sailed over Kitty Hawk, N.C., it was about to tuck the early morning breezes up under its wings and give California its first glimpse of mechanical flight.

At least, that was Glenn Martin's plan. The young Santa Ana automobile dealer and mechanic had put every dime and spare moment he had into a machine he hoped would launch him heavenward by the seat of the pants. It nearly did.

As the crowd--including mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner--looked on, Martin climbed onto a seat suspended over the landing gear and made a few tentative ground runs across the pasture, gaining a feel for the controls. The fourth time across, the engine sputtered to a halt, and, rather than wait for his mechanics to restart it, Martin climbed off and gave the propeller a spin. Before he could climb back on, the engine roared to life and began pulling the pilotless craft across the field. The propeller sliced through Martin's jaunty bowler hat as he grabbed hold of a strut and rode the plane like a bronco through a series of dizzying circles across the pasture. Finally, a wheel collapsed, and the plane's delicate framework crunched into a heap on the ground. The engine, having torn itself from its mounting, roared and sputtered a moment more and then stopped.

Martin's biographer, Henry Still, reports that the would-be airman hauled the wreckage out of the pasture at sunup the next day, tailed by giggling children who tore off scraps of wing fabric along the way.

His revenge came on Aug. 1, 1909, when Martin donned a new bowler and stepped into the biplane he had built in the abandoned Southern Methodist Church in Santa Ana. This time, the runway was a 160-acre Irvine Ranch lima bean field. Martin lifted the craft eight feet into the air and flew 100 feet to become Orange County's--possibly California's--first successful aviator.

"We did it," he was quoted as saying in Still's book, "To Ride the Wind." "Now I'm going home and sleep for about 20 hours."

The flight was one of many that would give Orange County a special place in aviation history. With its wide-open fields, proximity to Los Angeles and bustling cadre of flying enthusiasts, Orange County quickly sprouted nearly three dozen airstrips and played host to many of the luminaries of the earliest years of human flight.

It was here that, a few years later, Martin would again make history with the longest over-water flight, taking off from Newport Harbor at Balboa and landing at Catalina's Avalon Harbor. It was in those same fields south of Santa Ana that reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes would make an inglorious belly-flop landing while attempting to set a new world speed record.

It was in Orange County that well-known Hollywood stunt fliers Frank Tallman and Paul Mantz would set up their headquarters, establishing one of the most important aircraft collections in the world and generating gossip when famed aviator Amelia Earhart, a frequent companion of both Hughes and Mantz, figured prominently in Mantz's 1936 divorce trial.

It was in the skies above Seal Beach on Aug. 12, 1917, that Clarence O. Prest, a daredevil motorcycle racer turned pilot, attempted to set a new world's altitude record, reaching an incredible height of 18,100 feet with a makeshift oxygen system while 35,000 spectators gasped below.

And it was in Santa Ana that Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan settled after making his famous 1938 solo crossing from New York to Dublin, Ireland--insisting to furious Civil Aeronautics Authority officials that he had intended to fly west to California but had misread his compass.

IN THE WEEKS AFTER Martin's first tentative flight that day in 1909, he made several more passes across the Santa Ana bean fields, prompting the family doctor, according to Vi Smith's book, "From Jennies to Jets," to write to Martin's mother, Minta Martin: "For heaven's sake, if you have any influence with that wild-eyed, hallucinated, visionary young man, call him off before he is killed. Have him devote his energies to substantial, feasible and profitable pursuits, leaving dreams to the professional dreamers."

Indeed, it was Minta who spent long hours in the abandoned church helping craft the biplane that eventually took flight, Minta who was often in the cockpit, scarf flying, at her son's side, and Minta who was his constant companion and the only woman in his life until the day he died.

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