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EDGE / FRONTIERS: Four Fieldss That Have Been Shaped
by, and Are Shaping, Southern California

BIOTECHNOLOGY : AEROSPACE : For Nearly a Century, Ambitious Thinkers and Doers Have Reached for the Skies. Don't Count Them Out in the 21st Century.

July 25, 1999|PRESTON LERNER | Preston Lerner last wrote about Formula One race fans for the magazine

Long derelict, their institutional paint faded by the Southern California sun, the buildings dot the Burbank landscape like colossal relics of an age when bigger was better and there seemed to be no end to America's industrial might.

Inside these decaying sentinels, Lockheed workers built thousands of Vegas, P-38 Lightnings, Model 49 Constellations, Stealth Fighters--planes that helped win wars, conquer oceans, inaugurate the Jet Age and transform a sleepy nexus of orange groves into the San Fernando Valley's most highly industrialized city. Today, the lathes are silent, the assembly lines stilled. The work once done in Burbank is now performed in Palmdale, Fort Worth and Marietta, Ga. Lockheed, as such, no longer exists: Like most of the region's other indigenous aviation giants, it's been overtaken by merger mania, and Lockheed Martin (as the company is now known) is headquartered in Maryland, as far as possible from the Santa Barbara garage where the first Loughead (as it was then known) flying boat was built in 1918.

Los Angeles may indeed be a company town, but until recently, the dominant industry was aerospace, not entertainment. Just as Lockheed was synonymous with Burbank, so was Douglas twinned with Santa Monica, Northrop with Hawthorne, North American with Inglewood, Rockwell with Downey. At one point, nearly half of the airplanes built in America were designed, fabricated and assembled in Southern California. The first American satellite was built here. So was the rocket that launched it. As local aviation historian Bill Schoneberger puts it: "More aviation history has been made in Southern California than anywhere else in the world."

These days, thanks to tax breaks, cheap labor and pork-barrel politics, the aerospace industry is so geographically diverse that it's no longer possible to designate any one area as its core. That said, aerospace remains central to the Southern California economy. Granted, the paradigm has changed: We're building satellites instead of airplanes, space launch vehicles rather than intercontinental ballistic missiles. But despite massive layoffs caused by the defense drawdown of the '90s, aerospace still accounts for nearly 150,000 jobs in the Los Angeles area.

Just as aerospace has helped define Southern California, from the heroic test pilots of "The Right Stuff" to the alienated out-of-work engineer in "Falling Down," so has Southern California put its stamp on aerospace. For nearly a century, the industry's most resourceful thinkers and ambitious doers have flocked here, drawn not only by the prospect of idyllic flying weather but also by a promise of a metaphorical blue sky that encouraged --no, demanded--relentless experimentation.

"The culture was so aggressive," says Paul Klevatt, an engineer who hired on with Douglas at the dawn of the Space Age and recently served as program manager of a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle straight out of "Buck Rogers." "There were no ground rules. We didn't know what we couldn't do, so we just went ahead and did it."

Consider these signposts of progress: First powered flight in 1903. First transatlantic flight in 1927. First flight through the sound barrier in 1947. First man in orbit in 1961. First man on the moon in 1969.

Three generations from Icarus to Asimov. "Things moved pretty fast, didn't they?" says Ralph Ruud, who started his 60-year career working on canvas-winged biplanes and ended it overseeing production of the space shuttle. Predictably, most of the breakthroughs were made at the so-called primes, corporate conglomerates with armies of engineers and extravagant cost-plus budgets. But Burt Rutan built the Voyager, the first plane to fly around the world without refueling, for $186,000 in a tiny shop in Mojave. The Gossamer Condor, the first successful human-powered aircraft, was developed by Paul MacCready and a small cadre of free-thinkers in Pasadena. The little-known Ramo-Wooldridge Corp. was the birthplace of the American ballistic missile defense system. Referring to his research in Caltech's world-renowned wind tunnel during the '40s, former Hughes Aircraft CEO Allen Puckett once said: "It was impossible not to discover something new every day." And now? "If I were coming out of school today," Ruud says, "I'd go into computers."

Back in 1909, of course, there were no clouds on the horizon. Shortly after dawn on Aug. 1, Glenn L. Martin made Southern California's first flight--it lasted all of 12 seconds--over an Orange County lima bean field in an airplane he'd built in an abandoned Methodist church in Santa Ana. Before long, Martin was running a flying school in Griffith Park and building airplanes in an L.A. factory. But a corporate merger soon prompted him to move to Cleveland. So it was left to his chief engineer, Donald Douglas, to start his own company in the back room of a downtown Los Angeles barbershop and put Southern California on the international aviation map.

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