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Memories Take Flight at Museum

January 03, 2005|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

It's not often that toothbrushes qualify as part of history.

But at the Flight Path Learning Center at Los Angeles International Airport, logo-embossed complimentary toothbrushes illustrate a time when airlines, many long since gone, offered passengers such niceties, as well as live music, flight attendants in designer uniforms, and steak and champagne in coach.

One of few museums actually located at a major U.S. airport, the 15-month-old center features items from the 75-year history of LAX, as well as memorabilia from both world wars and Southern California's aerospace industry.

Some artifacts, including navigational aids, airport renderings and flight schedules, were rescued from the garbage heap by airport employees. Other items -- like several model airplane collections, aircraft study guides, even decades-old luggage -- were donated by area residents.

Displays are arranged in glass cases, on the walls and on mannequins in spacious rooms ringed with windows that offer visitors a glimpse of planes landing and taking off on the airport's busy runways.

"We tried in the 1980s to start a museum, but we couldn't get it going," said Ethel Pattison, a 49-year employee at the city's airport agency who is considered the unofficial LAX historian. "Everyone just kept putting stuff under my desk."

The search for a location ended in 2002, when airport officials turned over the old Imperial Terminal to Flight Path, a 9-year-old nonprofit group, for a museum. Volunteers spent months cleaning out the hangar, repairing its roof and installing carpet.

The 24,000-square-foot center opened in September 2003. The early exhibits were designed to celebrate the airport's 75th anniversary and the 100th anniversary of the first flight by the Wright brothers.

Today, school groups visit and community organizations use it for meetings. It is open to the public Tuesdays and Thursdays and some Saturdays.

Filmmakers have consulted the museum's growing library to find out things like what a flight manual for an older aircraft looked like, said Nancy Niles, the airport agency's public and community relations director. One airport-area resident donated dozens of boxes of old manuals that he had kept in his garage.

For Pattison, the museum has provided a chance to exhibit items that had been hidden away in airport closets, filing cabinets and boardrooms.

In her quest to preserve LAX history, the former United Airlines flight attendant even had airport carpenters remove part of an old hangar just to save some Western Air Express fliers.

The faded flight schedules, one dated Aug. 15, 1939, were pasted on the walls of an employee coffee room, Pattison said. When she couldn't peel them off, she decided to take them with the drywall attached.

Some museum visitors, inspired by Pattison's handiwork, went home and dug out aviation-related heirlooms to donate to the center.

Rancho Palos Verdes resident Dorothy Agronick gave Flight Path the insignia, sheepskin-lined goggles and leather flying cap that her father, Ernest Jones, wore as a U.S. military pilot in France during World War I.

"My father would be literally dumbfounded to find himself in a museum," Agronick said. "He was a very ordinary man from central Iowa. I think he was probably somewhat typical of people that went into the service back then."

The items, which include her father's flight book, had been sitting in a drawer in Agronick's home.

Now, the 80-year-old Agronick says proudly, they are displayed at the museum to help children "learn a little history."

Former Trans World Airlines flight attendant Lynne Adelman donated 14 uniforms from a collection that occupies most of her Westchester garage.

In describing the outfits, Adelman, whose career spanned three decades, tends to refer to them by the year in which they were worn.

"I wanted a way for TWA to be remembered," Adelman said. "Generally, anytime I'd ever worn the 1944 to a party, non-airline people were very curious about it."

Among her favorites are a series of paper uniforms, including one resembling gold lame and another called the "Olde English" with a flouncy white collar, which flight attendants wore in the mid-1960s on "foreign accent" flights from Los Angeles to New York. The tags on the dresses tout them as "throw-away fashion."

Recalling the glamour that accompanied airline travel in the early days, Adelman said that when she started with TWA in 1972, she wore a bright purple uniform, featuring hot pants and a jacket with gold buttons bearing a "V" for the designer, Valentino.

"During that time, you were carving chateaubriand in first class. You were lighting a baked Alaska. You were serving some of the best wines in the country and the world," Adelman said. "Today, you're lucky if you get a peanut or a pretzel."

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