by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In so many ways, aviation and greater Los Angeles were made for each other, especially because of the remarkably temperate Mediterranean climate in the region. No wonder that, within just a few years after the Wright brothers celebrated their achievement at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, this area became a popular location for flyers in the new industry to spread their wings!
A landmark event in local aviation history is the Los Angeles International Air Meet, held in January 1910 at the Dominguez Ranch, part of the historic Rancho San Pedro, in the South Bay area. The prior summer, the world’s first air races were held at Reims, France, where American Glenn Curtiss defeated home country favorite Louis Blériot. Almost immediately, talk centered on having a race here in the United States.
Pilot Roy Knabenshue and one of Curtiss’ pupils, Charles Willard, settled on southern California as an ideal place, in no small part to the fabulous weather in the region. Curtiss agreed to participate, but would not defend his championship in Los Angeles, preferring to do so in a later race in New York, where he presumed their would be more interest and coverage (oh, and prize money, too!)
Obviously, securing the support of local business leaders and a promoter, Dick Ferris, was essential, as was wooing transportation magnate Henry E. Huntington, who ponied (!) up $50,000 to help finance the event. The fact that Huntington’s streetcar system, comprising the soon-to-be formalized Pacific Electric Railway, would be taking hordes of visitors to the site of the meet, naturally enticed him to make his contribution. Another major supporter was the newspaper titan, William Randolph Hearst, whose Los Angeles Examiner, later to merge with the Los Angeles Herald, was only seven years old and still trying to position itself as a competitor to the dominant Los Angeles Times.
This was the era when massive public works improvements, such as further work at the harbor at nearby Wilmington and San Pedro and the in-progress Los Angeles Aqueduct, along with huge private investment in business, industry, and real estate (not to mention the nascent film industry, launched just the year before the race) were coalescing to put greater Los Angeles increasingly on the path to a national status as a major metropolitan area.
From 10-20 January, crowds headed down to Dominguez Field, where a 26,000-seat grandstand was quickly assembled to see the daring young men in their flying machines in action. Notably, although over 40 craft of various types were entered, only 40% of them actually arrived and some never got off the ground because of various issues. This, however, gave more room for attention for those aviators who did get in the air.
A prime attraction for the meet was French flyer Louis Paulhan. Guaranteed a very handsome sum of $25,000 to appear, Paulhan brought four aircraft and he was solely responsible for the meet being considered “international.” He set new world records for altitude and endurance and a 45-mile run from Dominguez to “Lucky” Baldwin’s Santa Anita racetrack and back raised a ruckus as thousands craned their necks to watch Paulhan fly the friendly skies of the region.
Curtiss, who was actually the first aviator to get in the air at the meet, claimed to be unperturbed by all the attention paid to his rival. Ken Pauley, a retired aerospace engineer and friend, whose book on the event features rare snapshots of the meet from the Homestead’s collection, noted that Curtiss had some legal troubles with the Wright brothers over patent matters that occupied his mind, as well.
Curtiss did achieve something significant, defeating Paulhan by nearly ten seconds and a couple of other aviators in a difficult challenge of making a 1.6 mile lap, achieving a top speed of just a tad under 44 mph. The American also bested the French pilot in another challenge involving ten laps over a smaller course. Curtiss used some timely winds to also top 60 mph in a solo demonstration.
In the end, Paulhan took home a larger cash haul of $19,000, on top of his appearance fee, while Curtiss took home $6,000, still a princely sum. Paulhan could also have had a significant hand in future aviation history when he was the only pilot to grant a wish of a very persistent fan who wanted a ride on some craft. Before the two could meet, though, Paulhan departed Los Angeles and left William Boeing waiting four more years for his first ride on an airplane!
The highlighted real photo postcard from the Homestead’s collection shows Paulhan aloft in one of his craft during the meet. A portion of the grandstand is in view, as are a number of spectators standing on the grounds. In the distance are some of the wide open agricultural spaces on the Dominguez Ranch, later fully urbanized.
An excellent summary of the meet from Don Berliner for the centennial of the event is in this article from the magazine of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.