by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In early 1910, the Dominguez Ranch in present-day Compton was the site for the first international aviation meet, not quite seven years after the Wright Brothers famous flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The meet dazzled the hordes of visitors who saw a wide variety of aircraft and thrilled to the exploits of famed flyers like Louis Paulhan, Glen Curtiss and Charles Willard.
Succeeding years included tremendous technological change and advances in aviation, including the first use of aircraft in major warfare during the First World War, which ended a century ago this fall, and the development of commercial and passenger flight. Greater Los Angeles proved to be an ideal location for the improvements and refinements of aviation because of its temperate climate, growing labor pool as the region’s population mushroomed, and abundant open land for airports, construction facilities and other infrastructure.
In 1920, publisher Ralph Pulitzer (son of Joseph Pulitzer, who created the namesake prizes, first awarded in 1917) held the first National Air Race at a field in Long Island, which included the Pulitzer Trophy Race, intended to be something akin to the Indianapolis 500 for the relative new field of auto racing. The contests moved to various cities through the decade, including Omaha, St. Louis, Seattle and Dayton, Ohio.
For eight days in September 1928, the National Air Races and Aeronautical Exposition was held in Los Angeles. A group of officers and an executive committee planned the events and there was an advisory committee of dozens, including business and community leaders like Los Angeles Mayor George Cryer; Harry Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times; aircraft pioneer Donald Douglas; Los Angeles County supervisors; Hollywood figures like Joseph Schenck and Sid Grauman; and many more.
Each day was a featured one such as “World Flight Day” or “Navy Day,” and there were several special events, with cash prizes and trophies for such goals as a distance record; and endurance record; a relay race; and races for attack and pursuit type planes, as well as craft of varied sizes. Other contests were for model planes, parachute jumpers, and others.
A major race was a transcontinental air race, with about seventy entrants, from New York to Los Angeles, with $40,000 in prizes, including $2,500 to the first place finisher in any class, though there were three defined classes based on engine displacement. The itinerary included stops in different cities, depending on the class, before the 2,939-mile contest ended at Los Angeles five days later on 10 September. There were also races within California and from Mexico and Canada to Los Angeles.
Band concerts; fireworks shows; parachute jump exhibitions; air extravaganzas, including film and theater stars, dancers, and others; formation flying; and other special events were held throughout the eight days. Over 200 exhibitors displayed their wares at the exhibition. Conventions were held in Los Angeles during the races including for the National Aeronautical Association; the Professional Pilots’ Association; and the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce of America.
The host airport was Mines Field, specially built on a former barley field in only 58 days for the races. The California Air Race Association oversaw the establishment of three runways of 7,000 feet length; an exposition building of 20,000 square feet; a massive wooden grandstand; seven miles of fencing; over fourteen miles of roads; the requisite utility delivery; a judging stand; military officers’ club buildings; and much more. Over a thousand workers and several thousand more contributors to the project developed a venue that could accommodate up to 38,000 automobiles.
The arrangement was to turn over Mines Field at the end of the event to the City of Los Angeles for operation, after some adjustments to the facility, as a municipal airport. In the nine decades since, the airport has become Los Angeles International, which, in 2017, served over 84.5 million passengers, a 40% increase in a decade; almost 2.3 million tons of freight, almost a 30% increase since 2008; and about 110,000 tons of mail, about a 50% jump in the same period.
The Homestead’s collection has a few dozen artifacts related to the 1928 National Air Races, including the official program with a very striking and colorful Art Deco cover; a ticket; photographs; and more. This post features pages from the program, including that striking cover and a couple of pages from an insert promoting Los Angeles County as “the Air Capital of the Nation” with facts about its importance in aviation, while one page promotes the county as having ample land, cheap power and water, good roads and “long life and happiness,” while noting that the 1932 Olympic Games were to be held in the area.
We also highlight four aerial photographs taken on this day, the 15th of September, which shows just how rural and isolated the site was when that barely field was converted in under two months to an airport.
One of the views shows about a half-dozen planes flying low in formation over the main runway and the images range from elevations of 800 to 2,000 feet, with the latter giving a good look at portions of Los Angeles and surrounding communities north and east of Mines Field.
The Great Depression slowed down the phenomenal growth of greater Los Angeles generally and the aviation industry in particular. But, the onset of World War II and then the Cold War provided an enormous boost for it and in aerospace which peaked in the 1960s before a downturn, though there is still a prominent place for the industry in the region today.