by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Within just a few years of the Wright Brothers achievement in the first successful airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, aviation was established in greater Los Angeles. The region’s unmatched temperate climate proved to be about as ideal for flying as anyplace in the nation and the area soon became a major center for aviation.
The event that firmly established flight in the region was the Los Angeles International Air Meet, held at the Dominguez Rancho near Compton in January 1910. The ten-day event was a sensation with enormous crowds witnessing the wonder of airplane (and other aircraft) flights and the event inspired a great many to take to the skies.
One of those who was so moved was Glenn L. Martin, a young resident of Santa Ana in Orange County, who was drawn to speed and motorized vehicles. Born in Macksburg in Madison County, Iowa (remember “The Bridges of Madison County”?) in January 1886, Martin lived there and in Salina, Kansas, before his salesman father, mother Minta and sister Della migrated out to Santa Ana in the first years of the 20th century.
Clarence Martin, Glenn’s father, owned a Maxwell automobile dealership in the county seat and his son managed the concern until he took over sole ownership. Glenn was also renowned in Orange County for his mastery of the motorcycle and was reported to have set local records for rides to Laguna Beach and San Juan Capistrano.
Captivated, however, by aviation, Martin decided to build his own biplane, working on it with a couple of mechanics from the dealership not long after the air meet at Dominguez was held. By early August 1910, it was reported that he’d had a half-dozen flights in his craft, using a mesa (as in Costa Mesa) on the Rancho San Joaquin, south of Santa Ana for his flights. Because these were the first documented examples of air travel in Orange County, there was, naturally, no airport or field.
Martin emulated a Glenn Curtiss (who was one of the heroes of the Dominguez meet) craft and used a 15-horsepower Ford automobile motor on his plane, which was only taken up for short flights so that the budding aviator could get used to handling the airship. He was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying:
I would not consider it worth while building this machine if it were not for the fact that I want the experience. I have had some flying-machine schemes in my mind for a long while, and expect to carry them out in building a new machine. I built the biplane I now have in order to get used to flying.
By November, Martin was ready to hold an exhibition for the public, also a first in Orange County and sponsored by the Santa Ana Merchants & Manufacturers Association. On the 22nd, he took off from a pasture owned by the prominent McFadden family, again south of Santa Ana, and the Santa Ana Register reported that, “without a hitch, Glenn L. Martin entertained 3,000 people yesterday evening with three wonderful flights with his biplane.”
The Pacific Electric Railway had special cars available to bring visitors to the site and special arrangements were made at local schools to allow students to see “the kind of thing that might not be seen here again for a long time.” It was stated that hundreds sat in their cars along McFadden Street to gawk at the demonstration, while those who got onto the pasture were able to get right up to the aviator’s machine “and examine its mechanism at close range, a favor seldom granted spectators of aviation.”
Police officers were there to clear space for Martin so he could make his flights and the paper stated that “they handled the good-natured people well” so that the pilot could lift off and land without any problems. The Register added:
With all the ease of a bird, Martin and his machine lifted from earth, went straight to the south for nearly a mile, and there circled to the right in a space remarkably short for aeroplane work. Return[ing] each time, he alighted with wonderful skill. The biplane came down as quietly and softly as a gull alighting on the sands.
The following month, another meet was held at the Dominguez Ranch, and Martin achieved a larger measure of fame for being the first California amateur at the event to successfully achieve flight. Being the son of a salesman and one himself in the auto industry, Martin hastened to use his growing fame and burgeoning experience to form his own company to build and sell aircraft and train aviators.
In August 1912, he was joined by his father and three other investors to form the Glenn L. Martin Company. One of these was William Loftus, of the Graham-Loftus Company, which was one of the early prospectors at the first Orange County oil field at Olinda in modern Brea. $100,000 in stock was issued but it was all private held by the several directors, with Martin as president and manager and Loftus as the vice-president.
The purpose was not just to build standard airplanes, but also hydroplanes, because of his proximity to Newport Bay, which allowed an idea location to test the craft. Martin had just become the first aviator to fly to Santa Catalina Island doing so from Newport. In addition, the company was established to hold air meets and enter contestants in those events as well as exhibitions.
Martin already had a factory established on Tenth Street near Main in the growing industrial section of downtown Los Angeles, so this was turned over to the firm, which maintained its business office in Santa Ana and there was talk of moving the factory there, though this did not take place. In fact, the headquarters was relocated to a new facility near the original one on Los Angeles Street between 9th and 10th.
By November, the Newport Bay hydroplanes were being assembled in a large tent while a permanent building was to be constructed, but, later, the operation was moved to a site at Los Angeles Harbor. An airfield, called the Griffith Park Aerodrome, was established in 1912 at the northeast corner of sprawling park and was situated along the south bank of the Los Angeles River. Martin became a principal user of the field, the site of which is now partly encompassed by the Los Angeles Zoo and the nearby interchange of Interstate 5 and the 134 Freeway.
Martin staged exhibitions, entered himself or pilots from his company into meets, and even acted in a Mary Pickford film, A Girl of Yesterday (1915), to raise funds to keep his business in flight. He had early interest from and sold planes to the military for the burgeoning use of aircraft in the armed services.
For a time, when war with Mexico seemed a distinct possibility, the Martin company sent airplane parts to San Diego for military craft positioned there in case a conflict erupted. It was also said that Mexican rebels fighting the government in Mexico City purchased a Martin aircraft in what was reputedly Mexico’s first military-style sorties.
With World War I underway in Europe (but America remaining, for the time being, strictly neutral), Martin’s firm also sold craft to The Netherlands as it engaged in planning for wartime use. So, by 1916, the Glenn L. Martin Company seemed to be making headway as a viable and sustainable firm in the early days of the aviation industry.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s holdings is a 13 July 1916 letter from the company to The Aero Club of America in New York. The vignette is a great photo of a Martin hydroplane taking off from the water (perhaps at the Los Angeles Harbor location, which is listed with the Griffith Park field, while the office and factory address are also provided).
The missive, sent by O.E. Osborn, the company secretary, is about the training of three militia pilots from Wyoming, New Mexico, and California, presumably at the Griffith Park Aerodrome. The letter noted that the Wyoming pilot had not reported or replied to letters, while the New Mexico one had an illness but was replaced by a substitute.
The California aviator “is progressing nicely and intends to so equip himself, that he will be able to give instructions, beginning about September first, to other members of the California Naval Militia.” Two other men, from the Oregon National Guard, had finished their courses.
Just several weeks after this correspondence was sent, Martin completed a merger with the Wright Company, the firm formed by the famed aviation pioneer brothers, and Simplex, a manufacturer of automobiles and auto engines (the latter to be used for aircraft) partly owned by the Wright concern. The new firm, incorporated in New York, was renamed the Wright-Martin Company and was capitalized at $5 million including public stock availability.
Martin, who’d recently arranged for more sales of planes to the United State military, which was less than a year from entry into the war, was reported to have initiated his business four years prior with fifteen employees and a capacity of turning out one plane every two months. As of the date of the merger, he had 165 workers and the ability to complete eight craft each month, reflective of the significant growth of his company in short order.
The new company, however, did not last long and Martin formed a second Glenn L. Martin Company in 1917. He relocated to Cleveland and then to Baltimore where his firm became a major one in the industry, including contacts in the enormous buildup of military aircraft in the all-out mobilization effort during the Second World War.
Martin died of complications from a stroke in December 1955 at age 69, heralded as one of the great pioneers and innovators in the American aircraft industry. His firm went on to more success in aerospace during the great boom of that industry in the 1960s, in the early years of which there was a merger with the American-Marietta Corporation. In 1995, a mega-merger took place with Lockheed that formed the world’s largest defense contractor, Lockheed Martin.
This letter is a great artifact that ties into the early years of the aircraft and aerospace industries that have been so integral to the greater Los Angeles economy and reflects the importance of Glenn Martin, who parlayed an interest in cars and motorcycles to being the first great amateur aviator to come from Orange County and the region more broadly.