From Point A to Point B: The “Spirit of Los Angeles” Aircraft, 14 April 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A few days ago, a post on this blog focused on the visit of aviation hero Charles Lindbergh to Los Angeles in April 1928.  It was mentioned there that the famous “Spirit of St. Louis” that airplane that “Lucky Lindy” piloted in his epochal solo flight across the Atlantic the prior year was made by Ryan Aircraft Company of San Diego.

In imitation of that aircraft, which is a core artifact at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, Ryan built a copy that distributor Mutual Aircraft Corporation of Los Angeles called, of course, the “Spirit of Los Angeles.”  This plan appears to have been christened by that moniker not just because of obvious ties to the “Long Eagle” but because of the upcoming dedication of a Lindbergh light beacon atop the new Los Angeles City Hall, which was dedicated at the end of April 1928.

Los Angeles Times, 18 January 1928.

Though there were rumors that Lindbergh would be present at the dedication of his namesake beacon, he did not attend, though President Calvin Coolidge did inaugurate the flashing of the beacon via a telegraph from the White House.  The Spirit of Los Angeles, however, was part of the Lindbergh beacon story and the highlighted photograph from the museum’s collection featured here is a documentary artifact as part of the tale.

The world of commercial aviation was rapidly evolving in the late 1920s, as has been discussed here in several posts.  Passenger flights and the use of airplanes to deliver mail and other small cargo were quickly being developed and launched with Ryan being one of the companies involved in building the nascent market.

Times, 30 January 1928.

In mid-January 1928, the Los Angeles Times published an article in which it was announced that “Los Angeles will become the distributing headquarters for the Ryan monoplanes” (a “monoplane” simply delineating a craft with one pair of wings instead of the previously standard biplane with its two sets.)  It was added that these craft were “ships of the same type as the Spirit of St. Louis, Col. Lindbergh’s famous plane.”

Ryan concluded a deal with Mutual Aircraft Corporation which “will act as distributors for planes for the entire western territory.”  As these craft were being completed, Mutual embarked on a marketing plan “to send a party of aviation experts in a Ryan brougham on a good-will tour of the States to increase interest in aviation and to urge the provision of airports in all cities visited.”

Times, 11 April 1928.

At the end of the month, two members of the Los Angeles City Council went on a Mutual flight as part of the planning process for municipal airports.  Eventually, it was decided to acquire Mines Field in the far-flung Westchester area near the Pacific Ocean to be one of three desired city airports, the others being Vail Field near Montebello (also discussed here in posts) and in the San Fernando Valley.  A ten-year lease was signed in fall 1927 for the city to develop Mines Field and it was determined to be infeasible to operate two other municipal airports.

On 11 April, the Times reported on the Lindbergh beacon, quoting Mayor Cryer as saying “The City Hall tower and the Lindbergh beacon will tell flying tourists during the coming century of their arrival in Los Angeles,” once the opening ceremonies were conducted about two weeks later.

Times, 14 April 1928.

Notably, the paper paraphrased the mayor as commenting that “inasmuch as Los Angeles probably never will authorize buildings of more than 150 feet in height,” the height limit being eleven stories for aesthetic reasons in avoiding the crowded look of eastern cityscapes, “the City Hall tower, surmounted by the Lindbergh beacon at a height of 450 feet, always will be clearly visible for many miles, and at a great altitude for aerial travelers.”

The article added that, the day before, the mayor christened the Spirit of Los Angeles by “affixing the official gold seal of the city on the bow” at Rogers Field, Mutual’s home airport at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue.  Cryer was then joined by the city’s Board of Public Works President Arthur Eldridge for an aerial tour of the city over which he presided.

Times, 12 August 1928.

The mayor’s prophecy, uttered from 8,000 feet in the air as he circled the City Hall area in the Spirit of Los Angeles, proved, as so many of these utterances are, premature.  Not only did the city approve much taller buildings later, though mostly on Bunker Hill and other areas of downtown, but the Lindbergh beacon wound up being more a hindrance than a help to aircraft.  In 1931, the Commerce department ordered that the roatating white beacon be changed to a red light pointed toward the newly opened Los Angeles Municipal Airport, now Los Angeles International.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor a decade later and for security reasons, the beacon was turned off and then removed.  It was, however, saved and salvaged from a city warehouse in the early 1990s, upon which it was exhibited at the Tom Bradley terminal at LAX.

Times, 12 September 1928.

After a major renovation of city hall about ten years later, the beacon was put back atop the tower, though the 9/11 terrorist attacks delayed its deployment, again as a white light, for a time at the end of 2001.  It has periodically been activated, including during the twelve days of the Christmas season.

With respect to the Spirit of Los Angeles, its next major publicity task, as described in the 11 April article, was to deliver special invitations to the city hall opening ceremony signed by Cryer and Joseph M. Schenck, the chairman of United Artists and head of the citizens’ committee for the city hall dedication, to San Francisco mayor and future California governor James Rolph and other political leaders of northern California.  Eldridge and fellow Public Works official John S. Horn flew north to hand-deliver the invitations to Rolph and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.  Other stops included Oakland, Sacramento, Stockton and Fresno.

Times, 16 September 1928.

The plane was further described in the piece as “the exact duplicate of Col. Lindbergh’s new plane” which, as the post a few days ago noted, he picked up in San Diego and flew to Santa Barbara, where sought respite and rest in private, and in two visits to Los Angeles, including on the 11th.  Built at a cost of $11,500, the craft was the sole model being built at the San Diego plant and it was able to reach 120 miles per hour and arrived in Los Angeles in a new record time of 49 minutes.

Mutual, which had ambitious plans to develop lines of flight throughout the country, signed a deal to acquire all the Ryan craft for its business, with the first line to run from Los Angeles to Oakland and San Francisco.  The Spirit of Los Angeles appears to have served its promotional purpose and then became part of the Mutual fleet ferrying small cargo, like Times newspapers, to Oakland, with stops at Bakersfield and Fresno.

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Aug_12__1928_ (1)
Times, 12 August 1928.

Aviation, however, was still a relatively new and sometimes dangerous and deadly endeavor.  In August 1928, pilot D.A. DiFiore was testing one of the Mutual/Ryan craft with a newly overhauled motor and was a few miles north of Bakersfield when one of the wings suddenly collapsed at an altitude of 1,200 feet and the craft plummeted in flames to earth instantly killing DiFiore.

At the end of September, there was another crash of a Mutual plane in San Jose, as Raymond Crawford attempted a landing at the municipal airport and clipped a tree surrounding the field with one of the wings.  Fortunately, Crawford managed to escape without injury and “inadequate landing space on the field” was determined to be the problem.

This photo from the museum’s holdings shows the “Spirit of Los Angeles” on 14 April 1928.  Notice the wooden slates on which the craft was resting.

Ultimately, Mutual Air Lines and its parent company, Mutual Aircraft Corporation, did not long survive these incidents, though whether it was these accidents, economic problems or other reasons that were the cause of the failure during 1929.  It was a highly competitive business and the Great Depression which followed caused more business collapses, as well as mergers.

This photo is another excellent representative example that documents that dramatically transforming world of local aviation between 1910 and 1930 and the larger aspect of transportation during our interpretive era of 1830 to 1930.

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