by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It is hard to overstate how important and how rapidly aviation in greater Los Angeles transformed during the late 1920s as this form of transportation literally took off through the introduction of mail delivery and passenger service. One of the main players during those burgeoning years was Western Air Express, formed in 1925 by Harris Hanshue and a group of investors.
The firm quickly went into the business of ferrying mail after the federal government enacted a regulation that allowed for private delivery. In April 1926, the first Western Air Express planes took off from Vail Field in Montebello for that purpose, though limited passenger service was soon introduced. The airport, situated north of the intersection of Telegraph Road and Garfield Avenue, was named after a prominent family that had mining and real estate interests in Arizona and Southern California, including Los Angeles and a Vail Ranch still outside of Temecula on the way to San Diego. That field, however, proved to be too small as the company grew and so a purchase was made at a price of over $500,000 for some 188 acres used as a sewage farm by the City of Pasadena but situated south of Valley Boulevard between Almansor Street and New Avenue and north of Hellman Avenue in Alhambra.
The Los Angeles Times of 17 June 1929 included a lengthy article about the impending opening, expected in two weeks, of the $1,000,000 airport, noting the rapid growth of the company from just five planes and 20 employees a little more than three years before to forty craft and 212 workers. It was also noted that passenger service was expanded in spring 1928 with a partnership with an aeronautical fund set up by Daniel Guggenheim allowing for flights between Los Angeles and Oakland and San Francisco, while Pacific Marine Airways was acquired for the Catalina route.
In January 1929, Fokker planes (Hanshue was president of that firm, as well) were introduced for service to Tijuana. In mid-May, passenger flights were initiate to Albuquerque with two stops along the way and, two weeks later, the line was extended to Kansas City with a stop in Amarillo. About the end of June, amphibian craft were employed for 45-minute flights to Lake Arrowhead and there were plans to introduce a connection from Amarillo to Pueblo, Colorado and Cheyenne, Wyoming.
So, to accommodate these continuing and future expansions, the Alhambra airport was deemed necessary and “the finest airport in America” when work was completed, including the innovative hexagonal hangar, with steel framing built by Pacific Iron and Steel Company of Los Angeles, and an impressive four-story passenger terminal and freight station. This latter, which started construction in late August and finished by the end of 1929 and which was designed by Los Angeles architects Abram M. Edelman and Archie C.. Zimmerman, included a glass-enclosed control tower at the top; a restaurant with a capacity of 150 persons; a waiting room; a women’s lounge; the baggage and freight room; the ticket and telegraph office; a meteorological office; a radio center; and administrative offices. The terminal was opened to the public early in 1930.
Three runways were built and were equipped with flood lights, with the main runway in the center and oriented toward prevailing winds from the northeast to the southwest being 500 feet wide and 3400 feet long, the second one being the same width and at 2700 feet while also oriented from northeast to southwest, and the third, beng 300 feet wide and 2600 feet long, extending east to west. Eventually only the main runway remained. The arranging of the concourses allowed for three planes to be readied for take-off at a rate of one craft per minute. The company observed that it had set up a system by which, a month earlier, it had 29 departures and 22 arrivals within an hour, half with passengers and freight for longer flights. It was added that Western Air Express was handling 28% of all passenger traffic and 22% of the air mail in the country.
As for the hangar, the company had patents in the application stage for its unique design, and the building was 286 feet in diameter, could house a half-dozen craft with 125-foot wingspans, and the craft could all be serviced simultaneously from the crew working out of a space at the center of the structure which had a stock and lockers for workers at a lower level and another glass-enclosed office above it. Combining the offices and hangar would, it was stated, save about 20% on time from when these were separated. The floor sloped outward so that a plane could easily be pulled out by a single person and electric doors could be opened within a half-minute in the event of a fire.
The storage hangars, measuring 85 by 420 feet, located on either side of the terminal were in a rectangular shape with sliding doors on both sides and triangular stalls to maximize space for planes, of which there were two models used by the company, a Fokker F-10 and new Pullman D-32 double tandem craft then being built by Fokker. The terminal and storage hangars were at the north-central part of the site and the hexagonal hangar was at the northwest corner at what is now the southeast corner of Valley and Almansor.
The article noted that the company’s craft logged some 3 million miles in the three years since it initiated service without a plane wrecked or any lost or damaged mail and there was more than a 99% on-time record. The three pilots who began with the company, Maury Graham, Fred Kelly, and Jimmie James, were still with the firm and had impressive flight records. As a further illustration of growth, air mail pieces grew from 2.9 million in 1926 to over 8 million the next year to nearly 16 million in 1928. Net earnings for the company, which was privately held, totaled $700,000 in that latter year.
The actual date of the first use of the facility was on 10 July, though as noted above, completion of the terminal and the two storage hangars did not occur until the early part of the following year. By then, the Great Depression burst forth from the disastrous collapse of the stock market in October 1929. This was followed in 1930 by a merger with Transcontinental Air Transport through maneuverings from New York financiers who took a majority ownership of Fokker stock with the result that the new company was called Trans World Airlines, or TWA, the first company to provide coast-to-coast service.
After a few years, however, Western Air Express again became independent and, in 1934, was rebranded as Western Air Lines. It persevered through the Depression and World War II years, as well as Hanshue’s death in 1937. Western Air Lines lasted until the late 1980s when it was acquired by Delta Air Lines.
As for the photo from the Associated Press, it is an aerial view by Stockton of the hangar with one craft outside one of the large openings. The caption on the reverse is titled “The Newest Thing in Airplane Hangars” and it reads:
“A new departure in the construction of airplane hangars, designed for economy of space and efficiency of operation, is apparent in the completion of the new airport in Los Angeles, Calif.—the Western Air Express field. It is hexagonal in shape, was constructed at a cost of $100,000 and will house 39 planes. The six hangar doors are controlled by electricity and can all be opened at the same time. The floor slopes from the center to each door, making it possible for one man to lift the tail of a ship and roll it out.”
After the merger to form TWA, though, it was decided to move operations in April 1931 to the Grand Central Terminal in Burbank and the Alhambra location became known as Alhambra Airport, a private facility used by individual and small commercial flyers and the Western Air College flight school. The field was used in several 1930s and early 1940s Hollywood films until it was sold in 1943 to the City of Alhambra. Two years later, Harlow Aircraft Company bought the property for manufacturing, but that lasted just about a year.
Offers from housing and commercial developers were too much to resist in the postwar period and Harlow sold out in 1946. Tract homes were built south and east of the administration building, the west storage hangar and the hexagonal hangar, the latter (used to build and decorate Tournament of Roses parade floats) and the administration building remaining until 1957, after which commercial development took over that section along Valley Boulevard.
Obviously, no one could drive through the area today and see any hint that there was an airport that operated at the location for about fifteen years. For great information and photos, check out Paul Freeman’s website on abandoned and little-known airfields in California—just scroll down about two-thirds of the way down to find the section on the airport.