by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the rapid development of aviation in the quarter century from the flight of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, greater Los Angeles quickly became a prominent center of the industry, due largely to its impeccable climate as well as its open land and large labor force. It is not surprising, given the first two elements especially, that, within seven years of that first flight, the nation’s first air meet was held south of Los Angeles in the largely undeveloped Dominguez Ranch.
That January 1910 event was wildly successful, though the atmosphere was built mainly around the novelty of flight. Nearly two decades later, in September 1928 when another signal event in regional aviation was held, the National Air Races at Mines Field, now Los Angeles International Airport, the industry was becoming more involved in commercial applications, including air mail delivery, as well as in the early stages of passenger service.
Then, there was the use of aviation by the military, which really came to fruition during the First World War, and which was continuing to be developed and promoted, even though the next war was more than a dozen years away. So, there was a strong military aviation component to the air races in terms of exhibitions, such as those shown in the highlighted photographs from the museum’s holdings and taken at the event.
The trio of images are fascinating because they were taken in the air in the mid-afternoon and show craft in formation at heights of 500, 800 and 1000 feet. Not only are these views fantastic because of the airplanes in formation, but there are also great views of the airport, including its runways, parking areas filled with cars, and buildings, and the surrounding area.
This latter was largely undeveloped, with Inglewood and south Los Angeles in the near distance in one photo and, in another, the view stretching north and east to the Baldwin Hills with oil wells on them, downtown Los Angeles, and the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountain ranges through the haze.
The 15th was the second-to-the-last of the nine-day extravaganza and it was designed “School Day” to encourage young people to come out to the airport and enjoy the event with half-priced tickets. As noted above, the parking areas included thousands of cars, so the turnout was pretty impressive, with one estimate stating there were 75,000 present.
For young and old alike, there were also plenty of famous aviators to see, including Charles Lindbergh, who, a year-and-a-half earlier, became a world figure for his solo flight across the Atlantic from the east coast to Paris and who after taking part in events involving some daredevil flying in an Army pursuit plane, took an unplanned excursion on an old craft like that flown in the 1910 meet for an hour spin to the delight of the crowd.
Another notable figure was Amelia Earhart, by the far the best-known of a growing cadre of women aviators (often referred to as “girl flyers”) and who recently completed her own solo trans-Atlantic crossing. Ruth Elder, the “Miss America of Aviation,” was another prominent female pilot of the time who almost made it across the Atlantic with a male flyer (they had to ditch the craft some 400 miles from land, and was featured in the day’s activities flying in a 1910 craft.
Another prominent aviator appearing that day was Art Goebel, a World War I veteran who took his first flying lessons in Los Angeles just after the war’s conclusion and quickly became a prominent figure. He was a movie and stunt pilot and even sought to be a soldier of fortune in South America, though he was most famous for his daredevil stunt flying and for winning a contest from Oakland to Honolulu in 1927, just a few months after Lindbergh’s far more famous flight.
While the major event involving military craft was to come on the final day, Sunday the 16th, in which Army and Navy pilots would race twelve times on a five-mile course, there were demonstrations held on the 15th, as well, as these photos documented. For example, fifteen enlisted Army and Navy parachutists made spectacular jumps that thrilled the tens of thousands of spectators.
Unfortunately, when a naval squadron was preparing to demonstrate a bombing raid on a mock village set up at the airport, following those that used fake bombs on targets, “the navy planes failed to drop bombs, and an ill-timed bomb placed in one of the houses exploded several minutes after the planes had passed over it, completely demolishing the structure.” Oops!
Another mishap, which could have resulted in many casualties, occurred during a race involving aviators from the 91st Observation Squadron, which was formed for the war and was involved on the front in France performing reconnaissance for ground forces. After work during the occupation following the end of hostilities, became part of the newly formed United States Army Air Service and operated out of a San Diego location, Rockwell Field. One of the aviators had motor trouble and not only left the race, but could not land and barely missed the grandstands filled with people by just a few feet.
There was reference in coverage by the Los Angeles Times to “‘sight-seeing parties'” from Rockwell Field including nine planes from Torpedo Squadron One as well as six craft from Bomber Squadron One. Also reported by the paper was that “for the first time . . . all thirty-six Army planes took the air at the same time for joint maneuvers that thrilled the crowd.”
Included in the assemblage “were pursuit, attack, observation, bombing, transport and training planes all performing a special part in the battle drill and the various formations.” Presumably, that was what was being shown in two of the photos, labeled “Formation Over Mines Field,” though the third reads “Tri-Motor Transports, Civilian.”
These photos are great documentary artifacts for the air races generally and specifically for dramatic views of craft, including military planes, flying in formation with views showing a largely undeveloped area around Mines Field. Today, Los Angeles International Airport, one of the busiest in the world, is surrounded on three sides (the fourth being the ocean) by residential and commercial development.