From Point A to Point B: Western Air Express and Its 12-Passenger Air Service between Los Angeles and San Francisco, May 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As noted here in previous posts, the exponentially rapid progress of commercial aviation in the last part of the 1920s involved both air mail and passenger service and a major player in greater Los Angeles aeronautics was Western Air Express. The company took a major step in advancing the transport of paying travelers with the inauguration in late May 1928 of air service between the Angel City and San Francisco with a trio of Fokker twelve-passenger craft (two F-10s and a slightly smaller F-7) making the journey in three hours thanks to an $80,000 loan from the foundation of Harry Guggenheim, who was devoted to the promotion of aviation.

The highlighted artifacts from the Museum’s holdings for this post are a pair of press photographs showing a pilot in the cockpit of the plane and a view from the rear of the cabin showing seven passengers before take off. Both images, from the holdings of the Newspaper Enterprise Association, are stamped 31 May, but it is not known if they were taken on the inaugural service day, which was on the 26th, or sometime between. In any case, they’re great views of an aircraft that marked an epochal moment in the history of air flight.

Los Angeles Times, 1 May 1928.

On the first day of the month, the Los Angeles Times reported that one of the planes was exhibited at Bolling Field outside Washington, D.C. for government officials to inspect. The paper noted “the huge passenger plane is the first of three just turned out by the Atlantic Aircraft Corporation of New Jersey at a cost of $60,000 each [most other sources stated $80,000]. . . the planes were purchased by the Western Air Express as a means of an equipment loan advanced by the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics.”

While it was added that, at first glance, the craft looked like a Fokker design for the Army, a deeper look showed a “Pullman of the air” in that the interior featured “twelve upholstered chairs, six on each side, a head room of six feet, baggage racks, electric dome lights, individual smoking equipment for each passenger, [and a] dressing room and luggage compartment.” The three Pratt and Whitney “Wasp” 400-horsepower engines could muster a top speed of 148 mph, while cruising speed was pegged at 125, with the remainder considered reserve if lost time was to be made up.

Los Angeles Express, 8 May 1928.

Despite a strong wind after some rain, a demonstration flight was held with designer and builder, Anthony H.G. Fokker, at the controls and F. Trubee Davison, the Assistant Secretary of War for aviation as the sole passenger. The article concluded with the observation that “the palatial air liner took off like a pursuit plane and maneuvered with the agility of the little single-seaters.”

The next day’s Times reported that, with this significant innovation of passenger service afoot, the California Railroad Commission (now the California Public Utilities Commission) met to determine whether it had the authority to regulate this type of travel. It was noted that there were eleven carriers ferrying mail and passengers and the field was expected to quickly expand, with three of the lines to use multi-engine, cabin-type craft to ply the route between the state’s two largest metropolises. The Western Air project was highlighted “as an outstanding example of the growing importance of air transportation” and it was added that only Pennsylvania had statewide regulatory rules for air travel.

Whittier News, 12 May 1928.

On the 4th, the paper reported that Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, elected president later that year, officially announced that “the first de luxe long-distance air passenger carrying service in the United States” was to take place soon by Western and he was paraphrased as saying that “the aeronautical development in the United States is proceeding more rapidly than anyone in the government service expected,” which was likely true of many major technological innovations. He lauded federal assistance for safety regulations and other elements in reducing the risk of injury to airline passengers.

About that time, international aviation hero Charles A. Lindbergh was given the opportunity to take one of the craft on a flight of not far under a half-hour and pronounced the plane, “a bird.” It happened that the “Lone Eagle” was at the field for other business but was invited by Western pilot Silas Morehouse to take the airplane for a spin with a group of passengers including Harry Guggenheim and William D. Longyear, a Los Angeles banker who was east to be an “ambassador of aviation” for the Western project. This included having the three planes fly from New Jersey to California on a tour that, inexplicably, was reported by the Times to include 500 stops (later it stated in was 40). It was added that the fare for the Los Angeles to San Francisco route was to be set at $50 per person.

Express, 15 May 1928.

On the 8th, the Los Angeles Express ran a feature by special correspondent Lemuel F. Parton, who began his piece by observing that “the three fastest and most luxurious passenger airplanes in the world . . . have no Turkish bath or gymnasium, but they have pretty nearly everything else.” He added, “it is so quiet in the cabin you can hear a watch tick,” which led one of the builders of the planes to quip, “maybe we’d better make it a dollar watch.” Parton went on to note that “the westward flight marks the success of two years[‘] experiments covering the main question of whether aviation can be made a paying business,” continuing that the Guggenheim fund was set up in 1926.

As for Western, its president, Harris Hanshue, was quoted as saying that the company was paying a consistent quarterly 2% stock dividend and that “it is the only aviation company in the world which is paying dividends on its common stock, and at the same time operating without a subsidy.” He went on to note that while some airlines were purportedly profitable, this was only under subsidies, and he added that his firm handled 40% of all air mail delivery in the United States. Hanshue concluded that “we have proved the economic feasibility of the airplane” and “this addition to the useful load puts us still further into the margin of safety.”

Express, 21 May 1928.

On the 13th, the three Western craft left New Jersey for the long six-day trip to the Pacific Coast and using northern, central and southern routes and the Times received dispatches on the receptions given the trio as they arrived at Atlanta, Cleveland and Dayton, with the northern route including a stop at Buffalo, where 3,000 people showed up to greet the craft. The plane on the southern route stopped at Spartanburg, South Carolina, where 8,000 persons (the city had 38,000 residents) welcomed the plane. For the middle route, Fokker and his wife were passengers as the airship landed at his new plant at Moundsville, West Virginia, on the way from Pittsburgh to Dayton.

That week also was Air Mail Week and it was observed that a decade ago began air mail delivery service, albeit under dangerous conditions and only handled regionally, with the first transcontinental connection from New York to San Francisco taking place on 1 July 1924. It was added, in an Express article of the 15th, that “one of the links of the great chain was formed in Los Angeles by the Western Air Express when that company took over the air mail contract two years ago to fly mail between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles” and it was noted that the firm “holds the United States record for the greatest volume of mail carried by air.” An accompanying image showed the Lindbergh beacon atop Los Angeles City Hall, which opened just a few weeks prior.

Times, 21 May 1928. Note the small article on a memorial for victims of the recent St. Francis Dam collapse.

As the air tour wended its way west, a Western executive and aviator, George Lord, spoke to the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce at the Hotel Huntington, and, in discussing the rapidly evolving history of aviation, stated that he soon expected flight times from New York to the Los Angeles area to be cut in half, to about 15 hours. He added that international aviation advances were such that “in a short time you will hear of a Japanese trying to fly from Tokio [sic] to California,” noting that he’d spoken to Japanese pilots eager for such a day. Lord also talked about the Western cross-country trip and the Fokker planes, pointing out that the three motors on each craft “will guarantee safety.”

On the 17th, the Express editorialized about the enormous changes in aviation since it paid a pilot a few thousand dollars to fly across Los Angeles, marking the first time this was done. Now, with the imminent inauguration of Western’s regular passenger service to San Francisco and back, the paper quoted an Army Air Corps (precursor to the Air Force) figure as saying that the Western planes were “the best passenger airplane jobs in the world,” while a British airline official observed that “they mark a tremendous advance in the science of aviation.”

Times, 25 May 1928.

The paper noted that the implementation of regular air passenger service was to be as commonplace as for trains and that Western’s work “is but the forerunner of developments that soon will work great changes” so that “the sensation of yesterday becomes the commonplace of our near tomorrow.” It added that there was a newly formed firm that would soon offer a combination of air and rail service, the latter by night and the former by day, from New York to Los Angeles covering the transcontinental trip in under two days.

That day, the first of the three Fokkers arrived in Denver and was greeted by 4,000 well-wishers before making side trips to Colorado Springs and Pueblo because it had to wait for the other craft to make up for lost time because of poor weather. On the 18th, however, it was decided to have the first plane, dubbed the San Francisco, push onward and it landed at March Field (now an air reserve base) southeast of Riverside before continuing on the next day to Oakland. After a trip across the bay to San Francisco, it was to return to March Field and await the arrival of the other two craft.

Times, 25 May 1928.

On the 20th, the second Western plane arrived at Vail Field in western Montebello, where the first craft landed from its Bay Area jaunt, while the third was still at El Paso, but was expected to land at Vail the following day. Compared to crowds elsewhere, the turnout was somewhat thin, at about 1,500 persons, but, then again, Los Angeles and environs were more used to airplanes than most of the country. Some business figures from Utah opined that “the speed and safety of the trimotored ships in the near future will knit the West together more strongly, with the shot, comfortable daily “hops,” and bring relations with the East closer.”

Once all three planes were in Los Angeles and plans made for the first official flights between San Francisco and the Angel City, Harry Guggenheim was compelled to address the question of the loan his foundation made to Western Air for the construction of the craft, stating,

The transcontinental tour of the three tri-motor Fokker airplanes can be regarded as one illustration of the progress which American aviation is making in passenger carrying—the one department in which the United States ranks second to Europe.

Recognizing that aviation must progress chiefly through the development of commercial flying, the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics has financed the construction of these three airplanes to provide for the initial impetus for the operation of passenger air lines in the United States and to aid one of the many reputable companies in demonstrating the practicability of air transportation. The fund has no commercial or other interest in the Western Air Express and is related to the company only in the granting of this loan.

Guggenheim went on to note that public support of commercial aviation was dependent on the best possible performance and safety records of firms and having three engines and two pilots, each of whom could independently fly the craft, showed how advanced the Fokker planes were. With this in mind, he concluded, “passenger transportation by air in the United States should become an important factor in this country’s system of communications.”

Express, 30 May 1928.

On Saturday the 26th, simultaneous flights in both directions were made “with clock-like precision” with the northern bound flight leaving Vail Field at 10:30 a.m. and arriving exactly three hours later, though pilot Norman Potter, “gave his passengers a short joyride over the bay district” for ten minutes before landing. “Sy” Morehouse left San Francisco at the same time and landed at Vail at 1:35 “after circling the field once to permit the crowd to get a good view of the ship in the air.”

Among the reported comments from travelers were: “It was wonderful!”, “It’s the thrill of a lifetime!”, and “The only way to travel!” while Morehouse exclaimed, as he exited his plane, “What a ship to pilot. Believe me, she’s great.” For Potter’s northbound trek, passengers were reported to have marveled at the views while enjoying prepared lunches of fried chicken, sandwiches, fruit and cake.

Among these initial guests were the operator of the Hotel Rosslyn, president of the Pig-n-Whistle restaurant chain, realtor J.B. Ransom, and Mrs. Helen Battle, who showed up at Vail to witness the takeoff and then learned that there was a cancellation of one traveler so she bought the available ticket. As for those southbound travelers, when they disembarked at Vail Field, they were handed photos taken of them at San Francisco and wired to Los Aneles.

It was reported in the Times of the 27th that, in a few days, radio equipment would be installed so that the pilots could receive reports on the weather (they were given reports just prior to takeoff) while in flight while “making it possible for passengers to airgram messages.” New hangars and an administration building for Western were also just completed at the west end of Vail and Hanshue assured people that flights would be leaving and arriving on time as a way to promote the reliability of the service.

This pair of press photos are fantastic visual documents of a truly landmark event in the history of aviation broadly and in air-mad Los Angeles and environs specifically and are another great focal point of the “From Point A to Point” series of transportation-related pots on this blog.

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