Refined and Crude From Point A to Point B with the Union Oil Bulletin, September 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

During the 1920s, the rapid ascent of aviation from something of a novelty to an increasingly integral part of the transportation of freight, mail and passengers was one of the more notable developments in greater Los Angeles, where the availability of plenty of open land for airports and airfields and the temperate climate fostered growth in ways not found in most of the rest of the United States.

A century later, we are seeing the faster development of a growing problem in which our nation’s airport and aircraft are often not able to meet the accelerating stresses of climate change, whether this involves subfreezing conditions in Texas that paralyzed air travel, record high temperatures in the Pacific Northwest that threatened asphalt runways, and other conditions that lead to a greater number of flight delays and cancellations.

The recent news that melting Greenland ice sheets could led to sea level rise of almost a foot by the end of the century, far more than the 2-5 inches from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment of just last year, will also greatly affect airports along coastal areas, such as Newark, New Orleans, and Oakland.

At the end of the Roaring Twenties, however, the excitement and enthusiasm about the future of air travel was palpable and, from 8-16 September 1928, Los Angeles was the proud host of the National Air Races and Aeronautical Exposition, held at Mines Field (soon Los Angeles International Airport), and there was plenty of lavish publicity and promotion for the event, which was may be viewed as a second generation aviation event after the 1910 Air Meet at the Dominguez ranch in south Compton.

Among those most enamored of the growth of aviation was the oil industry as the production of petroleum in the United States was geared, of course, to supplying fuel to the increasing number of aircraft that would be plying the skies in subsequent years. So, it is no surprise at all to see that the September 1928 issue of Union Oil Bulletin, the featured object from the Homestead’s holdings for this post and published by Union Oil Company of California, was full of content about the races and expo and aviation more broadly.

The firm’s executive vice-president, Elmer W. Clark, wrote a short essay, “Present Preparation,” in which he observed that the events “offer the most spectacular pageant of aeronautic showmanship which has yet been on display.” This, he noted, however, was “the least important phase of the project,” though it did provide “a medium for bringing to public attention, the present status of aviation as an every-day transportation and communication factor.”

More vital, though, was that “those organizations and industries which are endorsing and participating in the project” were more focused on “bringing together all the products of the aircraft industry as a demonstration of commercial aviation having come into its own.” As for his line of work, Clark added,

The petroleum industry, apart from the fact that it sees in aviation the greatest present field for its product and believes that preparation for intensive competition in the field is essential, realizes that no industry can afford to hesitate in entering whole-heartedly into the present air-age.

Demand was already ahead of supply and it was clear that there wasn’t really a future to anticipate, so much as to acknowledge that it was here now and the oil industry had to attune “its own policy for the immediate present—not for some uncertain or indefinite future.”

A longer, unattributed article on the races and exposition recorded that “in sixty days, Mines Field underwent a change that transformed it from a barley field to the most up-to-date, completely equipped airport in the United States,” thanks for Los Angeles being selected as host. It was believed that “the almost magical speed” with which this was done would reflect on “industrial development which cannot fail to tread on the heels of the aeronautic pageant.”

While there were 10,000 souls at the groundbreaking and three times that for a recent national air tour, “one million at least is the estimate of those who will see the history of commercial aviation in the making this month” in what was characterized as “a nine-days’ continuous circus warranted to awaken any public to the facts of flying.” With respect to the races and stunt flights, it was emphasized that these constituted, “a demonstration of the inevitable popular acceptance of the plane as an agency of transportation and as the dominant factor of present and future commerce.”

As importantly, “the races are but the forerunners of established air lines” because there were “seventeen control cities” on the route of a New York City to Los Angeles race and eight for one that was anticipated to take place in Canada. Moreover, the races were to breakdown barriers of intercity, interstate and international travel and that areas considered separated or isolated were to be less so in the evolving aviation age and “the future commences to expand, even at the present time, to South America, to Hawaii, and the Orient, as well as Australia.”

Races would further demonstrate that “in businesses which have realized the possibilities of aviation, personal relations between executives are taking the place of the old correspondence, while commercial methods are being reorganized because of the new saving of time in the transaction of business. Finally, these contests reflected military applications, including a parachute jumping contest for accuracy, efficiency and speed tests for civilian craft, endurance contests and others that “will add immeasurably to knowledge of flying conditions.”

Even still, “it is the Exposition . . . which offers a surer indication of the future of commercial aviation, representing the manifold business interests allied to the air industry.” This meant not just craft, accessories and instruments, but insurance, finance, electrical, optical, metal, tool, paint, clothing, publications and, of course, oil industries, while there were more to be added to the list in future. Beyond the expected intense public interest, there were to be airport executives, foreign pilots, future officials in the industry and others who “may be indebted to the Exposition for the nuclei of their organization ideas.”

Tied into this was the presence of more than twenty conventions meeting in Los Angeles during the event, including the National Aeronautic Association, Federal Aeronautique International, National Association of Air Mail Pilot, the Professional Pilots Association, the Society of Automotive Engineers and aero clubs and sales organizations. In addition to learning more of building planes and training their pilots, the Exposition was to spotlight motors, airports, radio communication, beacons, safety devices, mapping, lighting runways, meteorology, data collection, research, flying regulations and more. The movement was to have “commercial aviation as common a means of transportation and communication as the railroad, or ocean liners, or the automobile.”

The event meant a good deal of responsibility as “the Pacific Coast has been spoken of with assurance as the future air center of the world” and the response to the Expo was vital to this. It was asserted that “the successful staging of the Air Races and Exposition can itself sell the idea of Los Angeles becoming to the plane what Detroit is to the automobile.” Builders and dealers of aircraft “will be attracted not only be climatic and working conditions, but by general awareness on the coast of the aeronautic situation.”

The city and region could lead the way to dealing with all aspects of the industry and “the immediate development of aviation truly lies on the ground rather than in the air” with respect to engineering, promotion, airport design, air route development and other aspects. It was claimed that “not half the problems of aviation have been solved, and there are and will be plenty of manufacturers eager to pay for men who can help solve them.” Also critical were schools including CalTech’s Guggenheim Graduate School of Aeronautics, USC’s new course on aviation law (sponsored by Union), and the Guggenheim Aeronautic Library at Stanford.

It was also noted that there were imminent developments to note, such as the use of diesel fuel in aircraft and “the prospect of passengers being carried in the wings of giant air liners” with some being developed in Europe and by the Ford Motor Company. In just over a decade, the first jet aircraft, the Heinkel, would be developed, but it was observed that,

What may be ultimate future of aviation, for the Pacific Coast or for any other part of the world, can scarcely be advanced even as hypothesis, when one considers the progress made since the birth of aviation twenty-five years ago. In an equal length of time, the automobile grew from infancy to first place in value of finished products in American industry . . . Today aviation is enjoying the benefit of the vast store of mechanical knowledge and equipment laid up by the automobile industry, while it is rightly asserted that there is more technical data available to aeronautics than to any other field of engineering.

The time had come when the question “Aren’t you afraid?” of flying was replaced with “How many hours have you had?” in an airplane and it was noted that “civilization has truly taken wings.” With the Air Races and Exposition at hand, this was “the epochal episode of the history of aeronautics—truly a fitting twenty-fifth birthday celebration for aviation!”

A piece called “Union Oil Aviation Activities” began with the note that the firm bought its first plane in May, although its interest in aviation went back long before. The company was interested in it “as a means of human progress” as well as for better business communication and, naturally, “the production of the finest aero-motor fuels and lubricants for the greatest prospective market for its products.”

Moreover, Union got involved with early air mail service, conducted an air-based geologic survey of oil fields, and sometimes used craft for field equipment sent on an emergency basis. The company craft, a Fokker biplane dubbed the “Southern Cross,” toured California after arrival in the Bay Area and was involved in new airport dedication ceremonies in Flagstaff and Prescott, Arizona. This was followed by an advertising campaign in the center part of the Golden State and this was done in a third of the time it would have taken by automobile.

Quite important was the feedback from pilots that Union Aviation gasoline used in these early company plane trips “was pronounced eminently satisfactory.” The use of fuels and lubricants was supplements by a sales service corps that worked with local aviation schools, airports and airlines, including the Mexican Air Service, West Coast Air Transportation Company, Standard Air Lines, Aero Corporation of California, and others. In the state of Veracruz in México, Union built an a field to better access its oil properties, while another was completed at San Luis Obispo, where a major company tank farm (another was in Brea in north Orange County—both caught fire during lightning strikes in spring 1926).

Also noted was the aforementioned aviation law course offered by the USC School of Law in the summer session, this said to be the first such course in the nation. A professor, Dr. Otto H. Schreiber, from Koenigsberg University in Germany, taught on legal issues with government regulation of aircraft and attendance was such that other law schools booked Schreiber to give his course. Moreover, the course led to an exchange professorship program set up between USC and Koenigsberg “and to establish also a fellowship for Foreign Research in Air Law here.”

In August, Union purchased three more aircraft “to be used as utility equipment in the general conducting of business, especially the contracting of the ever-increasing aviation trade on the Pacific Coast.” One was to cover Oregon and Washington, the second central and northern California and the third southern California and Arizona, while the fourth was for the broader coastal region.

Other articles in the issue concerned a naval officer’s trip through the Panama Canal; issues in the company’s aforementioned oil field at Veracruz, México, where “at the present time there is very little oil production of any consequence.” though a strike on the firm’s lease “might easily bring the southern republic to the front as a producer of petroleum;” the death of South Pasadena resident and Union director Frank C. Bolt; a “News of the Month” note about Union sponsoring a radio broadcast of the end of the summer season at the Hollywood Bowl; the upcoming fourth annual employee barbecue at the Dominguez oil field in Carson; and more.

California oil statistics for July 1928 showed a total production of not too far south of 20 million barrels, with Long Beach accounting for about 30% of the total at just north of 6 million. The second highest producing field was Midway-Sunset in the lower San Joaquin Valley in Kern County at a bit above 2.2. Other fields producing over a million for the month were Ventura Avenue (1.66), where Walter Temple was engaged in a last-ditch effort to hit a gusher and stave off financial ruin; Huntington Beach (1.640), where he’d had investments earlier in the decade; Santa Fe Springs (1.137), which had been dominant before Long Beach; and Seal Beach (1.046), which was a recent discovery from 1926.

Temple’s lease with Standard Oil Company (California), which brought him his fortune, was in the Montebello field, which produced 368,000 barrels, thirteenth of the 33 fields on the list, but production dropped close to 20% from the prior year, a problem for Temple as the somewhat shallow field’s yields were dramatically lower from when he first received royalties in summer 1917. Inventories in California included above 96 million barrels of heavy crude, 19 million of refinable crude, and 13 million of gasoline out of a total of nearly 140 million in the state. There were 76 new wells in July 1928, with more than a third at Long Beach, which had close to 40% of all active wells in the state and well more than 60% of all daily output. In 1923, that figure was close to 115,000 barrels a day, but was down to just shy of 40,000 for 1927, though Long Beach was carrying the major increase for the current year.

The future of fossil fuels amid worsening climate change will only become more contested as this decade continues and beyond and a look back at the unbridled optimist for the oil industry in this issue of Union Oil Bulletin, along with those of the Standard Oil Bulletin, of which the Homestead has a significant number through 1930, is an informative and interesting point of comparison and contrast.

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