“The Largest Lot of Civilian Planes Flying En Masse Ever Attempted”: From Point A to Point B in a Press Photo of Aircraft from the California Air Tour, Van Nuys, 4 November 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As has been noted in several posts in this blog under the “From Point A to Point B” banner, the rapid growth of aviation in greater Los Angeles during the last years of the Roaring Twenties was truly remarkable. The region’s climate, large amounts of undeveloped open space for air fields and airports, the will to promote the form of transportation and related industries and other factors combined to quickly make the area a center of air travel.

This post features, from the Homestead’s holdings, an Associated Press photo from 4 November 1929 showing some of the more than 40 planes that were parked at Metropolitan Airport in Van Nuys and readying “for a goodwill tour of the state” as publicity for the upcoming Western Aircraft Show, held from the 9th through the 17th, and which has also been highlighted on this blog.

Los Angeles Times, 1 November 1929.

That show, following the National Air Races held in September 1928, was reflective of just how quickly aviation developments were moving during the era and the tour reflected some of the importance of the nine-day event, though with the crash of the stock market in New York City towards the end of October ushering in the Great Depression, much of the forward movement was stunted in the ensuing decade.

The cheerful optimism and rosy outlook for local aviation, along with much else at the time, was still intact, though, as press coverage celebrated the air tour. It is not at all surprising that the Los Angeles Times, the preeminent media booster in the region along with such organizations as the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, provided the lion’s share of press attention of what it termed, in its edition of 1 November, “the aerial armada of good will” for what was planned as sixty craft carrying 300 passengers on the four-day jaunt up and down the Golden State.

Hollywood Citizen, 2 November 1929

In fact, the Los Angeles Chamber’s junior members, an affiliate group of young professionals now known as NextLA, sponsored the tour and its aviation committee chair Randall Irwin and the junior chamber’s president Kennedy Ellsworth were among the officials who were integral to the planning and execution of it. On the 2nd, the Times reported that famed aviator Art Goebel, winner of an August 1927 race from Oakland to Honolulu that has been covered in this blog, was to be at the lead of the caravan of craft to make thirteen stops in its trek.

Those locales included, in order of travel, Santa Maria; Salinas; Oakland; San Francisco; Sacramento; Stockton; Fresno; Visalia; Bakersfield; San Bernardino; El Centro; Long Beach; and, lastly, Los Angeles. Notably, the Times reported that about a third of the flyers, under the command of Charles F. Leinesch, were to be women, including such notables as Florence Lowe (Pancho) Barnes, Margaret Perry and Vera Dawn Walker (misidentified as having the last name “Millar”) provided in a list published in the paper.

Times, 2 November 1929.

The Hollywood Citizen of the 2nd added the name of Gladys O’Donnell, and added that craft ranged from small two-seat planes to the newest tri-motor transports, while also observing that the tour was the largest group flight, save the Ford Reliability Tour, sponsored by automotive titan Henry Ford and his son Edsel.

In its edition the following day, the Times quoted junior chamber secretary and manager Clifford Rawson as reporting that “telegrams and letters from all sections of the United States have been received, extending good will and congratulating California on its progressive step in the interests of aviation.” The paper also gave credit to another junior chamber figure, Maurice E. McCreery of the aviation committee, for coming up with the concept and developing early planning that was approved by the chamber’s board of directors.

Times, 3 November 1929.

About 8:30 on the morning of the 4th, reported the Los Angeles Express of that date, the armada, comprising 54 planes, left Metropolitan, which opened just prior to Christmas 1928 and is now Van Nuys Airport, located west of Interstate 405 in what is now a bustling area of the San Fernando Valley, but what was, as can readily be seen in the photo, a very rural region.

With some seventy aviators and 200 passengers, the group headed north and got into Santa Maria and the private airport built Los Angeles oil and real estate capitalist G. Allan Hancock about an hour ahead of schedule. Notably, it turned out that Goebel was first mate to former Navy flier, known as the head of the “Sea Hawks” aviator crew, and Maddux Airlines pilot Daniel W. “Tommy” Tomlinson in the lead craft.

Times 3 November 1929.

After the faultless flight, which took just over an hour, the pilots were greeted by the local chamber of commerce and honored at a lunch at the First Methodist Church before making their way to Salinas, where civic organizations were to fete the contingent of sky jockeys. On the afternoon of the 5th, as covered by the Times, the caravan, said to comprise 57 planes, was again an hour early (this report said the group got to Santa Maria 30 minutes faster than planned) as they landed in Oakland with the passengers, identified for the first time as members of the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce. Reporter Burton L. Smith declared,

Making a perfect score for what is perhaps the largest lot of civilian planes flying en masse ever attempted, perfect order was manifest throughout the trip, indicating that this voyage is destined not only to be recorded as the greatest of its kind, but as a model for future events.

At the American Legion Airport in Salinas, it was stated “practically the entire population” turned out to greet the caravan with the mayor giving a welcoming address. After remarks by Los Angeles members of the junior chamber and the American Legion, the party left for Oakland, where, after arrival, the group was transported to the Hotel Oakland, now a senior housing facility. The local junior chamber of commerce held a banquet that evening at which speeches including many references to the Western Aircraft Show and its importance to the aviation industry on the Pacific Coast.

Times, 3 November 1929.

It was added that members of the press accompanying the tour, including the Times’ Smith, were ferried in a Maddux Airlines craft built by Ford, with room for 14 passengers “and ample room for typewriters and all needed equipment.” This was the plane piloted by Tomlinson and Goebel, “who kept the ship in the vanguard of the fleet that average more than an hour ahead of what had been expected of it.”

On the 6th, the tour continued on its course southward, excepting an eastern leg to the state capital before heading through the San Joaquin Valley. For the Times edition of the 7th, Smith, having prematurely pronounced perfection with the aerial parade, reported that “the first and only incident to mar the good will tour” occurred when pilot Lindsay Gillis, at the controls of a single-passenger Aeromarine craft “cracked up while making a landing at the Imperial County airport in the town of that name just north of El Centro.

Some of the more than 50 planes on the California Air Tour parked at Metropolitan (Van Nuys) Airport before departure on the morning of 4 November 1929. Note the rural atmosphere of what is now a busy area of the San Fernando Valley.

Gillis, who’d only received his pilot’s license the day before the tour began, apparently miscalculated his speed as he approached the runway and, concerned he would hit a Ford trimotor, pulled his craft up to avoid a collision but then lost control and plummeted fifty feet to the ground. He was, however, able to walk away from the mangled plane without injury. Smith continued that “while the accident caused a great deal of excitement at the field and among members of the touring party it in no sense dampened the enthusiasm of the party.”

That day included an early morning departure from Fresno, where the group spent the prior night, and 500 residents greeted the corps as it arrived in Visalia. Some officials there joined the flight in the “press ship” to Bakersfield, where “a record-breaking crowd was assembled . . . and gave an enthusiastic welcome.” On the way, Tomlinson demonstrated for his media passengers “the great advance aviation has made toward the goal of absolute safety.”

Los Angeles Express, 4 November 1929.

Namely, at 2,000 feet, the pilot turned off one of the engines and climbed another 1,000 feet before leveling the plane and then shut off another motor. Though there was just the one engine left operating, the craft “experienced no difficulty in holdings its altitude and moving along at a speed of eighty miles an hour.” With 16 passengers, the ship continued on “without the slightest tremor or vibration.”

Smith noted that, when clearing the Tehachapi Mountains south of Bakersfield, the planes had to climb to 7,000 feet and then went into a gradual descent as the parade entered the Mojave Desert in turning to the southeast and passed over “the little cities of Palmdale and Lancaster” where close to 350,000 people now live, but 93 years ago were described as being “snuggled behind windbreaks of sycamore and eucalypti”!

Times, 5 November 1929.

As the craft moved eastward, there was another ascent over the San Bernardino Mountains and then the landing at the “Gate City,” as San Bernardino is known, at about Noon. Buses conveyed the party to the California Hotel for “an elaborate luncheon” hosted by the chamber of commerce and where the mayor gave a speech, while Ellsworth spoke of the aircraft show and invited locals to take in the event when it opened in a couple of days.

The airport at Imperial, now the county facility, was deemed “magnificent” by Smith and after another greeting by local officials, the entourage departed for El Centro for another chamber of commerce banquet, this one at the Barbara Worth Hotel, where the group stayed the night. The next morning, the last leg of the tour was made to Los Angeles, where the final stop was Mines Field, now Los Angeles International Airport and host to the National Air Races of 1928.

Times, 7 November 1929.

This photo is one of dozens in the Museum’s collection that help us better visually understand and appreciate the enormous leaps in progress in the aviation industry of greater Los Angeles. We’ll certainly continue to share these images and other related artifacts in future “From Point A to Point B” posts, so be sure to keep an eye out for those.

Leave a Reply