by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As has been noted often here before, the Roaring Twenties was a particularly fertile and fecund period for aviation, as leaps and bounds and great strides were routinely made through the decade and flying achieved increasingly more impressive and sophisticated advances. Greater Los Angeles, with its peerless weather, open spaces, emerging industrial might and other factors, quickly became a center of the industry.
The highlighted object from the Museum’s collection for this post is an excellent example of where innovation reached high and then fell short, though it also helped pave the way for the next level of advancement in aviation. It is press photograph, bearing the date of 23 June 1921, of the Cloudster, billed as the largest biplane constructed to date and which was intended to make a non-stop flight in 30 hours or under from Los Angeles to New York. The lofty goal went unachieved, but it is still a remarkable story in early aviation.
The seed money for the project came from wealthy Wisconsin native David R. Davis (1894-1972), whose family owned a large paper mill in Eau Claire. Relocating to Los Angeles in 1910, Davis, who was also an extensive grower of dates in Indio in Riverside County east of Palm Springs, enthusiastically took up an interest in aviation engineering and was vice-president of a Glendale firm. In 1920, he met Donald W. Douglas (1892-1981), a native of Brooklyn whose love of aviation led him to leave the Naval Academy and pursue aeronautical engineering—he earned the first degree in this field at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and graduated in two years instead of the usual four.
Douglas worked for most of the last half of the Teens, though was also chief engineer for the Army Signal Corps Aviation section and designed craft used in the First World War, for the Glenn L. Martin Company of Los Angeles (Martin was in Orange County when he launched the firm in 1912) and relocated with it to Cleveland. Longing to return to the balmy clime of greater Los Angeles, Douglas resigned and returned with little funding and no sure prospects—until he met Davis and got the funds to be able to pursue his ideas with the Davis-Douglas Company, initially located east of Alameda Street between 4th and 5th, in the city’s industrial core. The first project was the very ambitious Cloudster.
The 35-foot long craft with a 56-foot span and 13 feet in height was made of wood, wire and glue-covered cloth and had a 400-horsepower Liberty engine, built by the Packard automobile company, salvaged from use during the late war and capable of attaining 110 miles-per-hour. Douglas rented a planing mill and used the loft for building components, which were lowered through a shift and taken, by a Packard truck, to Goodyear Field, located at the tire giant’s plant in South Los Angeles where the plane was built in a hangar.
By late February 1921, the craft, which, with a 650-gallon fuel capacity and able to haul cargo weighing more than the plane, which topped out at two tons, was considered ready for flight and pegged to fly for 36 hours at 85 miles per hour. The Los Angeles Times of the 20th reported began its coverage of an imminent trial run by observing,
Avocados on a California tree today and on a New York dinner table tomorrow night is not as far-fetched an idea as it would seem for experts have for some time predicted regular nonstop freight carrying trips through the air from California to the Atlantic Coast.
The Davis Douglas Cloudster just built in Los Angeles, is the first all-American biplane theoretically capable of such a trip.
On the 25th, the maiden voyage, after six months of construction and final touches, was undertaken with the pilot being [Thomas] Eric Springer (1892-1971), a Tennessee native who read a 1910 book by Victor Loughead, one of the three brothers whose pioneering aviation work bore fruit with the company that bore their reworked name, Lockheed, and decided he wanted to be a pilot.
Springer attended Texas A&M University, came to California, and took a flying course at Griffith Park taught by Glenn Martin. He became Martin’s first employee in Los Angeles and went with him to Cleveland, as well, but, when Douglas decided to return to the Angel City, Springer followed. After a decade, the latter went into design and production for Douglas, ran the El Segundo plant and rose to be general manager and vice-president of the firm until his retirement in 1957.
On this first excursion, reported the Times, “Springer would have preferred to have flown alone . . . but Davis insisted on getting the kick that comes with riding in something absolutely new”—after all, he provided the capital. Once the craft took off, it “circled the field, traveling carefully, for it was the first hop, and climbing all the time until an altitude of about 1500 meters [just shy of 5,000 feet] was reached.”
As Springer guided the mammoth plane in descent, “a qualm was felt by all those who knew anything of flying,” but, to the relief of those in attendance (not to mention the pilot and passenger), “she came down without a murmur and the entire trial was a howling success.” The only problem was that a young gent was cut by flying glass when he tried to place a bucket under a bottle of champagne broken against the plane by a niece of Davis.
At the time, Davis told the paper,
We have hopes that the tests we are to make for the Army, navy and Aerial Mail Service, will be completed within a very few weeks. We then propose to send the plane after several world’s records which we believe it is capable of making. The transcontinental trip will be undertaken in the spring or early summer and I have hopes of making the trip in less than thirty hours.
In a few days, he added, the craft was to be flown to Rockwell Field, later renamed for the hero of trans-Atlantic solo flying, Charles Lindbergh, and inspected by officers from the Army and Navy. Its next major public outing was at the Bay Cities Exposition and Fair in Santa Monica, where, among other aviation demonstrations, including by Iowa “aviatrix” Neta Snook, Springer was able to guide the Cloudster to a record altitude of over 19,000 feet, smashing the previous mark of not far under 16,000.
By late April, it was reported by the Times that the Davis-Douglas firm had a contract with the Navy to build several planes that would be “the latest development in naval warfare.” As it readied to construct the first of these craft, the company leased the Goodyear field and hangar, as well as other structures at the tire plant, and it was noted that this was the first military contract locally since Douglas built planes for the Army while working for Martin a half-decade prior. It was expected that the new airships would be comparable to the Cloudster in size, fuel capacity, and payload.
Two months later, the paper noted that “an attempt to make aviation history will be launched here” on 21 June, when “the big blue-and-silver flyer, especially constructed for this flight, and embodying the finest developments in aeronautical engineering,” was to leave at 6 a.m. with Springer at the controls and Davis in the cockpit beside him. The general course was east through San Gorgonio Pass, then southeast past El Centro, Yuma, Arizona, El Paso (where a cruising altitude of 15,000 feet was expected), St. Louis, Dayton, Ohio [some sources stated Akron] and to the destination, New York City, after a 2,700-mile jaunt.
In addition to the details noted above, it was added that the plane could unload its fuel in just second in case of the need for an emergency landing, while two massive flares could emit 28,000 candle-feet in two minutes, while the navigation lights, compasses and maps were of the latest design. The two men were to share sandwiches, water and coffee and the paper concluded “from the time the Cloudster leaves Los Angeles until it lands in New York or anywhere else, its fate will remain a mystery.” The risk, opined experts, was in the fuel weight and the altitude required to make a landing with such a load.
Reports of unfavorable conditions for the entire route from the United States Weather Bureau, however, caused a delay until it could be determine that winds east of Texas would not pose too much of a problem. On the 23rd, the Los Angeles Record noted that it was determined that Goodyear Field was too small, after all, for the plane’s takeoff, so Springer told the paper, “we will go to March field [now a reserve airbase southeast of Riverside] this afternoon leaving at dawn tomorrow, regardless of the weather.” With a departure of between 3 and 5 a.m. and favorable trade winds, there was even expressions of a flight time as low as 22 hours.
There were, however, further setbacks including heavy inland fog, which increased development has reduced over the decades, and the news that the tachometer, which measures the speed of engines, was not working. At 9 a.m. on the 25th, Springer and Davis attempted to takeoff, but realized that they could not achieve the desired altitude quickly enough because of the weight of the plane, so they returned to March Field and had some of the fuel removed.
Finally, just after 5:30 a.m. on the 27th, the duo departed and it was reported,
The big “Cloudster” biplane circled March Field several times, climbing higher until it reached an altitude of about 3,000 feet. At 6:05 the aviators dipped a signal “good-bye” and headed in the direction of El Paso.
The morning was perfect. There was not a cloud in the sky and no sign of wind. The plane had been lightened to about 9,000 pounds. Before the start Davis said he hoped to land at Mineola, Long Island [about 25 miles east of Manhattan at Mitchel Field, now a park], within a limit of 30 hours, but would make every effort to make the flight in 24 hours, which means, if the flight is successful, the two daring aviators will breakfast in New York tomorrow morning.
Not quite nine hours into the journey, though, it was reported that engine trouble forced the landing of the Cloudster at Fort Bliss, northeast of El Paso. Davis, however, clarified that the problem was weather-related as the plane encountered strong winds and a pummeling hailstorm. To add to the difficulty, once the craft was on the ground at the base, a windstorm flipped the plane and damaged the tail and one of the wings. Davis headed back to Los Angeles by train, while Springer waited for the parts and repairs, with the former vowing just after the mishap that he would attempt the flight again and repeating this aim in November 1922.
This was not to be the case and, in fact, Davis, apparently soured over the defeat, not only gave up on another cross-country effort, but sold his interest in the aviation company to Douglas, purportedly for a $2,500 promissory note. The latter formed his own firm, located on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica and then at Clover Field (named for the son, who died during World War I, of Los Angeles publisher Samuel T. Clover) in the same city and went on to amazing success in the industry—the company became the behemoth McDonnell-Douglas, which merged with Boeing in 1997 and then ceased to exist.
As for the Cloudster, it was sold to a group from Venice, including Thornton Kinney, son of that community’s founder, Abbot Kinney, which formed the Venice Aerial Transportation Company. It flew several times over the next few years, including in November 1923 for an aerial review of the Del Rey district, where Marina del Rey is now, and when a fleet of Army and Navy craft built by Douglas embarked on a circumnavigation of the planet in March 1924.
It was sold for $6,000 to Claude Ryan’s namesake company in San Diego (the firm built Lindbergh’s immortal Spirit of St. Louis, used on the trans-Atlantic flight in May 1927 that transformed aviation) and reconfigured into a ten-passenger airship. In December 1926, while being used to transport (read: smuggle) liquor into the United States from México, the reconfigured craft crashed near Ensenada (where Walter P. Temple would move a few years later) and was wrecked.
The Homestead’s holdings have plenty more great aviation artifacts, so look for future installments of the “From Point A to Point B” series of posts on greater Los Angeles transportation and learn more about the history of flight prior to 1930.