Glendale Central Air Terminal, 1930 – Source: Glendale Public Library, Special Collections.
At the height of the Cold War, 15 of the 25 largest aerospace companies in the U.S. were headquartered in Southern California.
Several factors shaped aviation industry growth during the early 20th century. On the heels of the Wright Brothers’ first successful flight in 1903, the U.S. government purchased its first airplane in 1908. Demand for pilots and airplanes would increase at the onset of World War I, during which over 10,000 new pilots were trained and 17,000 airplanes were built.
In 1925, the passage of the Kelly Air Mail Act encouraged private aviation company growth by allowing private contractors to competitively bid on air mail routes, rather than relying on the Army Air Corps (a predecessor to the United States Air Force) for mail delivery. Aviation was further popularized by films such as Wings (1927) and Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930) that featured stunt pilots, and by Charles Lindbergh’s highly publicized transcontinental flight from New York to Paris. In 1926, Congress passed the Air Commerce Act, which helped legitimize the industry. The Act established federal regulations for safety standards such as pilot qualifications, accident investigations, and airway charting that were implemented by the newly-formed Department of Commerce Aeronautics Branch.
Los Angeles, from 1910 through the 1930s, possessed a number of very effective civic leaders who contributed to the growth of the region as an aircraft manufacturing center. Harry Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, used his influence and the reach of his newspaper to entice aviation companies to the area. Harry Culver, founder of Culver City, was instrumental in establishing the Los Angeles Municipal Airport in the late 1920s as an incentive for aircraft manufacturers and carriers. A collective, concerted effort on the part of powerful figures like Culver and Chandler successfully targeted the new aviation industry and marketed the benefits of the Los Angeles area: the moderate climate, lower construction costs, and an abundance of skilled and semi-skilled labor.
Consequently, Los Angeles quickly became home to several of the world’s largest aviation firms. In 1916, the Lockheed Brothers migrated from Northern to Southern California and set up a small aircraft production firm. Within a few years, they became major suppliers to the British Royal Air Force, and by the end of World War II, they had over 60,000 employees. In 1920, Harry Chandler persuaded Donald Douglas to open a company in the region. His firm Douglas Aircraft first rented facilities in an abandoned movie studio in Santa Monica and went on to become one of the chief manufacturers of aircraft in the United States. Jack Northrop opened his first airplane company in Los Angeles in the 1920s, but soon after, merged it with other firms. He started another company in 1939, which benefitted enormously from the impending Second World War, and became yet another aircraft giant. Howard Hughes’ Hughes Aircraft Company, founded in 1932, started in a rented hangar in Burbank, but ultimately grew to encompass 1,300 acres at the edge of Culver City and became one of the largest industrial employers in the state. The move of North American Aviation, later Rockwell International, to Inglewood in 1935 solidified the region as a center of aircraft production. The success of these firms was due in part to a wealth of technical talent graduating from the California Institute of Technology, which had established a School of Aeronautics and an associated research lab in the early 1920s. Theodore Von Karman, head of Caltech at the time, emphasized cooperation with the aircraft industry.
During World War II, the fledgling aircraft industry became a key player in the Allied strategy to defeat the Axis powers. Los Angeles-based companies, including Hughes Aircraft, expanded rapidly to meet wartime manufacturing demands. Smaller companies that may have produced, at most, a few hundred planes, rapidly transitioned into mass production, expanding to be some of the largest companies in the nation. The success of these companies during the war made the aircraft industry crucial to the Southern California economy, providing employment for tens of thousands, as well as substantial tax revenues.
Hughes H-1 Racer, 1945 – Source: Welcome Home, Howard Digital Collection, UNLV University Libraries Special Collections.
Both during and after World War II, the aeronautic technologies and expertise of the aircraft industry created the ideal setting for experimental research in new and highly sophisticated defense weaponry, including missile systems. Southern California was at the forefront of the budding aerospace industry, and the research and development fields. Caltech Graduates Dr. Simon Ramo and Dr. Dean Wooldridge were pioneers in this new industry. Dr. Ramo, manager of General Electric Company’s research laboratory, and Dr. Woodridge, Vice President and Research Physician at Bell Telephone Laboratories, joined Hughes Aircraft in 1945. Together they formed Hughes Electronics, and advanced Hughes Aircraft from a small, inventive aviation manufacturer to a successful aerospace electronics firm. The electronics division worked exclusively on defense programs such as airborne radar, computers, and guided missiles. For a time, this pioneering Hughes Electronics technology was used in every U.S. fighter aircraft to intercept long-range bombers.
For additional reading on the Hughes Industrial Historic District, Howard Hughes, the Spruce Goose, and the history of aerospace in Southern California, see the following sources, which were used in the preparation of this website.