In January 1910, Los Angeles played host to the nation's first air show, a 10-day affair held on a dusty expanse in Dominguez Hills. Aviators, engineers and flight enthusiasts from all over the world attended the exhibition, where they watched pilots compete in endurance, speed and altitude contests.
But the real attraction proved to be Los Angeles itself.
The air was clear and dry, the sea breezes light and manageable. Engineers discovered that manufacturing could be done outdoors. And pilots learned they could rely on some 350 clear days a year.
It wasn't long before Los Angeles became the center for this growing corps of aircraft pioneers.
"The climate was ideal for both making planes and flying them," said Leonard Pitt, author of "Los Angeles A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the City and County" and a professor of history at Cal State Northridge. "It was natural that the aircraft industry would grow out of those conditions."
In these early days of aviation, Douglas, Martin and Northrop were not the names of multi-billion dollar corporations, but daring dreamers who wound up in Southern California.
"They loved aviation, but they didn't know much about it," said historian John Underwood. "They weren't real engineers they were eyeball engineers. You had to be a good guesser to design an airplane in those days."
Perhaps the best of those guessers was Donald Douglas who, with an engineering degree from MIT, was by far the most technologically savvy of the early aircraft entrepreneurs.
Douglas had been hired by mechanic and aviation buff Glenn Martin, and followed his boss back East when demand for aircraft exploded during the First World War. Martin, who found deep-pocketed investors in Cleveland, never returned.
But in 1920, Douglas did. With $1,000, he set up his own shop in the back of a Santa Monica barbershop. And from those inauspicious beginnings, Douglas Aircraft Co. began developing a series of innovations that transformed the aircraft industry including the first airplane to fly a load greater than its own weight, the first 12-seater passenger plane and the first all-metal-frame planes.
Other entrepreneurs also were getting busy. Allan and Malcolm Loughead, two brothers who had been building planes in a garage on the beach in Santa Barbara, founded Lockheed Aircraft Corp., setting up shop in North Hollywood before moving to Burbank, where it became the city's economic powerhouse.
In 1932, industrialist/aviator/movie producer Howard Hughes formed an aircraft division within the Hughes Tool Co. And in 1939, a former Lockheed engineer named Jack Northrop who designed Lockheed's first airplane, the Vega, which was favored by, among others, Amelia Earhart left to form his own company, Northrop Aircraft Corp., in Hawthorne.
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.