The history of L.A.’s aviation industry revolves around a handful of larger-than-life figures such as Howard Hughes, Donald Douglas and Jack Northrop. But there are thousands of others pilots, engineers and assembly-line workers who fueled the region’s decades-long aircraft and aerospace boom. Here are some of their stories:
“I came to Northrop in 1946, as a mechanic, shooting rivets for a dollar an hour. I was going to school during the day and working at night. When I graduated, I went into engineering and worked on everything Northrop built the Flying Wing, the B-2, the F-89. Most of us had just come out of the service. There was a strong feeling of brotherly group identification. You don’t have that so much today. We saw the best of it through the 1950s. The roar of business was going. The innovation was exciting.”
David Bean, 72, former engineer for Northrop Aircraft Corp.
“I was raised in Burbank and it seemed like everyone ended up working for Lockheed. It offered us a job when we got back (from World War II). The opportunities at Lockheed were unlimited.”
Gil Cefarrat, 69, former engineer for Lockheed Corp.
“I couldn’t join the service because I was raising a little girl. I thought the next best thing was going to Douglas. I was hired in 1942 as a riveter, at 60 cents an hour. It didn’t matter what our names were we were all called ‘Rosie the Riveter.'”
Betty Murphy, 79, former production worker for Douglas Aircraft Co.
“The faith that we had in Jack Northrop and the company was absolute. If he had told us go out and jump off the end of Santa Monica pier, we would have done it. You knew everybody on the payroll by first name. It was a lovely environment. You could be very proud.”
Jack Manion, 82, began at Northrop in 1940 as a quality control inspector, retired in 1982 as vice president of administration and public affairs.
“I remember walking into the factory for the first time. I saw this huge B-17 and thought, ‘My God, what have I gotten myself into?’ Until then, the only tool I had held in my hand was a hammer to drive a nail. But I found that I was mechanically inclined. Once I got into it, I was fascinated to think I could put something together and that it would fly.”
“The (Burbank) airport was covered with chicken wire, which was (covered and) painted to look like a rural scene. Early pilots often couldn’t find the airport without detailed instructions from the ground. I’ll always remember the chicken wire hanging over the terminal buildings.”
Chuck Mercer, 79, started at Lockheed in 1938 building P-38s, retired in 1980 as a high-level administrator
modern day thoughts
“Now, radar technology is dictating the shape of the airplane. It’s a constant evolution. It keeps us on our toes. The only question is, with all this consolidation, are we going to lose some of our competitiveness?”
Jerry Huben, 76, began as an engineer at Northrop in 1938, and is still working full-time at Northrop
“It was well-known in the industry that the (military) budgets would not support such a (large industrial) base. We knew we would have to be reduced in size. There were too many people fighting to get the same jobs.”
“Fifteen years ago, if the Air Force put out specifications for a new fighter, you’d have six responses. We’re losing that element of competition, where each one tried to come up with something more innovative than the other.
For the last 25 years, Lockheed has been our fiercest competition. We hated them and they hated us. I can’t imagine we’re combining with them.”