Relive the excitement of man’s first steps on the moon and the long journey it took to get there with 20 new hours of out of this world programming on PBS SoCal’s “Summer of Space” Watch out for “American Experience: Chasing the Moon” and “Blue Sky Metropolis,” four one-hour episodes that examine Southern California’s role in the history of aviation and aerospace.
With a renovation of the Tom Bradley International Terminal underway, and with Metro considering a fixed-rail transit connection, change is again afoot at Los Angeles International Airport — the transportation hub that has hardly stood still since it emerged from the bean fields of Westchester in the late 1920s.
Originally named Mines Field after a real estate agent who brokered the site’s land deal, the facility was L.A.’s first municipal airport but not the first airfield to serve the Los Angeles area. Dominguez Field, at the present-day site of Cal State Dominguez Hills, hosted the first U.S. air show, and Rogers Airport at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue (then Crescent Avenue) hosted many air shows as well as passenger air service to San Francisco.
But Charles Lindbergh’s famous transatlantic flight in May 1927 convinced Los Angeles city leaders of the need for a permanent, municipal airport. With an improved runway and dedicated facilities, a city airport would encourage airmail and passenger traffic between Los Angeles and other aviation-friendly cities, while a permanent presence would allow airlines, maintenance companies, and other private enterprises to cluster around the site. In September 1927, Lindbergh himself, in Los Angeles on a nationwide victory lap, told a Coliseum crowd of roughly 60,000 that “airports are the most important factor in the development of aviation…I wish to say that if you expect to keep your city on the air map, it will be necessary to construct a municipal airport.”
Within months of Lindbergh’s recommendation, the city had begun surveying suitable airport sites. At first, the city planned to open three municipal airports: one in the San Fernando Valley at Sesnon Field, one near downtown at Vail Field, and a third near Westchester and Inglewood at Mines Field. It soon became clear that maintaining three airports would be impractical, however, and the city decided upon one: Mines Field. On September 26, 1927, the city signed a ten-year lease for 640 acres, and L.A.’s first municipal airport was born.
Despite the city’s support and investments, Mines Field, which featured a 2,000-foot runway and hangar space for 40 planes, would not become the region’s principal aviation terminus until the 1940s. That distinction was held for nearly two decades by Burbank’s Lockheed Field (today, Bob Hope Airport), through which most airlines routed their planes. Other important airports were located in Alhambra, Van Nuys (Metropolitan Airport), Glendale (Grand Central Air Terminal), and the present-day City of Commerce (Vail Field).
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Learn why Southern California is the undisputed aviation capital of the world on “Blue Sky Metropolis” S1 E1: Wings: Aviation Takes Flight in Early Los Angeles. Watch now.
In 1937, the City of Los Angeles purchased Mines Field outright. Four years later, it passed a $3.5 million bond issue for new construction, renamed the site Los Angeles Airport, and began converting the modest aviation facility into the major airport that would escort Los Angeles into the Jet Age.
World War II slowed construction, but by the end of 1946 the new runways, passenger terminals, hangars, control tower, and maintenance sheds were ready. (Work on the airport’s first parking garage, with space for 125 cars, lagged behind.) On December 9, 1946, four major airlines — American, Trans World, United, and Western — more or less abandoned Burbank in favor of the expanded municipal airport. Pan Am joined them in January 1947. William Pereira’s iconic Theme Building and other modern additions were still years off, but by 1949, the former bean fields — still hopping with jackrabbits and often shrouded in fog — were rechristened Los Angeles International Airport.
Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.