Soaring into the Future

In the mid-20th Century, Southern California was the aerospace capital of the world and an explosion of technological innovation--not only propelling U.S. military, spaceflight and commercial aviation, but also revamping industries, like surfing, architecture, and animation. For three years, the Aerospace History Project at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif., has been collecting and archiving thousands of documents, manuscripts, oral histories, and photos chronicling the industry from roughly 1910 through the early 90s. Highlights are on display there through January in the exhibit Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California.

"Aerospace was the central factor transforming Southern California from a rural, agrarian landscape into a high-tech metropolis,” says co-curator Peter Westwick. “It touched almost every aspect of how Southern Californians lived their lives, and we're trying to document that history."

Flights of Fancy
Lyman Gilmore Jr. and his brother Charles were among the early aviation enthusiasts tinkering with new forms of flight. This 1907 photo shows them in their Grass Valley, CA barn with a steam-powered, eight-passenger plane that never flew. Lyman claimed to have flown a self-built steam-powered airplane in 1902, but proof of that was lost in a 1935 hangar fire.
The Air Up There
French aviator Louis Paulhan--who flew the world’s first seaplane -- makes a record-breaking flight to 4164 (or 4600 feet according to Paulhan’s barometer) at the 1910 Los Angeles International Air Meet in Dominguez Hills, in what is now the city of Carson. The Air Meet was one of the earliest airshows in the world and the first major one in the U.S. The balloon in the background advertised a sponsor, the now-defunct Los Angeles Examiner.
The Stars of the Sky
Philip "Skyman" Parmalee, a Wright Brothers exhibition team member, ascends over Dominguez Field in early 1912. He’s credited with the first commercial airplane and military reconnaissance flights, piloting the first planes to drop a bomb and parachute jumpers, and held world cross-country speed and flying endurance records. He died in a plane crash later that year, at age 25, when turbulence flipped his airplane upside down.
Cracking the Boys' Club
Two female flying enthusiasts, circa 1915. Despite the male-dominated industry, women pilots were soon matching skills with men--barnstorming in exhibitions, setting speed and altitude records, and stunt-flying in movies.
It Came From Outer Space
Wiley Post, Bill Parker, and Capt. Balderston (left to right) conferring with an unidentified pilot wearing the sub-stratosphere suit in 1935. Post, the first pilot to fly solo around the world, used the suit to fly to an unofficial record of 55,000 feet, where he discovered the jet stream that would later facilitate transcontinental flight. On a later flight, after a forced landing, local residents mistook him for a space alien.
Earhart, Grounded
Amelia Earhart takes a break on the Lockheed Corporation’s Burbank factory floor in the early 1930s. Her glamorous image belied her deep aviation knowledge, and she frequently visited Lockheed to monitor the construction of her newest airplanes.
Women in the Workforce
A woman welds airplane engine exhaust manifolds at Solar Air in 1943. By the following year, women comprised more than 40 percent of the aircraft production workforce in Los Angeles--including teams of number-crunching mainly female "human computers." During the aerospace industry’s World War II heyday, single plants employed upwards of 100,000 people manufacturing tens of thousands of airplanes.
The Right Stuff
Test pilot "Cowboy" Joe Walker and the Bell X-1A rocket plane at the NASA High Speed Flight Station at Edwards Air Force Base in California’s Mojave Desert in 1955. Edwards test pilots at were modern-day cowboys on the high desert frontier, creating a culture of macho individuality and courage.
The Secrets of the Skunk Works
Skunk Works director Ben Rich at an electronic computer in 1959, when he was design manager for propulsion system of the SR-71 Blackbird, a hypersonic reconnaissance aircraft that came out in 1962. The Skunk Works--taken from the Li’l Abner comic--was the nickname of Lockheed’s secret Advanced Development Division begun in 1943 to design cutting-edge military craft. Rich would later lead development of the F-117 Nighthawk, the first stealth aircraft, earning him the moniker, the "father of stealth."
The Dawn of Geek Chic
Jet Propulsion Laboratory physicist Albert Hibbs--who helped popularize science on TV in the 1960s--flipping butter at a colleague during a JPL dinner. He’s flanked by Explorer 1 project manager Jack Froelich and JPL co-founder Homer Joe Stewart, circa late 1950s. Although this era created the traditional image of the nerd, many of these engineers were creative polymaths, whose imaginations reshaped California lifestyles.
Live Long and Prosper
The dance between Hollywood and aerospace continued well into the postwar years. When Star Trek premiered in 1966, it garnered legions of fans in the aerospace community, like these JPL engineers donning Spock ears in mission control for the Mariner 5 mission to Venus in 1967. Two years later, the first Star Trek movie featured the sentient technology, V’Ger, an evolution of the Voyager spacecraft built by JPL. Many of the JPL computer engineers went on to work for Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas, and Disney Animation.
Into the Wild Blue Yonder
NASA research pilot Bill Dana watches NASA’s Boeing NB-52B carrier aircraft fly overhead after a successful test flight of the Northrop HL-10 lifting body at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards in 1969. Pilot John Reeves is at the cockpit of the lifting body, at left. In 1970, Dana flew the vehicle to 90,030 feet, the highest altitude reached in the lifting body research program.

Wings Of Desire: A History Of Aerospace Innovations

For three years, the Aerospace History Project at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif., has been collecting and archiving thousands of documents, manuscripts, oral histories, and photographs chronicling the industry from roughly 1910 through the early 1990s. Highlights are on display there through January. Here we present a slideshow celebrating the archive and the history of aviation and aerospace innovations.

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