Remedy Sought for Air Museum's Spin

Times Staff Writer

Located in part of a cramped, cluttered building far from the main street of the Santa Monica Airport, the Donald W. Douglas Museum and Library never has been able to do justice to the monumental achievements of the aircraft industry pioneer for whom it is named.

Founded a decade ago, the museum has no space to display any of the aeronautical warhorses that made Douglas Aircraft Co., founded in 1920 in the back room of a Santa Monica barbershop, one of the giants of the aircraft industry until its merger in 1967 with McDonnell Corp.

There's no Douglas DC-3, the twin-engine plane reputed to have established commercial air travel when it was developed 50 years ago. There's no C-47, the military transport plane described by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower as one of the four most important weapons of World War II. (The jeep, the bazooka and the A-bomb were the others.)

Douglas Played a 'Pivotal Role'

And there no longer is a DC-2, forerunner of the DC-3. The museum, which is open to the public, had control of one until two years ago, when the plane was shipped from Santa Monica to Long Beach as part of a 10-year lease agreement with a Douglas group there. There are believed to be only four DC-2s in existence. Weather-beaten and inoperable, the museum's plane had been tucked away in a corner of the Santa Monica Airport.

"It's kind of sad, isn't it," commented Sam Porter, the part-time executive director, as he guided a reporter around the museum. "You would expect more for a man who played such a pivotal role in the industry."

The museum is a hodgepodge of pictures, unexplained models, disorganized exhibits, a pictorial history of aviation and space that ends with Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon, and donated artifacts that have little, if any, connection with Douglas' achievements. There also is a small research library.

The museum also is nearly broke. Its original nest egg of about $50,000 from contributions has dwindled to less than $5,000. Occasional contributions from aviation buffs and donations from the few visitors to the museum are its only income.

Porter, 67, a former manager of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, has come out of retirement to determine if there is enough interest and money to build a fitting memorial to Douglas, who died four years ago at age 88.

High-Flying Hopes

Working with Donald W. Douglas Jr., chairman of the museum board, Porter is putting together a $750,000 fund drive to construct a permanent building on the north side of the airport, near the old Douglas Aircraft plant that was torn down and replaced in the mid-1970s by a commercial office development.

As part of a plan to redevelop the airport, the city will tear down the building at 2800 Airport Ave. where the museum has occupied space on a $1 annual lease.

City Manager John Jalili said he will recommend to the City Council that a similar lease be extended to the museum on 11 acres on the northeast corner of the airport if museum leaders can raise the money to construct a building. He said the group probably has 2 1/2 years to raise the money.

"I cannot speak for the council," Jalili said, "but I believe members would be receptive to the proposal. The land there has limited uses and a museum might be acceptable, if the museum people can put together an organization to raise funds for the building. I'm fairly certain that the council will not put up any of the money."

Funding Success Doubted

People formerly associated with the museum expressed doubts that the money can be raised, citing repeated failures to put the museum on a sound financial footing and what some said was Donald Douglas Jr.'s penchant for making museum decisions without involving the board of directors.

Aubrey Austin Jr., the museum's first chairman of the board but no longer a member, said that people interested in the museum have tried to raise money for a new building before.

"I just don't think it's in the cards," Austin said. "The base in Santa Monica is too limited. I like Don (Douglas Jr.), but you cannot operate the museum as a hobby. Don is too involved in too many other activities to put in the time required to raise money.

"It's not just the $750,000 to build the building. You also need $150,000 yearly to operate it--and we were never able to raise that much. I hate to say it, but probably the best thing that could happen is to establish a Douglas exhibit as part of a high-powered, well-financed museum in another city, such as the Smithsonian or the air museum in San Diego. We gave it the old college try. We failed."

Need Experienced Promoter

Lou Turner, a former FBI agent and a retired executive with Systems Development Corp. and the museum's first executive director, said that the fund-raising effort will fail unless an experienced promoter and fund-raiser is hired.

"I'm not knocking Sam (Porter)," Turner said. "He did a good job for the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce. But he knows nothing about aviation and he is not a fund-raiser. What is so tragic about the situation is that the history of Douglas is Santa Monica, not some other city. It was founded here, the headquarters were here, the first around-the-world flight started here in Santa Monica."

(Three Douglas pilots flew around the world in a single-engine Douglas plane in 15 days in 1924.)

Turner and others say that the appropriate time to raise money for the museum was in its beginning, when memories of Douglas Aircraft were fresh, not a decade after the plant was torn down. "Those memories keep receding with each passing year," Turner said.

Douglas, now a business consultant with offices in the building that houses the museum, brushes aside criticism, saying only that he has not had time to devote to the museum. If possible, he said, the museum should remain in Santa Monica.

"This is where I want it, where Dad wanted it. Douglas Aircraft put Santa Monica on the map. This (the Santa Monica Airport) was a bean field when he came here."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World