Douglas’ Dream Took Wing in Santa Monica


Santa Monica’s Museum of Flying, which depicted aviation history for almost three decades, is history itself now, dispossessed by rising insurance costs. As it circles in search of a new landing site in a rural area, it leaves behind its roots in a seaside community that once welcomed an ambitious designer who transformed air travel.

Much of the heritage of the museum and the adjacent airport--which is staying put, to many of its neighbors’ dismay--is intertwined with aviation pioneer Donald Wills Douglas Sr. More than 80 years ago, Douglas Aircraft Co. flew its first plane, ushering Santa Monica into aviation history.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 22, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 22, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 4 inches; 167 words Type of Material: Correction
DC plane construction--The “Then and Now” feature in the Aug. 4 California section said that the DC series of planes, up to and including the DC-10s, were built at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica. DC models 1 through 7, all propeller-driven aircraft, were built in Santa Monica, and DC models 8 through 10 were built at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Long Beach.

Sprawled over more than 200 acres of now-expensive land a short distance from the beach, Santa Monica Airport began as a dirt strip in a barley field in 1919. Howard Hughes and film director Hal Roach used to tie down there. Douglas’ dreams took flight there when it became the home of his aircraft plant.


DC model planes, military and civilian--up to and including the DC-10--were built there. The first around-the-world flight, which was orchestrated by Douglas, took off from and landed there.

Douglas, a New York native and graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, moved to Los Angeles in 1920 to take advantage of its grand flying weather.

He had already designed a history-making World War I bomber for Glenn L. Martin Co. that had sunk two German warships. Now, he was determined to make it on his own in the airplane business.

With him in a bucket-seat jalopy for the cross-country drive were his wife, two children (the couple eventually had five), a dog and $600 in cash.

Douglas began designing planes in the back room of a barbershop on Pico Boulevard. But times were tough. To help feed his family, he dug up his yard and planted potatoes--which promptly rotted. He resorted to washing cars.

Then a wealthy sportsman, David R. Davis, heard that Douglas was looking for investors. He put up $40,000, hoping to ride to fame on Douglas’ wings. It was to be a short-lived partnership.

In 1921, Douglas built his company’s first plane, a two-seat, wood and fabric biplane he called the Cloudster. On Feb. 21, it became the first aircraft to get off the ground carrying weight exceeding its own.

That helped attract the Navy’s attention. It agreed to pay Douglas $120,000 for three Cloudsters that would be adapted to shoot torpedoes and to land on water. But he needed money to build them. And that’s when Davis backed out, apparently because he was tapped out--less than a year after signing on.

That left Douglas’ fledgling enterprise a bit up in the air.

As he struggled mightily to fulfill the Navy contract, Times Publisher Harry Chandler fashioned a parachute. The captain of a newspaper that boosted “air-minded” projects helped raise $15,000 to keep Douglas in business.

In 1922, Douglas moved to an abandoned movie studio in Santa Monica and began making military planes. At nearby Clover Field, a 15-acre landing site named for World War I pilot Lt. Greayer “Grubby” Clover, Douglas tested his aircraft.

On March 17, 1924, he made history when eight Army airmen took off from Clover Field in four single-engine, open-cockpit Douglas World Cruisers. They intended to circle the globe, but stopped by Seattle so they could designate it as their takeoff point. That would trim time off their journey--two weeks, as it turned out.

The aviators flew into sandstorms, driving rain, Arctic winds and, once, a mountain. Two planes crashed, but no one died. The two remaining aircraft returned to Clover Field 28,945 miles and 175 days later, having gone round the world and sealed Douglas Aircraft’s reputation.

Eleven years later, Douglas built the civilian DC (for Douglas Commercial) models, revolutionizing air travel as an undertaking for ordinary passengers, not just the daring. The aircraft made its maiden voyage from Santa Monica.

Douglas held on through the Depression, expanding Clover Field. But a world war loomed, sending him and his production line into overdrive.

By now fiercely competitive with Los Angeles’ seven other major aircraft manufacturers, Douglas was forced to suppress his competitive spirit and play nicely with his competitors. The companies, which included Northrop and Lockheed, were required to combine operations temporarily to meet wartime demand.

He hated it, but went along for the duration.

“When the dictators are finally bombed off this Earth, we shall become rugged individualists and rivals again,” Douglas wrote in a 1942 magazine article.

In 1940, as a morale booster for his employees, who were already cranking out warplanes and working round-the-clock shifts, he opened the Aero Theater on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. He kept it operating at all hours so his workers and the public could enjoy brand new Abbott and Costello comedies and other Hollywood releases.

With World War II raging in Europe, Douglas realized well before Pearl Harbor that his plant was a sitting duck for an air attack. He didn’t wait for the government to protect him; he took the controls. Douglas asked his chief engineer and test pilot, Frank Collbohm, and a renowned architect, H. Roy Kelley, to devise a way to camouflage the plant. (Later, Collbohm would found Rand Corp. and Kelley would design its headquarters.)

Together with Warner Bros. studio set designers, they made the plant and airstrip disappear--at least from the air.

Almost 5 million square feet of chicken wire, stretched across 400 tall poles, canopied the terminal, hangars, assorted buildings and parking lots. Atop the mesh stood lightweight wood-frame houses with attached garages, fences, clotheslines, even “trees” made of twisted wire and chicken feathers spray-painted to look like leaves.

Tanker trucks spewed green paint on the runway to simulate a field of grass. Streets and sidewalks were painted on the covering to blend into the adjacent Sunset Park neighborhood of modest homes that housed Douglas employees.

The tallest hangar was made to look like a gently sloping hillside neighborhood. Designers even matched up the painted streets with real ones.

When they were done, the area was so well disguised that pilots had a hard time finding Clover Field. Some of them landed at nearby airstrips instead, protesting that someone had moved the field.

Douglas adapted. When planes were due, he stationed men at each end of the runway to wave red flags like matadors. Eventually, the signalmen were replaced with white markers painted on the hillsides.

(The facade was such a success that Warner Bros. replicated it, fearing that the studio looked like an aircraft plant from the air.)

The simulated neighborhood became such a part of the community that, when Douglas Aircraft shed its disguise in July 1945, it was as if a landmark had been destroyed.

By the early 1960s, Douglas had evolved into a sprawling aerospace company employing 30,000 workers. But the neighborhood was diversifying--and losing its unquestioning acceptance of the industry.

Soon, the company found Santa Monica resistant to its expansion plans. Neighbors protested about the noise, and the folks on the L.A. side of the airport hated the fact that airliners preparing for test flights blew oil and chunks of carbon onto their cars.

A few years later, consolidation of the industry would begin. The company merged with a rival to become McDonnell-Douglas Corp. in 1967 and moved to Long Beach in 1976. The 5,000-foot runway at what was by then known as Santa Monica Airport was too short for the firm’s growing jet production.

(Two decades later, McDonnell-Douglas would be absorbed by yet another rival, Boeing Co.)

When the corporation left town, Douglas’ son, Donald Wills Douglas Jr., set up the Donald Douglas Museum and Library to commemorate his father’s legacy.

Douglas Sr. died in 1981. Nine years later, the nonprofit Museum of Flying, founded by golf course and real estate developer David Price, superseded the old museum as part of a $20-million airport overhaul.

Exhibits included vintage planes and an immense photo of when the airport and plant operated under cover of camouflage.

All that remains of Douglas’ operation today are Santa Monica Airport, now used for general aviation; the Aero, struggling to survive an invasion of multiplexes; and Clover Park, which sits atop Douglas’ original plant site.