This year, the world celebrates 100 years of aviation history.
Burbank and the eastern San Fernando Valley were once a great center
of aviation development, bringing to our area the most famous
aviators of the time. Our citizens created the most advanced and
fastest aircraft ever built, and completed top-secret projects that
affect world events to this day. Although aviation on the West Coast
started on a hilltop 20 miles south of here, some of those pioneering
aviators are still with us in Burbank today.
After the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk on Dec. 17,
1903, they returned to Dayton, Ohio to further develop their skills
and to secure patents on their achievements. In 1906, Alberto
Santos-Dumont of France made the first sustained flight outside the
U.S. Unlike the reclusive Wright brothers, his flights were witnessed
by the general public. Progress was rapid and “firsts” were
Henry Farman was the first to fly a one-kilometer circuit, the
first passenger in an airplane and the first to make a cross-country
flight. The first aircraft factory was opened by the Voisin brothers
The first international air meet was in Rheims, France in August
1909. Wilbur Wright was in France at the time giving flying lessons
but the Wrights chose to not participate in public flying displays,
believing them to be ostentatious. The only representative from the
U.S. was Glenn H. Curtiss from Hammondsport, N.Y., flying his “Golden
Flyer.” Curtiss won the main event at a speed of 46.5 miles per hour.
With a cold winter in the east, Roy Knabenshue and Charles Willard
decided that Los Angeles would be the perfect place to fly. They
contacted Curtiss and began planning an international air meet even
greater than the one at Rheims the year before. To ensure the
international flavor of the meet, they invited Louis Paulhan from
An area on the Dominguez Ranch north of Long Beach was chosen
because it was undeveloped, near the Pacific Electric trolley lines
and, being high up on a mesa, the public would have to pay admission
to see the action. Opening day was Jan. 10, 1910 -- 93 years ago
yesterday. The event lasted 10 days.
As described in the book “Dominguez Air Meet” by D.D. Hattfield:
“At one o’clock, a yellow winged Curtiss biplane was rolled to the
starting point in front of the grandstand and the crowd became silent
as they realized that the action was about to start. A mechanic swung
the propeller and the engine started with a roar. As the machine
began to roll, a cheer went up from the crowd, which changed to an
amazed silence as it rose from the ground and sailed gracefully
around the course at a height of 50 feet. After 1 minute and 28
seconds in the air, covering a distance of 5/8 of a mile, Curtiss
landed easily and rolled to a stop. This was the first successful
powered airplane flight made in the West. The skeptics were convinced
that an airplane could fly, and the crowd was satisfied their time
was well spent.”
On some days, there were more than 50,000 in attendance, and it
could take several hours for the crowd to make the long journey back
to town. With 11 airplanes, three dirigibles and seven balloons and
daily feats of daring, the first U.S. air meet was a huge success.
Lincoln Beachey and Knabenshue made ascents in their dirigibles. The
crowd could clearly see the men scrambling back and forth on the
structures below the gasbags to balance the craft.
The Wright brothers did not attend the Dominguez air meet; in
fact, they had injunctions served to some participants in an attempt
to stop them from flying. The Wrights felt that they owned the rights
to flight and that others were encroaching on them.
One of many records set at this meet was the longest cross-country
flight yet made in the U.S. As announced to the packed grandstands,
“Paulhan will fly to Baldwin’s Ranch (now the L.A. Arboretum) and
return, 45 miles. Back in one hour.” The crowd was incredulous at
such a feat. “In Los Angeles ... there were thousands of necks that
ached and thousands of pairs of eyes that burned from the strain of
watching the strange creature of the air in his mad flight. Around
the Santa Anita racetrack Paulhan flew at an altitude of nearly 2,000
feet. “Ah, it was good sport,” he exclaimed as he jumped down from
On another day, Curtiss took off in a strong wind and wound up
flying downwind past the grandstands at a fast clip. Curtiss said,
“Running straight before the wind on the ‘home stretch,’ it was
before the grandstand that I was traveling at not less than 60 mph,
and at no other exhibition in the world, so far as I know, has such a
speed been attained where thousands of people could witness it. Sixty
miles per hour is about as fast as a man wants to travel by any
method of locomotion.” Curtis should try an L.A. freeway today.
The Centennial of Powered Flight will be celebrated Dec. 17. Roy
Knabenshue and a dozen other aviation pioneers are buried at the
“Portal of the Folded Wings -- Shrine to Aviation” in Burbank.
Docents from the Burbank Aviation Museum are there from noon to 4
* J. RON DICKSON is a lifelong Burbank resident and aviation
enthusiast. Contact him through his Web site at www.GoDickson. com.