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Celebrating a high-flying past

Laura Sturza

Burbank’s airport began capturing people’s imaginations with the

prospect of flying to unexplored places when it opened 73 years ago,

and its rich past was celebrated at a party honoring the city’s


contribution to 100 years of aviation history.

The aviation industry was launched when Orville Wright piloted the

first successful flight Dec. 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, N.C., and

celebrations of that achievement are happening throughout the


country. Burbank’s party Thursday recognized the airport’s 73 years

of carrying passengers to their desired destinations and building

military and commercial planes.

The airport was the area’s main commercial airport from 1930 to

1946, and was home to Lockheed Corp. when it built the world’s

fastest plane -- the SR-71 Blackbird.

“I think every person who lives in Burbank should be proud that

the world’s fastest airplane was designed right here in Burbank,”


said resident Robert Gilliland, 75, a Blackbird test pilot.

The dangerous job meant facing multiple emergencies like

hydraulic, engine and landing failures while perfecting the spy

plane. The plane holds the world’s speed record of 3.2 mach, which is

more than three times the speed of sound, is faster than a sniper’s

bullet and will get a pilot from Palmdale to Florida in one hour,

Gilliland said.

Hangar 34 at Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport was filled with


Burbank aviation pioneers like Gilliland, women dressed in flight

attendant uniforms dating from the 1930s to today, public officials

and, of course, airplanes, including a Bushmaster Tri-motor, a P-40

Flying Tiger and a Stearman biplane.

David Simmons’ early interest in flight led to regular visits to

the airport on his motorcycle. He was 14 when he attended the

facility’s May 30, 1930, dedication as United Airport.

“I saw Amelia Earhart out quite a bit,” Simmons said. “I’d see her

out in the coffee shop in the ‘30s when I’d ride my cycle around the


Simmons also got his hair cut on a day when Charles Lindbergh was

having his shoes shined at the airport’s barber shop. Simmons worked

for the airport as operations manager and president, and has the pen

used to “sign away” the facility from Lockheed Air Terminal to the

three cities in 1978.

Former mayor Bill Rudell, 63, was a key player in negotiating that

sale, and became one of Burbank’s first airport commissioners.

“Our ultimate goal was to preserve the airport as part of the

national air transportation system, and to continue to derive the

economic benefits that are attributable to a commercial air carrier

airport,” Rudell said.