This year marks the centennial of flight, a milestone in aviation
history, as well as the 73rd anniversary of an airport in Burbank.
During its storied history, the airport has seen many changes in
names, owners, aircraft and people, which have contributed to its
evolution into what it is today. One would be hard-pressed to find a
person in Burbank who does not have an opinion regarding the airport
or its future. It is, however, worthy to know how it all got started.
In the late 1920s Austin Co., Airport Engineers and Builders,
along with officials from Boeing Air Transport Corporation, carefully
planned the site where the airport was constructed. Before the
airport was constructed, the vacant 243-acre land had to be cleared
of more than 100 huge oak and eucalyptus trees. This process was
rapidly completed, given that little, if any, environmental
restrictions existed at the time. Once cleared, the site showed
promise of being an airport, which was in demand since flying was
becoming increasingly common. The site’s uniform grade became a
natural asset for its intended purpose. The site’s convenient
location in the open fields of Burbank was close to downtown Los
Angeles, Pasadena and Hollywood.
Planning for the airport was already underway before the first
tree even fell. The vacant space was quickly divided into expandable
areas that comprise of any airport, such as a terminal, runways,
parking, etc. Everything was designed with safety as a first
priority. The new airport was a combination of architectural beauty,
safety and the latest technological achievements the 1930s offered.
The three original 5-inch thick asphalt runways were constructed
with a minimum grade to allow for the safest possible takeoffs and
landing. The black runways also contrasted nicely with the green
alpha fields so that the airport was visible from the air. The
original north-south runway was 3,000 feet, while the east-west
runway and northwest-southeast runway were each 3,600 feet long, the
later runway being in the direction of prevailing winds. The runways
were 300 feet wide but were expandable to 500 feet. There was a taxi
area constructed around all the runways so that planes would not have
to cross each other on the runway, a feature that allowed an A-1A
rating from the Department of Commerce, a precursor of the FAA.
The three-story terminal’s motif was done in a Spanish
architecture that was simple but elegant and greeted passengers as
they either arrived or departed from the airport. Nicely dressed
people could be seen throughout the terminal area enjoying themselves
as they conducted their business. Tastefully decorated and equipped
with the most modern kitchen equipment of the 1930s, the dining room
could accommodate approximately 200 people for entertaining. The
upper levels of the terminal, which are now used as administrative
offices, were reserved for the U.S. Weather Bureau and radio. The
third floor was for observation purposes. The grounds surrounding the
terminal were beautifully landscaped and included a fountain and lily
Ironically, the airport then seemed to have a more sophisticated
method for passengers to board planes than exists today. As
passengers existed the terminal, they walked under a telescopic metal
canopy that which was operated on a steal track. The canopy was in
two 23-foot sections that was 10 feet wide and 7 feet high and had
brakes so that it could be stopped as it met with the aircraft. A
single person easily maneuvered it. This canopy system was especially
designed for the airport and protected passengers from the elements.
Other amenities were constructed at the airport to make it fully
functional. A parking lot, conveniently located near the terminal,
accommodated 2,500 cars. Hangers 1 and 2, along with hangers occupied
by Northrop and the Hamilton Standard Propeller Co., were
constructed. Other structures included service yards and other
facility related structures.
On May 30, 1930, the United Airport of Burbank opened with great
fanfare. This was to be the nation’s first million-dollar airport;
the initial investment was actually $1.5 million. It was designed and
constructed to be one of the world’s finest airports. At that time,
it was viewed as an attractive state-of-the-art facility with the
highest safety standards. There would be many more changes over the
years at the airport, but this is how it got its start. Seventy-three
years have passed since its opening, and while it now belongs to
three cities, its history is uniquely Burbank’s.
* CRAIG BULLOCK, chairman of the Burbank Heritage Commission,
writes a monthly history column for the Leader.