Longbeach (2)

November 4, 2010

Ghosts of aviation past

Long Beach home to aviation milestones

Calbraith Perry (“Cal”) Rodgers departed Sheepshead Bay in New York on Sept. 17, 1911, with his sights on the West Coast. At the controls of a modified Wright Flyer EX and financed by the maker of the grape soft drink Vin Fiz, the young aviator relied on pilotage for navigation and support from a ground crew for making it back into the air during the mishap-ridden journey—a team that proved vital for the epic flight, as Rodgers left a trail of wreckage in his wake. The team patched, fixed, and rebuilt the airplane, and Rodgers sustained his share of injuries, but the Vin Fiz arrived at the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif., Dec. 10.

Rodgers was too late to collect on the $50,000 prize that publisher William Randolph Hearst offered to the first pilot to make the transcontinental journey in 30 days, but he and the Vin Fiz entered the annals of aviation history. The epic flight captured the attention of the nation and the spruce-and-muslin airplane turned heads along the way.

Long Beach, the site of AOPA Aviation Summit Nov. 11 through 13, has a rich history of aviation milestones. Notable pilots include Long Beach-Daugherty Field’s barnstorming namesake, Earl Daugherty, and “Air Devil” Wesley May. Its location on the Pacific coastline made it a landmark for transcontinental flights—including Rodgers’ journey as well as “Wrong Way” Douglas Corrigan’s nonstop flight from Long Beach to New York in 1938. The Douglas Aircraft (now Boeing) factory adjacent to Daugherty Field has produced more than 15,000 airplanes, including such aircraft as the DC-3 and C-47, DC-10, MD-80, B-17, and early models of the C-17. And Howard Hughes proved to the world that the mammoth “Spruce Goose” flying boat could fly in 1947 over the Long Beach harbor.

The Hughes Flying Boat, a massive aircraft intended to carry 750 troops without using critical wartime materials such as steel and aluminum, was powered by eight Pratt & Whitney R-4360-4A, 3,000-hp engines and had a wingspan of 319 feet, 11 inches—longer than a football field. The press dubbed it the “Spruce Goose” even though it was constructed mostly of birch, and many people publicly doubted whether the enormous aircraft could fly.

A brief flight on Nov. 2, 1947, during taxi tests in the harbor proved the skeptics wrong about the Flying Boat’s airworthiness. (Find out more about the first and only flight of the “Spruce Goose” in Alton K. Marsh’s December 2000 AOPA Pilot article “ Caution: Goose crossing.”) The aircraft spent the next three decades in a hangar and then found a home on display adjacent to the RMS Queen Mary on Long Beach Harbor, where it stayed for much of the 1980s. The aircraft is now on display at Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum near McMinnville, Ore.

Today, Long Beach still has a vibrant aviation industry. Long Beach-Daugherty Field is among the busiest general aviation airports in the country and serves as a hub for JetBlue Airways. AOPA expects hundreds of pilots to fly in to Daugherty Field and thousands more to travel to Long Beach for AOPA Aviation Summit. A variety of aircraft will be on display on the field at Airportfest, including some of historical significance and some, still in development, that point to aviation’s future. Speakers at Summit will discuss the future of aviation, from commercial space flight to fuel trends, in keynote sessions each morning. —Sarah Brown