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Long Beach Landmark: Long Beach Airport

Beatrix Whipple
Feb 16 6 minutes read



By Lindsey Goodrow

Long Beach Airport is undoubtedly one of the easiest, quietest, and cleanest airports to travel through. It is the 10th busiest airport in California and one of the busiest general aviation airports in the world. Long Beach Airport (aka, Daugherty Field) is not only culturally significant to Long Beach but historically significant - its rich history beginning in 1911.

Before the Long Beach Airport had walls, it was simply a runway along the sea. Long Beach, a city named after its 4-mile stretch of sandy shoreline, was noticed by Calbraith Perry Rodgers while he was flying around in his Wright Model Ex. Rodgers was an aviation pioneer with an adventurous spirit. He became interested in aviation at a time when the industry was only in its infancy and took flying lessons directly from Orville Wright. After just 90 minutes of “lessons”, he was officially a pilot. Soon after he earned his wings, he heard of the Hearst Prize, a $50,000 prize offered by William Randolph Hearst to whichever pilot would be first to fly from the East to West Coast in under 30 days. Rodgers left Sheepshead Bay, New York in his small pusher biplane on September 17, 1911. Missing the deadline by 19 days, Rodgers landed his weary wheels on the long shore of Long Beach on December 10, 1911. Deadlines aside, this was still a monumental day for the pilot as well as aviation in general - the landing drew a crowd of 50,000 spectators, marking the beginning of Long Beach’s fascination and appreciation for aeronautics.

For ten years following this historical landing, planes used the beach as a runway. Pilots would have to wait for low tide to take off and land these flying machines. The area surrounding the historical site was leased out by Earl Daugherty, a Long Beach aviator, as a space to perform flying stunts for paying spectators as well as open a flying field for his flight training school. Barnstorming became quite popular at this time.

Also called flying circuses, these events were designed to impress spectators and show them just how magnificent flying could be. The only frontier left was the sky, and they were conquering it! This form of entertainment included a variety of stunts, such as spins, dives, loop-the-loops, and barrel rolls. Meanwhile, aerialists performed feats of wing walking, stunt parachuting, midair plane transfers, or even playing tennis, target shooting, and dancing on the plane's wings. Other stunts included nose dives and flying through barns, which unfortunately often led to pilots crashing their planes. Earl Daughtery, a fellow wing walker himself, understood that there was a great future in aeronautics, and convinced the Long Beach City Council to build the very first municipal airport in 1923.  

The Council purchased 150 acres of land near the intersection of Spring St. and Cherry. The airport we know today began its air transportation services on November 26, 1923. Oil was discovered on Signal Hill around the same time, leading to exponential growth and prosperity. The 20s were roaring in Long Beach. The airport quickly expanded by another 255 acres to keep up with demand. Hangars and administrative buildings were built to attract the attention of the military as well as private jet owners. The airport further tempted the military to set up base on their facilities by offering an astonishing deal of $1 a year to use their space. The Navy and Army were flattered and took the deal, setting up a Naval Research Air Base and Army Air Corps on this vast property. Since Long Beach Airport had such a strong military presence, it became an important site in the 1940s. At the beginning of WWII, the Civil Aeronautics Administrations took control of the airport for the war effort. For the remainder of the war, this 500-acre airport oversaw the training of pilots, acted as a base, and had a ferrying division that included a squadron of 18 female pilots, led by the commander and Long Beach local, Barbara London

After the war ended and wartime contracts were all dried up, the airport returned to its usual commercial flying. Around this time, the WPA (Work Progress Administration) funded a project to give the airport a much-needed makeover. Grace Clements, a 28 year Long Beach-based artist, was commissioned to create murals and mosaics throughout the terminal. Her art depicted aviation, navigation, zodiac, and constellations. Her beautiful work was placed throughout the airport terminal with seven mosaics in all, composed of 1.6 million tiles in 32 colors.

The Long Beach Airport was officially declared a historical landmark in the 1990s. When the terminal was recently renovated - a $136-million improvement project - it was important to Long Beach and its citizens that the space maintained its Streamline Moderne Architecture and Art Deco appeal. The facility was modernized in a way that is a true testament to its aviation history as well as being made more convenient and accessible to all future flyers. 

Painting by: Jamie Tablason

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