Burbank Airport in the Thirties

by Dean Batchelor

Published in Air Trails, date unknown

Burbank, California, which was named after Dr. David Burbank, the first doctor in the area and not after Luther Burbank as many people seem to believe, had a population of a bit over 14,000 when my family moved there from Kansas in 1929.

The big industries in Burbank at that time and in the next few years were Warner Brothers Studios, Columbia Pictures, the Empire China Factory, the Moreland Truck Company, Jurgens Soap, Menasco Engine Company, and an aircraft company that had been started by the Loughead brothers.

During the depression Thirties, Walt Disney moved his fledgling studio to Burbank, United Productions of America came along (remember Gerald McBoing Boing?), the aircraft company became Lockheed, and Burbank grew to 34,000 by 1940. Today it counts about 100,000 full time residents.

Burbank was, I imagine, a typical small town of the era. One couldn't walk down San Fernando Road - the main street - without seeing someone he knew. Burbank was ultra conservative; no blacks were allowed in town after dark, and the Mexican and Japanese lived on the "other side of the tracks." When I was about 10 years old, I was sent home one hot summer day by a policeman for not wearing a shirt in the downtown area.

I got to know a large number of local citizens because my dad worked as custodian at the Burbank Women's Club, whose facilities were used for the weekly meeting of the Kiwanis, Optimist, Rotary and 20-30 Clubs and, on Sundays, by the Church of the Latter Day Saints. It wasn't much of a job but one took what one could get in those days. I helped by washing dishes and doing yard work at the club.

But more important to me, and to the story, Lockheed was building some of the great planes of the day. The Vega, Orion, Altair, Sirius and Air Express attracted the aviation greats to our town - Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Wiley Post, Harold Gatty, Laura Ingalls, Paul Mantz, Frank Hawks, and others.

Just inside the Burbank city limits, two miles west of the Lockheed plant, and about four miles from my house, was a new airfield on land acquired by United Aircraft and Transport Company in 1929.

The design and development of this new field, encompassing 234 acres, included five runways 300 feet wide and 3,600 feet long, and was reported to be the "Model airport of the United States." The unpaved area was planted in alfalfa so an "all-direction, dust-free" airport was claimed.

The site, within short driving distance of the business center of Los Angeles and the commercial district of Hollywood, was selected after a year's study of weather and soil conditions in the area.

The airport was to be the Southern California base for Boeing Air Transport, a terminal for air taxi service and a possible location for an aircraft school.

Pacific Air Transport was the only airline using United Airport until 1933 when Western Express, Inc. moved to Burbank from Alhambra. Transcontinental & Western Air, Inc. moved from Alhambra to Grand Central in Glendale, California (joining American Airlines there) at about the same time.

On 31 August 1934, United Airports Company was absorbed by United Airlines, thus beginning a change that was to affect air traffic in Southern California.

In 1935, with other airlines considering the use of the Burbank installation, United changed the name of its field to Union Air Terminal. Being a competitor, other airlines were understandably reluctant to have their west coast headquarters at "United Airport" which was too close to their competitor's name.

Transcontinental & Western Air (later to become Trans World Airlines) transferred its operations to Union Air Terminal in 1936, and was joined by American Airlines in 1939. All four of these major airlines were making plans to move to the new Los Angeles airport, at the old Mines Field, as soon as it was ready and United began negotiations with Lockheed Aircraft, who wanted to purchase Union Air Terminal. On 19 December 1940, after a year of on and off again negotiations, Lockheed Aircraft acquired Union Air Terminal from United for the sum of $ 1,500,000.

During these years I was growing up in Burbank, going to school (Juaquin Miller grammar school, John Muir Junior High School, and then Burbank High), building skate coasters (Burbank had some beautifully hilly streets that were relatively free of automobile traffic and thus safe for kids to use), digging caves, climbing the local hills and going to the YMCA camp at Catalina Island for a week each summer (financed by collecting old newspapers, scrap metal and bottles to sell to Martin's Junkyard, and by selling Liberty magazines door to door on my regular weekly route). Except for the clarinet lessons which made more sense later that they did at the time, I was enjoying life a lot more that I realized.

I also started building model airplanes about 1935 when I was 13, and my model collection eventually ran to racing planes (Wedell-Williams, Gee Bee, Mr. Mulligan, Miss Los Angeles, Laird Super Solution, Supermarine S-6B, etc.) and the occasional military fighter such as the Curtiss Hawk P-6E, Boeing P-12 or F4B-4 and Curtiss A-8 Shrike.

Model building led to an interest in real aircraft, and one of the best things that ever happened to me was the coincidental acquisition of a Brownie B2 box camera. I didn't have much money for film, but a satisfying percentage of shots came out well because some early and unremembered benefactor told me to always hold the camera very still, hold my breath and squeeze the shutter release gently. This was a necessity as the Brownie shutter worked at about 1/25th of a second as I recall and it left no room for camera movement.

I wasn't old enough to drive, although automobiles were getting more and interesting to me, but an understanding and patient father spent a considerable amount of time driving me, and fellow model builder Bob Herzog, to Burbank's United/Union Air Terminal, Grand Central in Glendale, and the old California National Guard field in Griffith Park. When we couldn't cadge a ride with either my dad or Bob's dad, our bicycles or the outstretched thumb became substitutes.

History was being made in those days, and we didn't realize it. I'm just grateful that I can remember a lot of it, and that I photographed some of it. Not as much as I wish I had but, as I said, film was costly and I spent what I could on it.

Many of these memorable people and places are gone: Grand Central is now a manufacturing area, the National Guard field became Rodger Young Village after World War II - temporary housing for returning G.I.s and their families, and now a freeway interchange (and the Autry Museum). Bob Herzog joined the Marines in 1939 and was lost on the carrier Lexington in the Coral Sea, and I fear that Lockheed Air Terminal may follow into oblivion.

I took my first airplane ride at Union Air Terminal in Joe Lewis' Ryan STA. A 15 minute ride over the Hollywood Reservoir and back cost $2.50. A small fortune, which I borrowed from Bob's dad and later repaid. I rode in the front cockpit and Joe flew from the rear seat. Poor Joe was killed a few months later stunting at an airshow in the northwest.

My second ride was also at Union, and this time it was a Spartan Executive, with the pilot and three other passengers. I rode in the fifth seat, which was little more that a jump seat in the center at the back of the small cabin. This ride, also of 15 minutes duration, cost me $1.75.

Every trip to Union Air Terminal was interesting to a teenager who had a new goal of becoming an Army Air Force pilot some day, but certain days were really exciting and overshadowed all others. We saw the first Douglas DC-4 with it tricycle gear and three tails. This one was sold to the Japanese, and the production version came out with a single fin and rudder. But what a sight that prototype was. It was the biggest I would see until the Douglas B-19 flew over Burbank one day.

We saw movies being shot at U.A.T. Olivia de Haviland, George Brent and Frank McHugh spent a lot of time on the field while filming Wings of the Navy. Many others, too numerous to mention, were partially filmed there, and Paul Mantz, who had a hangar and air service at Union, rigged a Lockheed Sirius for aerial photography with a camera "ring" mounted around the rear cockpit.

The highlight of each year for me was the arrival of pilots and planes getting ready for the start of the annual Bendix Trophy Dash. The planes would leave Burbank between midnight and dawn so they would arrive on the opening day of the National Air Races in Cleveland as near as possible to the time of the opening ceremonies.

Unfortunately, some never made it to Cleveland on time and some never made it at all. In 1935 we saw Cecil Allen take off just before dawn in his Gee Bee and didn't know until we got home and turned on the radio that he flew only a few miles before crashing to his death. I thought when he took off that I could see his elevators fluttering as though loose or disconnected, but even though the eyes of youth are excellent, the judgment isn't always correct and I certainly wouldn't swear to what I think I saw.

At this time of the year we spent as much time as possible at the airport, hoping for a glimpse of anything interesting and exotic. Out ace card was Bob's dad, who worked in the Western Air Lines hangar and could get us passes to be on the field when the planes were taking off on their cross-country speed runs.

One of our more memorable experiences was the arrival of Major Alexis de Seversky in SEV-S2 (the executive version of the Army P-35). In delivering the plane to Burbank for Jackie Cochran to fly in the Bendix, he set a new transcontinental east-west record of 10 hours, 3 minutes, 7 seconds. Two days later, on 3 September 1938, Jackie won the Bendix.

There were other considerations in visiting Union Air Terminal in those days. Air travel was becoming popular with the well-to-do who were in a hurry, and many times we saw famous businessmen, politicians and celebrities of all sorts. Union Air Terminal was always a better place to see movie stars that any place in Hollywood.

Colonel Roscoe Turner used to take his pet lion cub Gilmore with him in his plane and the pair made international headlines. When Gilmore got too big for this activity, the lion was put in a cage in the parking lot in front of the Union Air Terminal administration building.

Going to the airport on a Sunday became more than just looking at planes - we never left without stopping to see world-famous Gilmore. One particular Sunday we were rewarded beyond expectation. In typical lion fashion, Glimore paced his small cage. In typical boy fashion, a number of boys teased Gilmore as only small boys can do. Almost without interrupting his pacing, Gilmore turned his back to the crowd, lifted his tail, and sprayed the front row with a stream approximating the size of one coming from a garden hose. It is well known that a full grown lion has a bladder about the size of Lake Michigan, and justice was done. I suspect that anyone in the front row of that crowd would think long and hard before taunting the King of Beasts again. Fortunately, I was not in that front row.

These were exciting times. Hitler's forces were invading Poland, Czechoslovakia and Austria, and Civil War was raging in Spain. But somehow it was all so remote as to seem non-existant to us. The youth of the Thirties was not as well informed as the youth of the Seventies. In many ways this was tragic and regrettable. But at the time we didn't know and wouldn't have cared if we had known. Maturity would change our attitude, but not the original situation.


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