On Saturday December 17, Santa Monica Airport, in conjunction with the National Aviation Hall of Fame, will throw a party to celebrate one of Santa Monica’s most enduring and venerable icons, the Douglas DC-3, and break ground for a monument to it.
Santa Monica’s aviation legacy is as potent as its film legacy. Aviation history was made here by men and women who shared a desire to defy gravity and challenge the immutable laws of nature and Santa Monica Airport was ground zero for their experiments.
Aviation strides and setbacks are like nothing else in the pantheon of both human achievement and folly. Indeed, our ability to fly may be the most graphic illustration of man’s natural disobedience. In a little over a century, our pursuit of flight has taken us from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to the moon. The first primitive machines of paper and canvas have evolved into the complex platforms of computer driven space ships. The Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, the largest transport in our military inventory. is longer than Wilbur and Orville Wright’s first flight.
Donald Douglas, one of aviation’s true pioneers, first worked in the back room of a barber shop on Pico, moved on to an air field at 26th and Wilshire and then, inevitably, to Clover Field, which was named for a World War I flyer. That was the genesis of Douglas Aircraft, which outgrew the airport and spread across the southeastern reaches of Santa Monica.
Before and during World War II, the Douglas assembly line worked 24 hours a day.
The DC-3, whose military version was called the C-47, was Douglas Aircraft’s most ubiquitous and best-known airplane.
Aptly named “The Spirit of Santa Monica,” the DC-3 that will be featured in the monument rolled off the Douglas assembly line over 60 years ago, and has now come full circle. After many years of service, first as a military transport, then as the flagship of the Atlantic Richfield Corporation and finally as part of the private collection of David Price, the plane is back where it began. It has been refinished and will be displayed at the airport as a permanent testament to the courage, freedom and the endless possibilities of aviation.
A twin-engine, propeller-driven airplane, the DC-3 was among the first planes to fully allow for the safe and comfortable transportation of people. During World War II, its military counterpart, the C-47, saw action in both the Pacific and Europe, where it ferried the Paratroops of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions into the combat theaters of Normandy and Holland.
Nicknamed “The Goony Bird” and “The Dakota,” the C-47 was durable, versatile and as tough as any World War II aircraft.
The DC-3 never enjoyed the fame or glory of other more fabled war birds such as the B-17 or the P-51 “Mustang,” but it was indispensable and still flying when the more glamorous planes were gathering dust.
According to Ted Walters, a veteran air traffic controller and design coordinator of the “Spirit of Santa Monica” restoration project, the refurbishing of this plane has been a magical kind of adventure.
“Almost all of the labor and materials have been donated to us. Federal Express has donated over three hundred gallons of paint. And most all of the work has been done by aviation student volunteers from the various local colleges including West Los Angeles College, It has taken some time but we have finished it. ‘The Spirit of Santa Monica’ is something we can all be proud of.”
The plane itself was donated to the Santa Monica Airport by David Price, who flew Navy jets with Donald Rumsfeld and was the architect of the Santa Monica Museum of Flying, which closed a few years ago.
Robert Trimborn, the manager of the Santa Monica Airport, said that since the Museum was funded primarily by donations and was always straddling the thin red line, the building it occupied was leased to the German design office of the Audi Automotive Company. However, both Trimborn and Price said that a new Museum of Flying will be established at the Santa Monica Airport within the next year.
“I guarantee this will happen,” exclaimed an enthusiastic Price during a phone interview from his office.
Among the guests who are scheduled to attend the groundbreaking ceremony are film stars and avid flyers Cliff Robertson and Harrison Ford . Arguably the most celebrated guest will be Buzz Aldrin, who with Neil Armstrong, walked on the moon to climax the flight of Apollo 11.
The ground-breaking will be combined with the National Aviation Hall of Fame’s induction of some new honorees. It was established in 1960s to recognize the achievements of aviators and preserve the romance of flight, and its director Ron Kaplan said, “You never know when someone visits the hall of fame or participates in an air exhibit, whether or not he or she may become the next Amelia Earheart or Chuck Yeager. I want us to be ready for this.”
No technology has developed as rapidly as aviation, perhaps because it is as much mythic and romantic as it is physics and mechanics. It has been said that our technology has advanced more rapidly than our own humanity. On Saturday, at Santa Monica Airport, people will find themselves at the intersection of reason and imagination, technology and humanity.
“The Spirit of Santa Monica,” is the spirit of aviation itself and may be the true spirit of all mankind.