Beginnings of Our Municipal Airport

By Claudine Burnett
Long Beach Airport Terminal, circa 1920

On November 26, 2023, Long Beach Airport will be celebrating its 100th anniversary, but many may not be aware that it’s not the city’s first landing field.

The Beach

The first home to Long Beach aviation was along the city’s downtown shore, where aviators took to the air, inspired by the 1910 Dominquez International Air Meet, the first air meet held in the United States, and the second in the world (France held the first in 1909). Tourists were delighted having these air machines close by, but things changed.

In 1916, residents along Ocean Avenue began to complain about the noise. A petition bearing the names of more than 200 Long Beach citizens was submitted to City Commissioners. In it, they characterized flying as “a nuisance and menace to human life as well as a danger to hundreds of people who used the beach.”

In view of this petition and many previous complaints about airplane noise, local aviators Earl Daugherty, Harry Christofferson, Thor Polson and Jay Boyd decided to move to Seal Beach. The nearby beach resort had established an entertainment zone similar to the Pike. Amusement men there were quick to realize the value of the airplane in drawing crowds. As an enticement to aviators, they erected three airplane hangars and offered free rentals to aviators who moved there.

Many Long Beach residents expressed regret over losing the seafront aviation field, feeling Long Beach had lost a valuable asset in attracting large crowds and providing thrills for visitors. In addition, they believed the city had lost the chance to become the aviation center of Southern California.

But the new flying field in Seal Beach was not to last. On April 2, 1917, America entered the war in Europe. For Long Beach aviators, the war was just another adventure and an opportunity to prove the value of aviation. For Earl Daugherty and Jay Boyd, assigned as Army flight instructors, it was a chance for them to continue to spread aviation fever by teaching others to fly.

Chateau Thierry

Shortly before the war, Earl Daugherty and his father purchased a 20-acre site at Bixby Road (near Wardlow) and Long Beach Boulevard. Earl planned to use it as a flying school, but the war interrupted his plans.

Born in Des Moines Iowa in 1887, Earl Daugherty had lived in Long Beach most of his life. Graduating from Long Beach High School, he went to work in a bank where he might have remained if he hadn’t caught aviation fever at the Dominguez Air Meet in 1910.

Two years later, he was a pilot traveling to the Chicago National Air Races where he won $1000 ($31,100 in 2022). With that money, he purchased a Borel-Morante monoplane, considered one of the fastest airplanes of its day. To many, he was known as the “father” of Long Beach aviation.

On June 6, 1919, the aviator opened the Daugherty School of Aviation, with passenger carrying on the side. It was close to a new Long Beach subdivision, christened “Chateau Thierry” in honor of America’s great World War I battle in France.

Daugherty’s new operation was highly successful. Records show he carried 1,785 passengers that first year. Daugherty, a flight instructor during the war, also began to train stunt flyers such as Wesley May, Clarence “Ace” Bragunier, Augie Pedlar and Frank Hawks.

Planes were still a rarity in most parts of the United States and just the noise of an airplane engine churning across the sky was enough of a novelty in itself to bring people outside to stare upward. By 1923, there were about 300 barnstormers touring the country exhibiting their flying skills and stunts.

Daugherty, was different. Earl had enough of barnstorming before the war; he was now one of the very first “fixed-base operators” – one who operated continuously from a single flying field. His students, however, toured in organized groups, or as individual stunt artists. Daugherty, however, believed aviation had a more important future than just entertainment and he was eager and willing to explore other prospects.

On May 29, 1919, tentative plans to establish passenger, express and mail airplane service in California, with Long Beach as a terminal, were outlined to Chamber of Commerce officials by representatives of the United States Aero Transportation Company. Four large planes, each capable of carrying 12 passengers, two flying north to San Francisco and two flying south to San Diego, would stop at Long Beach daily.

A branch line from Long Beach to Catalina would also be considered if Long Beach spent an estimated $25,000 ($423,000 in 2022) to build a terminal. To finance this, the United States Aero Transportation Company said, stock could be sold to Long Beach investors, with the proviso that the money be spent on the local terminal, which had to be spacious and equipped with shops, hangars, tanks and a macadamized field.

The Aircraft Equipment Company of Los Angeles, also anxious to cash in on this new business of aviation, approached the City of Long Beach on April 28, 1920, proposing a regular air jitney service between Long Beach and San Diego for a $10,000 ($146,000) investment. Yet they too needed a proper terminal.

Long Beach’s first municipal airport began to take shape (not the one being celebrated this year).

Look for more on this aviation site in Part 2 of this series. Can’t wait? Read all about it and the history of Southern California aviation in my book “Soaring Skyward: A History of Aviation in and Around Long Beach, CA. “

Claudine Burnett is a retired Long Beach Public Library librarian who compiled the library’s Long Beach History Index. In her research, she found many forgotten, interesting stories about Long Beach, which she has published in 12 books as well as in monthly blogs. You can access information about her books and read her blogs at www.claudineburnettbooks.com.

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