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Southern California aerospace map
Southern California has a rich but often overlooked aerospace history. (credit: Google)

Blue skies on the West Coast: a history of the aerospace industry in Southern California

California is many things. Riddle would be a poor word. Contradiction perhaps a little better. The state is an entertainment industry powerhouse, but an information technology engine as well, not to mention a major exporter of agricultural produce (ahead of Wisconsin in dairy products, for instance). If it was its own country, California would be in the top ten economies in the world. But what is the state’s reputation? What is it known for? A liberal populace, a Republican movie actor governor, social experimentation and trend-setting, a sizeable immigrant population (legal and illegal), high taxes and regulation, good beaches, pornography, economic opportunity, brush fires, Hollywood.

What about aerospace?

There was a time when the word “California” had an inherent connotation of the aerospace industry. At the height of the Cold War fifteen of the twenty-five largest aerospace companies in the United States were based in southern California. If you know the context, then traveling through that region is like a history of aviation and space in the United States.

If you know the context, then traveling through that region is like a history of aviation and space in the United States.

Get on an airplane to California. Take the metal bird over the mountains and the smog of the Los Angeles basin, over the used car lots and the burger joints and the never-ending tan-hued sprawl of houses and businesses, over the vast shipping container fields and oil refineries of Long Beach, to the concrete bustle of LAX. Get in a car and drive and you don’t have to travel far to find evidence of southern California’s aerospace legacy. You can read it on the exit signs for the freeways, names that are synonymous with America’s aerospace heritage. Drive south on the 405 and you’ll pass El Segundo, home to Los Angeles Air Force Base and The Aerospace Corporation. You’ll pass Long Beach, Downey, and Huntington Beach, where companies used to build planes for the Air Force and DC-10s for the airlines, where North American built the Apollo command module. Turn east and you’ll reach March Air Reserve Base and its massive runway for B-52 Stratofortresses, and where the Air Force based its first bombardment wing and conducted the first tests of aerial refueling. Get on the 110 and head north to the 210 and you’ll reach the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, turn west to Burbank, once home to Lockheed’s famed Skunk Works and the place where the U-2 and the Blackbird were designed and built before being crated up and shipped out to the desert for testing. If you head to the southwest you’ll hit Santa Monica, which used to be a euphemism for Douglas Aircraft during the Second World War and later was the home of RAND, where the wizards of armageddon thought about Global Thermonuclear War and then sipped margaritas on the beach during their lunch break. Turn east and head into the Mojave desert and drive past the cactuses and the scrub and you’ll reach the Muroc dry lake and Edwards Air Force Base, home of those men Tom Wolfe called the best goddamned pilots in the world, where B-2 bombers drop smart bombs and C-17 Globemasters drop Humvees into great billowing clouds of dust from the lakebed floor and where massive Saturn F-1 engines used to roar and spew clouds of smoke from the edge of a cliff.

But Rockwell is gone. North American is gone. Douglas—excuse me, McDonnell Douglas—is gone. The rockets no longer roar at Edwards. Lockheed no longer builds planes at Burbank. Hughes Aerospace is gone. Well, not exactly gone. Some of these companies were rolled up into Boeing, others are no longer recognizable in their current form. Some moved substantial operations elsewhere. RAND is still there, but its influence waned after the 1950s. But General Atomics builds Predator drones north of San Diego. And there are new startups as well. SpaceX resides in El Segundo, a name that used to be intimately associated with military spaceflight. California no longer has the well-known reputation that it once had as the aeronautics powerhouse of the United States.

On August 3 and 4 the Huntington-University of Southern California Institute on California and the West sponsored a unique aerospace history conference. Titled “Rocket Science and the Region: the Rise, Fall and Rise of the Aerospace Industry in Southern California”, the symposium was held at the Huntington Library and Museum in Pasadena, California, not far from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech, which have both played major roles in the development of the nation’s space and aeronautics programs. The event was intended to kick off a new program to study aerospace history in the West that may eventually include the development of a dedicated oral history and document collection. Former aerospace officials, past and current military officers, government and private historians, and museum archivists representing a wide range of aerospace topics spoke to an audience of over a hundred people during the two-day symposium. I was one of the invited speakers and will write about my own talk in a later article. What follows is a summary of the presentations about the contradictory and ever evolving history of aerospace on the southwest coast of the United States.

Pioneers of a pioneer industry

The first panel consisted of former aerospace industry executives from some of the most well-known companies in aviation and space. They included: Fred Adler, former senior vice president of Hughes Aircraft Company; Allan Boardman, former vice president of The Aerospace Corporation; Thomas V. Jones, former chairman and CEO of Northrop Corporation; and Sherman N. Mullin, former president of Lockheed’s Skunk Works. The panel was moderated by William Graham, former science advisor to Ronald Reagan and former Deputy Administrator of NASA.

Fred Adler, who started his career as an engineer at Hughes, recounted how after the launch of Sputnik the Air Force issued many requests for proposal (RFP) for various spaceflight projects. One of the first ones that Hughes received was for a “Strategic Orbital System.” Hughes drafted a proposal and sent it off to the Air Force. This was followed by an RFP for a “Strategic Lunar System.” (See “Take off and nuke the site from orbit (it’s the only way to be sure…)”, The Space Review, June 4, 2007). “Somewhat reluctantly we bid on that one too,” Adler said. But the next one was for a “Strategic Interplanetary System.” Hughes’ engineers believed that the idea of projecting strategic power from interplanetary space was ridiculous and decided not to bid on the request. But soon thereafter the company received a phone call from Air Force Headquarters at the Pentagon telling the company to “get on the team”—they were not allowed the option of not bidding on what they considered a dumb idea. Adler was then told by his boss to put together a proposal. They did, and they lost.

But whereas military space programs did not initially pay off for the company, commercial ones soon did, despite the skepticism of government bureaucrats. Adler told the story how Hughes had taken a model of a satellite to the Paris Air Show. They took it to the top of the Eiffel Tower for a photo shoot and somebody from NASA joked that “that’s how high it will ever get.”

Adler said that Hughes was a company that took the long view of things. One of the values of being owned by Howard Hughes was that the company did not have to focus on quarterly stock quotas but could plan more strategically. The company’s leadership had always valued higher education and the company used discretionary funds to send its engineers to school to obtain advanced degrees.

Adler was asked about why the company successfully bid on NASA’s Surveyor lunar lander in the early 1960s. He explained that the company leadership knew that NASA was going to sponsor a lot of advanced technology during the 1960s. He said that the company learned a lot about management techniques as well as technology development. The company ultimately had to hire 1,000 more engineers to work on the program and this was made easier for them because of their location—California was an attractive place for potential employees to move to.

Sherman Mullin recalled that Lockheed had conducted some work on hypersonic vehicles in the 1950s. In 1954 the company’s president decided to start a missile division and initially much of the work in this new industry was performed by aircraft engineers. But by 1960 the company essentially became bifurcated, with the Lockheed facility in Burbank, north of Los Angeles, focusing almost exclusively on aircraft, whereas the missile and space work was performed farther north, at Sunnyvale south of San Francisco.

Adler told the story how Hughes had taken a model of a satellite to the Paris Air Show. They took it to the top of the Eiffel Tower for a photo shoot and somebody from NASA joked that “that’s how high it will ever get.”

By the 1960s Mullin was assigned to manage the Lockheed P-3 Orion anti-submarine aircraft’s computer system. This was at a time when digital computers were first starting to be incorporated into aircraft. The P-3’s computer system could actually handle novel invention called software—in other words, the computer was no longer a device with only one purpose, but could be reprogrammed depending upon the mission. This was a revolutionary capability and during the 1960s the aerospace industry soon transitioned to an era where the cost of the airframe shrunk as a percentage of the total cost of the aircraft. Mullin explained that today the airframe is less than half the cost of a military aircraft’s development; a much greater portion of the cost is the avionics and software used in the aircraft.

Mullin recalled that the 1960s were a great time to be a computer engineer in aerospace. The aircraft engineers derisively referred to the electronics engineers as “coneheads” and expected their involvement in the development of aircraft to be minor—and possibly temporary. The computer experts referred to the aircraft designers as “tin-benders” and soon began adopting the “conehead” designation as a badge of honor.

Mullin explained that the culture of the classified satellite programs at Sunnyvale was completely different than that for airplane programs, but Lockheed’s CEO tolerated these entirely different attitudes at the company. There was constant tension between the two communities because each group thought that they knew how the company should be run. He noted that eventually all of the company’s leadership started coming from the space side of the business.

Mullin said that there were several factors that contributed to the growth of the aerospace industry in southern California. These included the good climate, lots of open land, and a good education system. But he added that there were a lot of intangibles that were also important. He said that aerospace was still present in southern California today, but it had evolved substantially. He noted that Lockheed had to make a painful decision in the 1990s to shut down its historic Burbank facility and to relocate its famed Skunk Works to its Palmdale factory. However, Palmdale was an advanced factory that had originally been built to manufacture up to 36 L-1011 Tristar passenger jets a year, and it is still an advanced facility today. He added that one advantage of being located in the desert is that there is a lot of available land and no noise restrictions. “They like sonic booms out there,” he joked.

Thomas Jones discussed the history of Northrop. He agreed with Mullin that the electronics revolution brought about by the introduction of the transistor had a major effect on the aviation industry in the 1960s. He mentioned Hughes Aerospace’s Allen Puckett, who devised Puckett’s Law, which held that electronics were improving by a factor of two every year. This meant that when an electronics system design was completed, a year later it would be possible to design a system that was twice as good—either twice as powerful or half as heavy as the existing design that they were stuck with.

Jones said that Northrop became interested in the possibility of stealth aircraft after the launch of the first American satellites. The company had a contract to assist in tracking satellites in orbit and soon discovered how difficult that was. This led them to look at the issue of how radar worked. If they had a hard time tracking satellites, there had to be reasons for this, and if they could replicate the reasons, they could make aircraft harder to track. He also recalled that Northrop had acquired a lot of experience with the troublesome Snark cruise missile and one of the lessons they had learned was the importance of careful checkout before flight. They soon learned that the Army did very little ground checkout of their rockets before launch. Northrop proposed conducting pre-launch checkout of Army rockets and this soon became a very lucrative contract for them.

Aerospace’s Ed Clark constantly fought against the belief by some early spacecraft designers that reliability could be built into the systems, making redundancy unnecessary, ultimately earning an apt nickname for himself: “Ed Ed Clark Clark.”

Allan Boardman of The Aerospace Corporation recalled that he had originally gotten involved in space when he was an undergraduate engineering student and wrote a technical critique of Wernher von Braun’s book The Mars Project. Boardman later met the famed British scientist and engineer R.V. Jones, who during World War 2 had helped develop radar and gathered information on von Braun’s V-2 rockets. Jones once told Boardman that during the war he kept looking forward to the day when he could sit down with the German rocket scientists and find out how they had built their weapons. Boardman found it hard to understand how someone could talk with a former enemy, but he concluded that Jones was more interested in science and technology than the politics.

Boardman said that one of the unsung heroes of the early space program was Aerospace’s Ed Clark, who had pushed hard for the inclusion of redundant systems in satellites. Clark was a bulldog who did not take no for an answer. He constantly fought against the belief by some early spacecraft designers that reliability could be built into the systems, making redundancy unnecessary. Clark ultimately earned an apt nickname for himself: “Ed Ed Clark Clark.”

During the question and answer period the panelists were asked if the early 1990s consolidation of the aerospace industry was inevitable. Both Jones and Mullin responded that they felt that the government should have let competition solve the problem of oversupply in the defense marketplace. They believed that the decision to reduce the number of aerospace contractors that was forced upon the companies by the Clinton administration had been a mistake.

One of the panelists noted that the conference lacked a representative from the RAND Corporation. He said that RAND, which is located in Santa Monica, practically on the beach, had played a major and unheralded role in the development of large transport planes like the C-5 Galaxy. RAND had conducted a study that proved that turbines were more economical than propellers even in the 1950s. This had led to the development of high-bypass turbine engines.

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