Huntington Museum Exhibition to Survey First Hundred Years of Aerospace in Southern California

The aerospace industry’s impact on Southern California in the 20th century—and vice versa—will be explored in a new exhibition at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens this fall. “Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California” recounts that transformative era through approximately 50 manuscripts, documents, and photographs drawn from The Huntington’s growing collection of aerospace- related materials and other private and public collections. The exhibition will be on view in the West Hall of the Library from Oct. 8, 2011, to Jan. 9, 2012.

“Southern California as we know it would not exist without aerospace,” says co-curator Peter Westwick, a historian at the University of Southern California and the director of The Huntington’s Aerospace History Project. He and co-curator Matthew Hersch, a postdoctoral fellow in history at USC, will show how the aerospace industry evolved in Southern California while also documenting how it impacted the wider culture of the region.

Nature provided wonderful weather, clear blue skies, and dry lake beds, and California was also home to a variety of related industries, particularly petroleum, and local universities, which provided cutting-edge research facilities and a steady supply of engineering labor. Meanwhile the fun loving, creative, and dynamic aeronautical community contributed to Southern California culture, including innovations in surfing and hot-rodding, architecture and design.

In addition to archival materials, the exhibition will feature a rocket engine, early satellite models, and a replica of a midcentury engineer’s desk with tools of the engineer’s trade: slide rules, French curves, and a mechanical calculator.

From the Early Years of Aviation to the Present
“Blue Sky Metropolis” will be installed chronologically and thematically, beginning with the risk-takers and barnstormers of the early 1900s through the 1920s and ’30s, when innovations led to the rise of commercial aviation and the establishment of industry powerhouses such as Lockheed, Northrop, Douglas, and Hughes Aircraft. World War II brought further industrialization to Southern California, while the postwar era saw the Cold War and the dual storylines of increased military spending and a space race with the Soviet Union. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the industry’s subsequent contraction and consolidation in the early 1990s, too, are part of that history.

Henry Huntington himself is credited for helping to launch the age of aerospace in Southern California, by supporting the first American air meet in 1910. Hundreds of thousands of people showed up to watch miraculous new contraptions take to the air, at great risk to the safety of the pilots. The Los Angeles Times declared it “one of the greatest public events in the history of the West.” Heroic individualism would soon give way to entrepreneurialism as businesses took form to make planes safer, faster, and more cost effective, requiring a growing work force of engineers and shop floor mechanics.

Much of the story of aviation is about that changing technology, and “Blue Sky Metropolis” will include details of how engineers and their employers moved from frame-and-fabric planes to jet aircraft to lunar landers. Drawings and photographs will show the transition from wood to metal as the skeletons of planes and wings changed over time, illustrated for example, from Lockheed’s wooden Vega of the 1920s to its titanium SR-71 Blackbird in the 1960s.

During World War II, Southern California aircraft plants turned out tens of thousands of planes. A new P-51 came off the assembly line every 18 minutes, and a single plant would boast 100,000 people working around the clock in shifts. Women played particularly prominent wartime roles, not only as the celebrated “Rosie the Riveter” but also as blueprint checkers, electrical-wiring experts, and human “computers.”

With the advent of rockets, the industry made the transition from aero to space, which included a shift from mass-produced airplanes to single or small-batch spacecraft. Southern California firms played central roles in the space race, including the Apollo program that landed men on the moon and later the Space Shuttle.

Less known to residents of Southern California were the advances that took place in the culture of secrecy of the Cold War era, as Lockheed’s secret research and development section, the Skunk Works plant in Burbank, manufactured spy planes and stealth aircraft. On display will be a number of documents and photographs from the collection of Ben Rich, who as Skunk Works director oversaw the development of the F-117 Stealth fighter.

A Long Line of Charismatic Men and Women
Ben Rich came from a long line of charismatic men and women, and photographs and manuscripts will document these larger-than-life characters. Early aviators Arch Hoxsey and Ralph Johnston, also known as the Heavenly Twins, were celebrities of the day, with their own trading cards, but both died tragically young in air crashes, Hoxsey auguring in at the Dominguez Hills airfield. Wiley Post was the first pilot to don what would become known as a space suit; his flights into the stratosphere would lead to the discovery of the jet stream, setting the course for the rise of transcontinental commercial air travel. Meanwhile, Amelia Earhart was becoming an international celebrity in the 1930s. Photos from The Huntington’s collections include images of Earhart visiting Lockheed as a guest of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the legendary designer who would be responsible for developing some of the most high-performance aircraft of the 20th century.

Figures such as “Cowboy” Joe Walker continued the spirit of adventure into the 1950s, giving it a particularly western spin. Test pilots had become highly skilled, many with graduate degrees, yet Walker, a talented physicist, maintained his persona as a man connected to the frontier. An iconic photo shows him wearing a 10-gallon hat and mounting a plane at Edwards Air Force Base as if he was busting a bronco. The fun-loving nature of pilots and engineers thrived despite the pressures of the Cold War. Albert Hibbs earned a doctorate at Caltech under the guidance of famed Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman, and from there he went to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, all the while maintaining an interest in music, underwater photography, kinetic sculpture, and repertory theater. A photo in “Blue Sky Metropolis” captures the polymath in a mischievous moment, flipping butter at a dinner table with colleagues with the exuberance of a boy who never stopped having a good time.

While the 1990s brought consolidation and contraction to the industry and dislocation to its workers, innovations continue with new kinds of aircraft and spacecraft for the 21st century. While this year sees the end of the space shuttle program, the exhibition will deomonstrate that a longer view of the history of aerospace is proof that the industry continues to thrive in Southern California.

Related Book
An anthology of essays on Southern California aerospace, edited by William Deverell and Peter Westwick, is forthcoming in early 2012 from University of California Press.

About the Aerospace History Project
The Aerospace History Project is an initiative of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West (ICW), a collaborative research and teaching enterprise devoted to scholarly investigation of the history and culture of the American West. The project combines The Huntington’s collections and curatorial resources with the research and teaching capabilities of USC. The project is supported by the National Science Foundation and the Northrop Grumman Foundation and is led by Peter Westwick of USC’s history department; William Deverell, ICW director and professor of history at USC; and Daniel Lewis, Dibner Senior Curator of the History of Science and Technology at the Huntington Library. The project’s goal is to document the history of Southern California aerospace through archival collections and oral history.

Image: NASA pilot Bill Dana watches a Boeing NB-52B carrier aircraft fly overhead after a successful test flight of the Northrop HL-10 lifting body at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Calif., 1969. Fellow pilot John Reeves can be seen at the cockpit of the lifting body. NASA photo.

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