Wings Around the World

The First Douglas DC-3, “The Spirit of Santa Monica”

When I first moved in Los Angeles at the tail end of 1966, a large chunk of the City of Santa Monica consisted of the Douglas Aircraft plant between Ocean Park and Airport Boulevards. It is long since gone. All that remains is a small Museum of Flying that mostly celebrates the legacy of Donald Douglas and his company. Out front, permanently mounted, is the first DC-3, “The Spirit of Santa Monica.”

The first airplanes to circumnavigate the globe was a team of Douglas World Cruiser planes piloted by U.S. Army Air Service pilots in 1924. A number of displays at the museum dedicate that Herculean 175-day series of flights.

When it was located a couple blocks north, the Museum of Flying used to be bigger, but then it was forced to move out to the boonies. After a few years, a much smaller museum came back. No matter, it’s still fun.

When I look back over the last hundred or so years, the biggest miracle was the airplane. Man has wanted to fly ever since he learned how to use tools, but it was only about a hundred years ago that passenger flight became possible. My two-hour flight to Albuquerque next month would have been impossible. I would have had to board a Santa Fe train that takes many more hours to cover the distance. And before the Transcontinental Railroad, it would take 20 miles a day by horse and wagon—if I were lucky.

Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica in the 1940s

Probably the best aviation museum Martine and I have visited is the one in Palm Springs. It’s so mhuge that one could easily spend two days exploring all the exhibits. There is also a nice one on the outskirts of Paso Robles north of San Luis Obispo. Probably what makes these museums fun is that there are so many retired pilots acting as docents who have their subject down cold. Within a few years, as the World War Two generation fades into memory, many of these airports may no longer be viable. So see them while you can.