A group of aviation historians, enthusiasts and pilots are hoping Santa Monica will be the first city in the nation to recognize a piece of flying history with a landmark designation.
The Los Angeles Chapter of the Ninety-Nines, a women’s pilot association, has filed an application to landmark the Compass Rose at the Santa Monica Airport. The Rose is a blue and white compass star painted on the airfield. The marking retains a valuable use for pilots and has a direct connection to the city’s aviation history.
“It’s the only reminder of the 1929 Air Derby that took place here,” he said Eve Lopez, Chair of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Ninety-Nines. “But for the Compass Rose, there would not be a singular object on or near the field to remind us of that historic event.”
The Women’s Air Derby was the first time women were allowed to race in planes. The event began in Santa Monica on August 18 with nineteen pilots, including Amelia Earhart, racing to Cleveland Ohio. The race itself was as dramatic as any Hollywood movie. Several pilots crashed, one fatally, and there were allegations of sabotage with one pilot withdrawing due to possible acid damage to the wings of her plane.
The race drew the attention of thousands of spectators and was the first opportunity for female pilots from across the country to actually gather in person.
“As an unintended consequence of the race, the women were actually able to get together,” said Lopez. “They had a reception the day before on the Pier and started talking. Back then, they didn’t know each other … and even now it’s rare to find another woman pilot to talk to about your concerns.”
The Ninety Nines were founded in 1929 in the months after the race to advance aviation and support female pilots. In pursuit of greater air safety, the organization began painting a compass onto airfields. During the early days of aviation the prominent markings served as navigation aids for planes and the Compass Rose retains a function to this day.
The FAA mandates all planes have a working compass on board and those instruments require periodic recalibration. The presence of a Compass Rose on the tarmac allows a plane to pull onto the marking and establish a true north heading. The internal compass can then be calibrated to guarantee safe readings during flight.
“It would be very difficult to dispute the significance of the Compass Rose, both to the airport, to the 99’s and the first air derby in Santa Monica,” said Olivia White from Chattel Inc, who has been hired to handle the application on behalf of the Ninety-Nines. “I think it really has an indisputable significance to the city of Santa Monica.”
According to the application, the Compass Rose is threatened by possible demolition due to the Council’s recent decision to remove excess pavement adjacent to the runway.
“The Compass Rose is significant for representing the important and underrepresented history of women in aviation both locally and nationally,” said the application. “The first Compass Rose is believed to have existed at the Santa Monica Airport as early as 1929 though no physical evidence exists. Physical evidence of a Compass Rose at the original site location adjacent to runways 21 and 22 dates to circa 1947. Its present location, adjacent to runway 3, dates to circa 1988, which is sufficiently in our past to interpret and preserve.”
Landmarks Commission is scheduled to hear the application at their September 9 meeting. The Commission meets in City Hall at 7 p.m.