In the first of a series of in-depth features focusing on the future of Santa Monica Airport, we look at the incredible history connected to this seemingly ordinary strip of land.

Following the City Council’s recent vote to move ahead with the process of planning for a future park where the Santa Monica Airport is currently located, the issue of exactly what to do with the 227 acre site has once again been propelled into public scrutiny. And in a little over five and a half year’s time, at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 2028, the form and function of this substantial swath of land could significantly change.

Santa Monica Airport positively drips with history and celebrates its centenary this year. It was, at one time, the busiest single-runway airport in the world and it played a pivotal role in the aviation industry. Originally known as Clover Field, it was named after a World War I American aviator and was officially recognized as a commercial airport 100 years ago, in April 1923. The following year, the first ever aerial circumnavigation of the world took off and then returned to the airport, 175 days and 26,345 miles later. That monumental achievement was achieved by four aviators from the Army Air Service — the precursor of the US Air Force — flying an aircraft manufactured by the Douglas Aircraft Company, which was based at Clover Field. 

There is no definitive documentation as to when Clover Field was formally renamed Santa Monica Airport, but it’s believed to have been around 1927, when city officials became increasingly upset that it was still being referred to as “Clover Field, Los Angeles” and insisted that the airport’s name reflect its new ownership, making the change more of a gradual adjustment rather than any elaborate ceremonial affair.

In 1936, the legendary Douglas Commercial 3, or DC-3, was developed and mass produced, which was the first plane that could profitably carry only passengers without relying on mail subsidies. This new, avant garde aircraft could fly from New York to Los Angeles in just 18 hours, requiring only three stops along the way. The DC-3 was later repurposed into the C-47, which was used to drop tens of thousands of US paratroopers into occupied Normandy for D-Day in June 1944.

The DC-3 became the C-47 and the beautiful aluminum finish was replaced by the war-time colors on this invaluable WWII aircraft.
Picture: The Santa Monica Museum of Flying

The aviation industry was well and truly taking off and it brought a wealth of business and employment opportunities to the Santa Monica area, even during the Great Depression. Despite not officially participating in the Second World War until December 1941, the USA had begun supplying troops and military hardware to the Allies fighting in Europe by September 1940.

Competition gave way to combined efforts as a greater purpose needed to be served and Douglas worked alongside the likes of Northrop and Lockheed. As a morale booster for his employees, who were now working round-the-clock shifts, Douglas opened the Aero Theater on Montana Ave and kept it open 24 hours a day so his workers and the public could enjoy brand new Hollywood releases.

With the war raging in Europe — and predating the attack on Pearl Harbor by some time — the already astute Donald Douglas believed that the West Coast of the USA was vulnerable to potential attack from the Pacific and Santa Monica Airport would almost certainly be a prime target for enemy bombers. So, together with his chief engineer, renowned architect H. Roy Kelly and set designers from Warner Brothers Studios, they created an elaborate, full-scale fake city, to conceal the entire site when viewed from the air.

This new, non-existent “neighborhood” was constructed by using nearly five-million square feet of chicken wire stretched across and supported by more than 400 giant poles, each about 20 feet high, forming a canopy over the entire site. On top of this were placed lightweight wooden houses with attached garages, fences, clotheslines and even trees made from twisted chicken wire and feathers painted green. Streets and sidewalks were painted on the canopy to blend in with existing streets and surrounding homes occupied by Douglas employees. Hanger 1, the site’s tallest building at five stories, became a “hillside” and the runway was painted to look like a plowed field. 

The Douglas Aircraft Company’s production facility at Santa Monica Airport, hidden in case of enemy attack against the West Coast.
Picture: The Santa Monica Museum of Flying

When this near-impossible project was completed, it was not uncommon for pilots to get lost, unable to locate the airfield and in fact Warner Brothers replicated the process fearing their sprawling Burbank studio lot, full of massive soundstages and closed sets, might be mistaken for a munitions factory. 

During World War II, the Douglas Aircraft Company produced almost 30,000 aircraft and its workforce swelled to 160,000. Following the outbreak of peace in 1945, Douglas redirected its primary focus back to commercial airliners, but in 1958, the company asked the city to lengthen the airport’s runway so that it could test and manufacture their DC-8, in competition with Seattle-based Boeing’s new 707. The city, bowing to the objections of residents, refused to do so and Douglas closed its plant and moved airliner production to Long Beach. Thus with the departure of Douglas, the airport became a principal general aviation airport for the Greater Los Angeles area, accommodating mostly business aircraft, training aircraft and personal planes.

In 1968, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) entered into a contract with the City of Santa Monica to ensure the airport land would be used for aviation services until 1988. However, starting in the late-1970s, the site became the subject of numerous political battles seeking to restrict or even close the airport. This ignited a long running legal war between local residents, land developers and local government against airport users and aviation industry organizations and invariably became a precedent for several similar judicial actions across the country.

In January 2017, under a consent agreement made between the USA, the FAA and Santa Monica City agreed that all outstanding disputes be resolved, all claims by the Federal government be relinquished and that the City had the potential power – upon review six years later – to cease all aviation operations effective as of midnight on December 31, 2028.

Peter James, Chief Operations Officer for the City, said during the most recent City Council meeting, “Finding [a] consensus on a preferred scenario for the future of the airport will take time because — as we’ve seen in our own advanced planning efforts over the past several years, as well as in other communities that have wrestled with airport conversions, or military base conversions, or the reuse of large public parcels — the planning process can last from a few years, if you’re lucky, up to 25 years and implementation can, and will, span decades.”

Barker Hangar
The famous Barker Hangar venue preparing for a high-profile event complete with a red carpet affair for press photographers.
Picture: Barker Hangar Credit: Barker Hangar

Steve Benesch, Director of Operations for Santa Monica Aiport’s Museum of Flying, grew up just a stone’s throw away from the airport itself. “Sure, I love the culture of Santa Monica, Venice and this area, but real things were done here and that’s why I got energized when I came here [the museum] to share those stories, because I didn’t know all of it. How real it was, real substance, a real contribution to world history … There wouldn’t be a Santa Monica like we know it, if it wasn’t for Douglas.”

“There aren’t many people that come through here that aren’t interested in a story that we have, something that makes them go ‘wow.’ Our favorite thing to listen out for in here is ‘wow, I didn’t know that.’ When Mike [the museum’s historian Mike Machat] and I walk through here and it’s busy, we like to listen out for that. ‘Wow, I did not know that’ – and that camouflage story – I grew up here and I did not know that.”

Santa Monica Airport is just one of many that serves the Greater Los Angeles area, the second-largest metropolitan region in the country. There are 15 “general aviation” airports, six commercial airports, four military and nine “non-towered” airports. 

Santa Monica Airport sits at the south-eastern edge of the city and covers a total of 227 acres (approximately 10 million sq ft) 187 acres of that is open space, such as runways and parking lots and the remaining 40 acres is taken up by existing buildings. Today, it is home to 166 businesses across 43 industry sectors, from aviation to cultural uses, including the museum, a theater and art center.

The airport has even appeared on the silver screen, including Point Break (1991), various music videos and epic 80s television shows like The A-Team and TJ Hooker. Moreover, the airport site includes Barker Hangar, a 35,000 sq ft entertainment venue that’s often used for high-profile events, including the People’s Choice Awards, MTV Awards and others.

What does the future have in store for this seemingly ordinary strip of land that has so much secret history? The short answer is, no one knows. What’s best for the people of Santa Monica? Funnily enough, there’s quite a lot of debate on that issue as well. Will everyone agree? Not a chance. But in order to at least have a more informed idea of how complex this issue actually is, we will be looking at every side of this argument, presenting the facts and debunking the myths, so you can draw your own conclusions.

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Scott Snowden

Scott fell in love with Santa Monica when he was much younger and now, after living and working in five different countries, he has returned. He's written for the likes of the FT, NBC, the BBC and CNN.