Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California

Oct. 8, 2011Jan. 10, 2012
Library, West Hall


Southern California as we know it would not exist without aerospace, says Peter Westwick, professor of history at the University of Southern California. And he should know: Westwick is the director of the Aerospace History Project at The Huntington, a major initiative of the Huntington–USC Institute on California and the West that is documenting the history of the industry in Southern California.

See the first fruits of that project in a new exhibition co-curated by Westwick and Matthew Hersch, a postdoctoral fellow in history at USC. “Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California” opens Oct. 8 in the West Hall of the Library and continues through Jan. 9, 2012.

The exhibition traces the history of local aviation from the early days of barnstorming pilots through the Cold War space race and beyond. In the process, it documents the extraordinary metamorphosis of Southern California itself, transformed from a land of orange groves into a high-tech region.

The aerospace century took flight in 1910, when the first international air meet held in the United States convened in Los Angeles. (Henry Huntington himself was one of the event’s boosters.) Hundreds of thousands of people showed up to watch miraculous new flying contraptions take to the air. The Los Angeles Timesdeclared it “one of the greatest public events in the history of the West.”

Much of the story of aviation is about the changing technology of flight, and “Blue Sky Metropolis” will trace how engineers and their employers moved from frame-and-fabric planes to jet aircraft to lunar landers. Heroic individualism extended to entrepreneurialism as businesses sprang up, employing a growing workforce of engineers and mechanics to make planes safer, faster, and more cost effective.

One of the region’s strongest selling points for aerospace was its environment: the clear blue skies and ample open spaces that were ideal for testing new aircraft. California also was home to a variety of other related industries, particularly petroleum, as well as to top-notch research universities and a large labor pool. Meanwhile, the creative and dynamic aeronautical community gave rise to innovations in other areas, such as surfboard design, hot-rodding, private aviation, and architecture.

Drawings and photographs on view in the exhibition show how the skeletons of planes and wings changed over time, from Lockheed’s Vega made of wood circa 1929 to its U-2 spy plane in the 1950s to its titanium SR-71 Blackbird in the 1960s. Among the works on display will be a number of materials from the collection of Ben Rich, who as director of the Lockheed Skunk Works oversaw the development of the F-117 Stealth fighter.

In addition to archival documents and images, the exhibition will feature a number of aerospace artifacts, including a rocket engine, early satellite prototypes, and a replica of an engineer’s desk with drawing implements, slide rules, notebooks, blue-prints, and other tools of the trade.

Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California” is a part of the Aerospace History Project, an initiative of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. The exhibition is made possible by the Robert F. Erburu Exhibition Endowment with additional support from Margaret and Will Hearst and Mr. and Mrs. Burton Basney, in loving memory of Harvey and Vera Christen.