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Long Beach Aviation History

History of California's Oldest Municipal Airport

LGB’s early origins took flight with fabric-covered biplanes taking off and landing on the beach in the early 1900s, serving as the inspiration for greats such as Amelia Earhart to catch the flying bug. Today, the city-owned and operated airport serves as the coolest transportation gateway to Southern California—well situated halfway between the major business and tourism areas of both Orange and Los Angeles counties. 

Earl Daugherty Landing on Sandy Beach in Long Beach

Pioneers of Flight 

Biplane on beach in Long BeachWith the sand offering a soft landing for air balloons as early as 1905, the city's seven miles of beach initially served as Long Beach's "airport." From about 1910 to 1919, fabric-covered biplanes performed landings and takeoffs at low tides amidst the ocean spray. 
In what’s known as the Golden Age of Aviation, from about 1918 to 1938, airplanes developed from flimsy wooden flying machines to metal weapons of war and real modes of transportation. This was fortunate for Long Beach, which was an ideal seaside location for early aviation due to its climate, daring aviation pioneers, and robust economy driven by tourism, the port, oil drilling, the motion picture industry, military presence, and automobile and aircraft manufacturing. 
Many famous early bird aviators made their mark in Long Beach. Calbraith “Cal” Rodgers completed the first U.S. transcontinental flight — sponsored by a grape soft drink called “Vin Fiz” — in a Wright Model EX-1 pusher plane from Sheepshead Bay in New York to Long Beach on Dec. 10, 1911. Charles A. Lindbergh brought his famous Spirit of St. Louis plane to Long Beach the same year as his historic trans-Atlantic flight, among other visits to Long Beach — including an emergency night landing in 1928, for which he praised the city for having paved runways and the country’s first illuminated field. 
Long Beach Airport is also known as Daugherty Field. That’s because in 1919, former army Air Corps flight instructor, plane builder and the “greatest stunt pilot” of his time, Earl Daugherty opened a 20-acre flight training field and school at Bixby Road and Long Beach Boulevard. As interest in aviation grew, Daugherty and the City of Long Beach began talks about developing a 60-acre municipal flying field on land situated west of Long Beach Boulevard and south of Willow Street. It was here, when the field was dedicated on December 25-27, 1920, that famed future aviator Amelia Earhart caught the flying bug and decided to become a pilot. 
Earhart attended Daugherty’s air circus and then took her first airplane ride with Long Beach Poly High School alum Frank Hawks, who performed the first mid-air refueling with Daughtery. And, she wasn’t the only woman inspired to fly in Long Beach: Gladys (Livingston Berry) O’Donnell holds the distinction of being the first licensed female pilot in Long Beach, and she actually defeated Earhart in the 1929 eight-day transcontinental Women’s Air Derby from Santa Monica to Cleveland. 

LGB Booms with Oil Industry 

Oil was discovered on nearby Signal Hill in 1921 and the area surrounding the municipal airport experienced tremendous growth. In 1923, the Long Beach City Council purchased 150 acres near the intersection of Spring and Cherry Streets and ground was broken on Nov. 26, 1923, on the airport as we know it today. Long Beach Airport was officially dedicated on Dec. 20, 1924. 

By January 1925, private plane owners were leasing space at the new municipal airport. Significant development continued when hangars and administrative facilities were built for the Army and Navy between 1928-30.  

In 1938, with the help of funds from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), new runways were constructed and funds authorized for a new administrative building and control tower. An additional 255 acres was purchased in 1939 for a $150,000 administrative building. This new structure brought the total acreage of Daugherty Field, as the municipal airport had been christened, to 500 acres.  

The rapid growth of the aviation history played a major role in the early development of the City of Long Beach, and it was the airport — along with an abundant amount of vacant adjacent land — which first attracted the attention of Donald Wills Douglas, who opened Douglas Aircraft in 1941, the same year that Long Beach was No. 1 in the country for total aircraft operations.   

Historic Terminal

The Historic Terminal was scheduled for a grand opening on December 8, 1941, but the ceremony was delayed because of the attack on Pearl Harbor the previous day—instead, it was repainted in camouflage and used as a billet for soldiers and military guns. The formal opening was pushed to April 1942 to celebrate the Streamline Moderne structure designed by architects William Horace Austin and Kenneth Smith Wing. On the ground floor, there was a waiting room, ticket office, express baggage room, post office and general office. The second and third floors were used for airline and airport administrative offices, with a weather bureau and a teletype office.

Now a recognized Historic Landmark, it was an avant-garde work of architecture for its time. Among its finishing touches, a mosaic masterwork by artist Grace Clements incorporates more than a million hand cut tiles that have been carefully preserved.

Old photo of backside of Historic Terminal

Women & World War II

Women working on Aircraft during WWII

At the same time, millions of men were called to military duty, and women needed to perform the essential work necessary to keep the war effort going stateside. The women who responded to the call were embodied in the figure "Rosie the Riveter," whose recruitment posters proclaimed: "We Can Do It."

Long Beach played a key role in the war, both as the home of naval shipyards and Long Beach Airport. Thousands of women took jobs at the Douglas Aircraft Plant which worked round-the-clock to produce military aircraft. In 2007, Long Beach dedicated a park near the former Douglas Aircraft plant as Rosie the Riveter Park to honor the ladies’ contributions.

The airport played another critical function in World War II as the home of the Army Air Corps 6th Ferrying Group Air Transport Command, utilizing civilian women pilots known as the Women’s Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS) and Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). They were at the center of ferrying all military aircraft produced in Southern California.

Barbara Jane (Erickson) London, squadron commander for the 6th, was the only woman to receive the Air Medal for her distinguished service, having ferried a P-47, P-51 and C-47 over 2,000 miles in just five days. In 1948, she was commissioned a major in the Air Force Reserve. Long Beach Airport’s campus includes Barbara London Drive, a roadway named in her honor.

Also around this time, the Hughes H-4 Hercules, a prototype wooden flying boat more commonly known simply as the Spruce Goose, was designed and built by the Hughest Aircraft Company for use during WWII. It was not completed, however, until 1947, when it made one brief flight off Long Beach’s coast before being put on public display. It was kept in Long Beach from 1980 to 1992 but is now on display at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in Oregon.

Was Pilots

Civil Air Patrol cadets are pictured during a tour of the Sixth Ferrying Group, Squadron 911-4, at Long Beach Army Airfield.

Post-War Manufacturing & Modernizations

Photo of DC-10Well past the war years, both military and commercial airplane manufacturing kept going strong, with the merger of Douglas with McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in 1967 and the company’s first DC-10 taking flight in 1970. In 1991, LGB celebrated the first flight of a Long Beach-built C-17 Globemaster III. Boeing later merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1997, carrying on production of the C-17 until 2015.

LGB’s growth, as well as a growing city population, necessitated the revolutionary adoption of one of the first noise ordinances in the country in 1981. And, soon after, as smaller capacity aircraft were phased out in favor of large jets, Long Beach added a new concourse and pre-boarding lounge immediately south of the terminal building in 1984.

The historic terminal was named a historical landmark by the City of Long Beach in 1990.

Present Day 

outdoor garden area of Long Beach AirportFrom its start as a pioneer in aviation to today, Long Beach Airport never stops innovating.  

Our Phase I – Terminal Area Improvement Program, which included $100 million in various priority projects, culminated with the completion of our award-winning indoor-outdoor passenger concourse in 2012. The comfortable space for passengers features modern design elements, local eateries anda post-security garden.  In 2020, Long Beach Airport (LGB) began the $110 million Phase II — Terminal Area Improvement Program to make strategic pre-security enhancements. As part of that effort, two major components were completed in the Spring of 2022, including the new Ticketing Lobby and Checked Baggage Inspection System.  

Long Beach Airport and its tenants also are committed to operating in an environmentally responsible manner, minimizing the impact of our business on the environment and surrounding community with methods that are socially responsible, scientifically based and economically sound. In 2021, Airports Council International, the leading industry group for airports, certified Long Beach Airport with a Level 2 rating in the Airport Carbon Accreditation (ACA) Program.  

Owned and operated by the City of Long Beach, LGB covers 1,166 acres and has three runways, the longest being 10,000 feet, used by major passenger airlines and cargo services. It is a hub of corporate activity with more than 200 businesses located on airport property, including nearly 100 acres of mid-rise business park and hotel uses, several top-rate fixed base operators, and specialty aviation service companies. It’s also one of the world's busiest airports in terms of general aviation activity.  

A beloved community asset and economic driver, LGB is proud to celebrate its 100th anniversary on Nov. 26, 2023, recognizing its storied role in the aviation history of yesteryear and today. Stay tuned for details about special 100th anniversary events, including a special 100th anniversary edition of Festival of Flight, which is a public event that attracts more than 10,000 attendees annually. 

Historical Timeline at a Glance 

1911 – Cal Rogers’ first transcontinental “Vin Fiz” flight lands on the beach 
1919 – Earl Daugherty opens Daugherty School of Aviation 
1923 – Ground breaks on Daugherty Field 
1925 – Two-day airmail service starts between Long Beach and New York 
1928 – Field lit for night use, becoming first illuminated airport in the country 
1936 – Civil Aeronautics Authority activates control tower 
1938 – American, United, TWA and Western airlines announce service 
1941 – Historic Terminal dedicated (official opening in 1942) 
1941 – Douglas Aircraft opens factory  
1941 – No. 1 airport in country for total aircraft operations 
1942 – WASP Barbara London becomes only woman awarded Air Medal for WWII 
1957 – Douglas Aircraft starts commercial DC-8 assembly line 
1970 – McDonnell Douglas Corporation’s first DC-10 takes off 
1981 – Noise Ordinance adopted as one of the first in the country 
1990 – Historic Terminal building designated as Cultural Heritage Landmark 
1991 – First flight of the Long Beach-built C-17 Globemaster III 
2012 – New concourse building opens 
2015 – Last C-17 Globemaster III manufactured 
2022 – New Ticketing Lobby opens 
Historic Terminal
The Long Beach Airport Terminal (1941) is a historic masterpiece of the early modern style, bridging the transition from the Streamline Moderne style of the 'thirties to the geometric abstraction of the post-war International Style. Now a recognized landmark, it was an avant-garde work of architecture for its time when it first opened in 1942. The architects, William Horace Austin and Kenneth Smith Wing, were important Long Beach architects, each with a significant body of work in the City and the region.
Map 2 - Floor Mosaic
Among the finishing touches on the historic terminal was a mosaic masterwork by artist Grace Clements, who incorporated 1.6 million hand cut tiles into the WPA Federal Art Project. Winning a Preservation Award from the Art Deco Society, the tiles are well cared for and can still be enjoyed today, with more in the process of being uncovered and restored. The artwork showcases representational, stylized forms reflective of post-war modern artistic trends. Symbolic elements were selected to enrich the experience of the traveler and evoke a larger context for air travel, with allusions to other forms of transportation and communication in the world.
Earl Daugherty
Earl S. Daugherty
An early bird of aviation, Earl S. Daugherty’s flight training school helped grow local interest in flight and establish the airport. He opened Chateau Thierry Flying Field in 1919, and Long Beach Airport was officially established in 1923. Long Beach Airport’s Daugherty Field was named in his honor. Among his many accomplishments, he also was one of the earliest aerial photographers and filmmakers.
Douglas Bldg. and Assembly Line 6
Douglas Aircraft
Douglas Aircraft—at its World War II peak—employed more than 160,000 workers nationwide. In Long Beach in 1943, that meant jobs for 41,602 people, including 22,308 women, creating an economic boon that helped spur the development of much of the city as we know it today. 
Barbara London Jet
Barbara Erickson London

Barbara Erickson London, a ferry pilot with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), was the only woman awarded an Air Medal in WWII for her heroism. She was the commanding officer for Long Beach’s 6th Ferrying Group at Daugherty Field, and she flew 8,000 miles in one 10-day period. 

Barbara London Drive on the campus of Long Beach Airport was named in her honor in 2006.   

Learn more about the local legend here: Barbara London - World War II Hero. 

Video clips of Barbara London interview: 

Aviatior & Navigator 817 KB .mwv file 
WAFS Military Affiliation 1.54 MB .mwv file 
Distinguished Veteran 500 KB .mwv file 

C-17 Maiden Flight
Boeing C-17
The largest aircraft manufactured in Long Beach was Boeing’s C-17, one of the most sophisticated cargo planes ever made. Although production ceased in 2015, Boeing retains a presence in Long Beach today.
Cal Rodgers landing at LGB after transcon flight 12-10-1911
Cal Rodgers and the Vin Fiz

Long Beach celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first transcontinental flight in 2011. To commemorate this history making flight, Long Beach hosted events across the city. Please click on the links below to explore more about the pilot behind the story and the adventure of a lifetime.