While catching up with Han, Luke and Leia, consider L.A.’s aviation history and where that legacy of innovation should be taking us today

By William Hicks

The first flight — 112 years ago this week — spanned 120 feet in 12 seconds Library of Congress Photo

The first flight — 112 years ago this week — spanned 120 feet in 12 seconds
Library of Congress Photo

A long time ago in a city far, far away, the Wright Brothers invented aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible.

On Dec. 17, 1903, just outside Kitty Hawk, N.C., Orville Wright flew 120 feet in 12 seconds — a short distance over
the ground but a long stretch down the road of innovation.

In 1910, Los Angeles hosted the first aviation show in the country, which the Los Angeles Times called “one of the greatest public events in the history of
the West.”

L.A. was perfect for the hatchling aircraft industry because of its ideal flying conditions, and by the 1920s an early airport — Mines Field — appeared among the agricultural fields of the Westchester area.

Charles Lindbergh’s famous transatlantic flight in 1927 persuaded L.A. City Hall of the necessity for a permanent municipal airport, and in 1937 city leaders bought Mines Field and a few years later renamed it LAX.

The aviation industry seeded itself in what were then the mostly uninhabited beach cities, where land — much of it used to grow strawberries, beans and other crops — was cheap. Remember, not that long ago Playa Vista was still a dirt field from its days as headquarters of the Hughes Aircraft Company.

The aviation and aerospace industry blossomed as a result of the demand for planes and bombers during World War II, producing tens of thousands of military aircraft and related manufacturing jobs.

The massive defense spending that caused the boom helped lift L.A. and the nation out of the grips of the Great Depression, but it also put our local aviation industry down the path of war.

Manufacturing dropped off despite the Cold War with the Soviet Union, but the 1957 launch of Sputnik, the world’s first low-Earth orbit satellite, sparked a national effort to catch up.

We leapt back onto the road of innovation when in 1958 President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with a distinctly civilian orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science.

But the road of war was again well traveled as we put money into ballistic missiles in the late 1950s in order to keep up with Moscow on that front, too.

President John F. Kennedy announced in 1961 that the U.S. would send a man to the moon and back again before the end of the decade, albeit the motivating factor was to “reach the stars” before the Soviets.

The following year, the U.S. Air Force procured an aircraft factory in El Segundo and contracted South Bay companies to produce missiles and satellites — which eventually propelled the U.S. ahead of the “Evil Empire,” as President Ronald Reagan called it, along both the roads of war and space-related innovation.

NASA claimed in 2012 that it was responsible for nearly 1,800 spin-off technologies in the fields of computer technology, environment and agriculture, health and medicine, public safety, transportation, recreation and industrial productivity.

These technologies include firefighting equipment, artificial limbs, aircraft anti-icing systems, freeze drying, water purification, GPS systems, weather forecasting, wireless communications, robotics, athletic shoes, foam and fiberglass surfboards, solar cells and the electric car.

The innovation road leads to firms like SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, which just won a $440-million contract to develop a successor to the space shuttle, while the war road leads to drone technology, the latest way of waging war, also designed in the South Bay.

Which brings me to an important point: Both innovation and war inspired the epic movie franchise “Star Wars,” and beginning tomorrow millions of people will flock to see “The Force Awakens” to have their imaginations transported to a galaxy far, far away.

This being entertained, I believe that it is important to ask ourselves: Is the universe a friendly place? Because according to Albert Einstein, this question is the most important one facing humanity.

The answer to Einstein’s question will determine how we allocate the $565-billion defense budget for 2016, which comprises 55% of our national budget.

Road 1: A “friendly” answer leads to love for life, exploration, peace and innovation.

Road 2: An “unfriendly” answer leads to terror, speculation, war and destruction.

May the Force be with us.

William Hicks, whose father worked at LAX, lives in Marina del Rey. He can be reached at williamraymondhicks@gmail.com.