LAX Runway Upgrades Uncover History

Sunday, October 15, 2006
Jet Age Takes Off
Workers upgrading a runway at LAX uncover a layer of airstrip that planners say was linked to a turning point in aviation history
By Doug Irving
The Torrance (CA) Daily Breeze

The concrete slab didn’t look like much more than a nuisance when work crews dug it up recently at Los Angeles International Airport. But the white stripe painted down its middle marked it as a small but forgotten piece of LAX history. There, lying in the earth where nobody expected it, was a stretch of the runway that welcomed the first commercial jetliner to Los Angeles. The old runway came to light last month when workers peeled away the much more modern runway that had hidden it for decades. In fact, the demolition crews pulled up three different runways, placed on top of one another and spanning the years like layers of old wallpaper.

But it was the middle one, the one that airport planners think was built in 1958, that recalls one of the most important turning points in aviation history. It dates to the very moment when heavy propellers were giving way to sleek jet engines — and making the world that much smaller in the process.

“It was a huge moment, the advent of the jet age,” said Ethel Pattison, an LAX historian who has worked at the airport since 1956. “It just changed the world, really.”

The old runway didn’t appear on any of the plans that demolition crews consulted before they began tearing up the southern-most runway at LAX this summer. The work is part of a massive redesign of the airfield to make it safer for airplanes on the ground.

The workers smashed through the existing runway and, to everyone’s surprise, found more concrete underneath. Soon, they had excavated a ribbon of old runway 1,300 feet long and 100 feet wide, itself built atop the asphalt remnants of an even older runway.

Airport officials dug through old plans, and this time found references to a runway improvement project dated 1958. They now believe the runway they unearthed was built that year and served as one of the airport’s main landing strips until it was covered over in the early 1980s.

That would place it among the wave of construction projects that transformed a small airstrip with two terminals and a restaurant into the “jet-age airport” known as LAX. Some of the airport’s existing terminals and its spacey Theme Building also date from that high-flying era when the idea of jet travel was something new and exciting.

That date would also make the runway the right age to have played a role in the first commercial jet flight from Los Angeles. On Jan. 25, 1959, a Boeing 707 accelerated down that runway and lifted off, sooty exhaust billowing from its engines and crowds watching from the airport fence.

Everything changed, right there. Business travelers who had grown used to sacrificing an entire day to the pounding misery of a cross-country propeller flight found they could now reach New York by noon. Vacationers were suddenly only a few hours away from the white sands of Hawaiian beaches.

The 112 passengers on board that inaugural flight from LAX to New York found booklets on their seats describing what they could expect. “The flight is smooth beyond anything you have ever experienced,” the booklets promised. “Vibration, the major cause of travel fatigue, is gone.”

Sam Stewart, the editor of the Daily Breeze, was on that flight and exalted in the experience in two front-page columns.

“It was sort of like having a pass to ride with Noah on the Ark,” he wrote, “or with Columbus on the Nina, the Pinta or the Santa Maria. It was a first.”

Jet travel quickly became a boon to Los Angeles, a land of sun and surf that was now only a few hours of flight from the icy winters of the East Coast.

The Jet Age Airport grew. Soon, tens of millions of travelers were passing through its terminals every year. And that old, jet-age runway wore out and was replaced, then forgotten.

Its discovery last month slowed down the demolition of the existing runway above it. Managers are now working to make up about 23 days of delays to the airfield project.

As an artifact, the piece of runway wasn’t much, just a strip of concrete with an old center line still visible. The workers broke it up and carted it away. “We were just anxious to get rid of it,” program manager Jake Adams said.

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