A Tale of Two Airports, or How Aviation Makes a Difference, Part II

This is the second installment of a series introduced in recent HN newsletter articles (June 2014 and August 2014) describing the very different attitudes toward local airports that exist in Bloomington, IL, and Santa Monica, CA.

Last time (02 September) we described how in Bloomington, residents and civic leaders alike see the airport and its operations as key assets to their community acting as an engine to help drive economic development in the region.

Such is not the case in Santa Monica, as we’ll soon see after a brief recap of the history of SMO.

The history of Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO), one of the country’s most venerable – if contentious – suburban GA airports, dates back to the early days of aviation during World War I when the site was used as an informal landing strip.

In 1922, Donald Douglas formed the Douglas Aircraft Company and began testing and producing military aircraft at what would become Santa Monica Airport.  On April 15, 1923, The Army Air Corps dedicated the site as Clover Field, in honor of World War I pilot Lt. Greayer “Grubby” Clover, who grew up nearby and was killed in action.

Both Clover Field and Douglas Aircraft became famous when Douglas World Cruiser biplanes, departing from and arriving back at Clover Field, circumnavigated the globe – the first aircraft to do so – in the spring and summer of 1924.

Between 1926 and 1929, the City of Santa Monica, by popular vote, acquired the existing airport property as well as additional land, and changed the name of Clover Field to Santa Monica Airport (SMO). Douglas Aircraft enlarged its operations and began to ramp up testing and production of the DC-3 and DC-4, its earliest airliners.

During World War II, several developments occur that help in understanding how the current brouhaha came about:

1941 – Douglas Aircraft becomes a major defense contractor, employing as many as 44,000 people and transforming the City as thousands of new homes are built for the workers. At the same time, the Federal Government leases the airport from the City to provide protection for Douglas Aircraft, and expands the airport to 227 acres with a new runway and two parallel taxiways.

 1944 – The City enters into the first of its 20-year grant agreements with the Federal Government. The agreements require the City to maintain the airport and operate it in compliance with Federal regulations in return for improvements paid for by the Federal government.

 1948 – The Federal Government relinquishes its lease, the Instrument of Transfer is executed, and the City resumes operation of the airport.

As is the case with more than 200 airports nationwide – such as O’Hare, Los Angeles International, and San Francisco International along with others large and small – the Instrument of Transfer requires the City to operate the property as an Airport in perpetuity.

That last point – the requirement to operate the site as an Airport in perpetuity – is one of the original points of contention around which the argument now revolves in Santa Monica.

And if that agreement to keep the airport open were to collapse, so too could agreements at the other 200+ airports with similar agreements.

In the next installment we’ll look at events in more recent times that have polarized opinions, both pro and con, at SMO.

Mike Straka, PhD
HN Staff Writer & Technical Support
Vice Chairman, Colorado Aviation Business Association