Soaring Skyward

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Soaring Skyward: a History of Aviation in and around Long Beach, California

Published 2011Cover - Soaring Skyward

ABOUT THE BOOK: Flying was a perilous adventure with death only a small breath away.  Many lost their lives in pursuit of their dream and have remained relatively forgotten, until now.    Soaring Skyward is the result of twenty years of extensive research.  It is sure to open up new sources of information for aviation and history enthusiasts, and most definitely shed additional light on the past.


  • Aviation fever” which struck young and old alike, especially after the four Dominguez Air Meets held in Southern California between 1910-1913.  It inspired many such as the Birnie and French brothers, Charles Day, and Glenn Martin to build their own air ships.  For others like Frank Champion, Long Beach’s first airman, it meant learning from the best…traveling to London, England, to study with Louis Bleriot, and going on to teach others, such as Long Beach Airport founder Earl Daugherty, to fly.

  • Daring women–Tiny and Ethel Broadwick, who parachuted out of airplanes when many men refused to do so because they considered it “too dangerous;” Gladys O’Donnell instrumental in founding the Women’s Air Derby; World War II ferrying pilots, led by Barbara Erickson London, whose service to America was not recognized until 1977; Dianna Bixby and Joan Merriam Smith trying to complete Amelia Earhart’s dream of circumnavigating to globe.

  •  Courageous men, discriminated against because of their raceHenry Ohye imprisoned during WWII because of his Japanese ancestry who overcame the bigotry he experienced by starting his own air race and opening it to all; Tuskegee Airmen, such as Aaron Herrington, who proved that a person’s skin color had no part in how well a man could fly or defend his country; “Monty” Montejo, one of America’s first Hispanic aviators, who taught Amelia Earhart to fly.

  • Long Beach Municipal Airport, the center of much of Southern California’s aviation history.  The early days of ballooning, air circuses, parachutes jumps, barnstorming, air meets, forgotten military sites and much more are explored in this well documented look into the past, and future, of aviation in Southern California.

Soaring Skyward was used in the PBS Documentary Sky Blue Sea, nominated for an Emmy Award in 2016.

For more check out this  video on the Sky Blue Sea.

DON’T MISS Claudine Burnett’s interview on early Long Beach aviation.  ALSO HER C-Span interview.



Long Beach Aviation Begins on the Pike

Harry Wright & Eugene Savage

Tiny & Ethel Broadwick

Ethel Dare, Queen of the Air


First United States Air Show: January 10, 1910-January 20, 1910

Second Meet: December 24, 1910-January 3, 1911

Third Meet: January 20, 1912-January 28, 1912

Final Air Meet: January 29, 1913-February 5, 1913


The Birnie Brothers

Charles Day

Harry and Joseph French

Frank Champion

Cal Rodgers

Horace Kearney

Spreading the Fever, Teaching Others to Fly


Beginnings of a Municipal Airport

Accidents Result in Rules

Earl Daugherty


Charles Lindbergh

Mildred Doran, Auggie Pedlar & the Dole Hawaiian Air Race

Frank Hawks

Wesley May

Lloyd O’Donnell

Gladys O’Donnell & the Women’s Air Derby

Vern Speich

Milo Burcham

John G. “Monty” Montijo

“Wrong Way” Corrigan

Clyde Schlieper, Tommy Smith, Harley Long & Wes Carroll, Sr.

The Spruce Goose and Howard Hughes

Dianna Bixby

Joan Merriam Smith

Henry Ohye


The Depression

Douglas Aircraft Comes to Long Beach

Women Rally for War


Navy Air Fields – Allen/Reeves Field, Terminal Island

6th Ferrying Squadron


Tuskegee Airmen

Prisoners of the Red Chinese

452nd Bomb Wing

Military Mishaps

Nike Sites


Becoming One of the Nation’s Busiest Airports

Residences or Airport?


Click Here to Download Index


           The success of the first United States air meet at Dominguez in 1910 inspired many.  Aviation fever was rampant, hitting young and old alike.  There were various strains of the fever; one struck those who wanted to design, build and fly their own innovative flying machines; another hit those who just wanted to take to the air.

             In May 1910 aviation fever hit a young Pasadena aircraft designer by the name of Bernard Birnie.  Surrounded by well meaning friends and curious onlookers, the twenty-three year-old, who had built and operated a glider when he was only eight years old, decided to escape to Long Beach to build his aircraft in peace.  The 90-pound  biplane, 30 feet wide, and  45 feet long, made with pressed steel ribs (which were his own idea), and  cloth woven in Philadelphia on his father’s looms, was built at a cost of $3,000.  The Daily Telegram of May 10, 1910, noted this was “the first big airship built in or near Long Beach.”

            Soon the first Long Beach built aircraft, equipped with a 50-horse-power five-cylinder Macomber rotary engine, left the ground, briefly.   On May 30, 1910, the biplane rose smoothly from a Long Beach field, zipping along about five feet off the ground.  After gliding about thirty feet it struck a post, breaking the framework. Bernard was not one to give up.  He entered his steel framed aircraft in the second Dominguez air competition in December 1910, but was unable to secure a motor powerful enough to get it to fly.

            The Birnie family — Ida and John, their sons Bernard, Charles and Edwin — moved to Long Beach permanently in 1915.  In a 1921 questionnaire Bernard filled out for a book entitled Long Beach in the World War, Bernard said he spent so much time in Long Beach he felt he had lived there since 1905. He listed his occupation as aviator and aeronautical engineer.  He described his experiences in detail:

            “In civilian life I have been in the aviation game as flyer builder and  designer since 1909 being Long Beach’s pioneer in the aviation game, making my first flight at Long Beach Flats (Anaheim and  Pier streets) on May 30, 1910, afterward moving to Dominguez  where I practically flew, built, experimented and  designed different types of aeroplanes until 1914. From 1914 to 1917 the game was kind of slow, so I had to take up automobile work and transportation, but since war time activity has advanced aviation will probably stay in the game. When the U.S. declared war on Germany I tried to enlist in any of the branches of aviation but was refused, which hurt my pride considerably. I tried several times afterwards, but without success, until I landed at Camp Kearney and then had to fight to get action in getting overseas. I asked General Young of 65 Brigade Headquarters  for a transfer to aviation where I rightfully belonged, having been in the aviation game since 1909, but without results until after I got to France, where I took the matter of transfer up directly with General Harbinger at Tours, France, and  was transferred at once to the Main Instruction center and  later transferred to 31 Aero Squadron. Colonel Hiram Bingham commander of the port, and Major Victor W. Page, engineer of port, both promised me a commission but nothing became of it. So much for the luck of war; a man was placed where he least fitted.  Two days before starting home from France I had an accident. I accidentally got caught in rope on an airplane hanger and  was thrown to the ground  on my left side which resulted in a gash on the head, sprained shoulder, bad sprain and  dislocation of spine, also partial fracture and  sprain on my knee all on the left side, which has left me partially paralyzed at times on account of nerve damage on spine. I am still in hospital here in Palo Alto but am gradually getting better.”

In 1916, before the United States entered the war, Bernard and three other Long Beach residents opened an airplane manufacturing plant in nearby Wilmington. With $10,000 in capital Bernard Birnie, Dr. Samuel L. Good, Burdett D. Fuller and Elzie H. Duffy formed the Western Aviation Company of Long Beach. They planned to manufacture airplanes, operate a passenger-carrying service and conduct an aviation school.  When Bernard’s brother Edwin wasn’t working at his full time job with Otis Elevator, he put in as many hours as he could helping with the manufacturing end of Western Aviation.  Even though Edwin had the same aviation fever as his brother, starting a new business was chancy and Edwin couldn’t afford to give up a steady income.

Edwin was the first of the Birnie brothers to sign up for active duty in World War I. He tried to enter the aviation branch of the Army but was turned down because of a weak heart. Instead he served as a private in the Army infantry, 91st division, 362nd regiment, company K in the Argonne drive in France, where he was exposed to mustard gas, resulting in severe lung damage that required a long and painful recovery. Ironically Edwin recovered, only to die in a disastrous airplane crash a short time later.

Edwin couldn’t pilot a plane himself, because of his bad heart and injuries suffered during the war, but he did convince 24-year-old Donald Gwartney, also of Long Beach, to take him along in a rebuilt Western Aviation aircraft for a test flight.  On September 21, 1919, pilot Donald Gwartney and passenger Edwin Birnie, climbed into the aircraft, which recently had been in a smashup and rebuilt for passenger service, and ascended to an altitude of 500 feet. Gwartney made several turns over the airfield, and was making a sharp turn when his plane slipped downwards.  At a height of about 150 feet above ground the aircraft, which had gone into a tail spin, crashed head down into a Wilmington field.  Both men died instantly. It was believed the aircraft had fallen into an air pocket which caused Gwartney to lose control of the plane.

Gwartney, who had started at Western Aviation only a few days earlier, left behind a widow, and one-year-old son.  Edwin’s death devastated Western Aviation as well as his family. The 29-year-old veteran, Edwin Birnie, is buried at Long Beach Sunnyside cemetery.

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