Aerospace History Project

Peter Westwick, Director

Southern California as we know it would not exist without aerospace.  Over the twentieth century millions of people flooded Southern California for aerospace jobs, transforming the region from a collection of sleepy agricultural groves to a sprawling high-tech nexus on the Pacific Rim.  Southern Californians learned to live with sonic booms, security clearances, test-rocket firings that flashed and echoed in the foothills, and an economy tied to the vagaries of defense spending.  In doing so, they helped provide one of the defining symbols of modern technological culture in the twentieth century.

Southern California aerospace helped the U.S. win World War II and the Cold War, from propeller-driven airplanes to strategic missiles, spy satellites, and stealth aircraft.  Its commercial aircraft and communications satellites have connected continents and impelled globalization. And the Southern California’s central contributions to the civil space program, including the moon landing and the exploration of the solar system, challenged the human imagination.

Aerospace is central to American and world history in the 20th and 21st centuries. The Aerospace History Project is documenting this history in a collaboration between USC and the Huntington Library, under the Institute on California and the West.  The project is collecting the papers and oral histories of key individuals and institutions across the aerospace industry, creating a permanent, central resource.

Twelve archival collections have already been acquired, including the papers of Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, founder of Lockheed’s Skunk Works; Ben Rich, Johnson’s successor as Skunk Works director; Willis Hawkins, first president of Lockheed Missiles and Space; Albert Hibbs, an architect of the early space program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a polymathic science popularizer; Jack Real, longtime designer and close confidant of Howard Hughes; and a substantial collection of historical files from the Northrop Grumman Corporation.  The Hawkins and Christen collections include several thousand photos spanning six decades of American aviation.

In addition, over fifty oral history interviews have been completed.  Subjects include CEOs, design engineers, test pilots, and production engineers across the industry spectrum, from large aircraft firms to small but crucial suppliers.  These interviews, once transcribed and edited, will be deposited at the Huntington. 

In fall 2010, some 25,000 people visited the exhibition, "Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California," at the Huntington.  A collection of essays was published in Peter Westwick, ed., Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California (Huntington Library Press/University of California Press, 2012), in the New Western Histories series edited by ICW director William Deverell.  The Los Angeles Public Library named Blue Sky Metropolis to its list of Best Nonfiction of 2012. 

  • Amelia Earhart on factory floor, Lockheed Aircraft Co., Burbank, ca. 1930. Harvey Christen collection, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

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    Tail section of Constitution aircraft under construction, Lockheed Aircraft Co., Burbank, 1946. Harvey Christen collection, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

  • Woman working with wiring bundles, Lockheed Aircraft Co., Burbank, 1956. Harvey Christen collection, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

  • PV-1, row of engines, Lockheed Aircraft Co., Burbank, ca. 1940s. Harvey Christen collection, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

  • Employee shift change, Lockheed Aircraft Co., Burbank, ca. 1940s. Harvey Christen collection, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

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    French aviator Louis Paulhan makes record-breaking flight to 4,600 feet in 1910. The balloon in the background advertised the Los Angeles Examiner, which helped sponsor the 1910 LA Air Meet. (photCL Pierce 6298, C.C. Pierce Collection of Photographs, The Huntington Library)

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    Philip Parmalee, one of the Wrights’ team of pilots, ascends over Dominguez Field early in 1912. He died in a plane crash later that year. (photCL Pierce 6264, C.C. Pierce Collection of Photographs, The Huntington Library)


  • Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West
  • Department of History
  • University of Southern California
  • Los Angeles, California 90089-0034