The Lost Airfields of Greater Los Angeles

[Image: An airplane flies above Los Angeles, a landscape of now-forgotten airports].

Buried beneath the streets of Los Angeles are lost airfields, airports whose runways have long since disappeared, sealed beneath roads and residential housing blocks, landscaped into non-existence and forgotten. Under the building you’re now sitting in, somewhere in greater L.A., airplanes might once have taken flight.

[Image: The now-lost runways of L.A.’s Cecil B. De Mille Airfield; photo courtesy of UCLA’s Re-Mapping Hollywood archive].

The Cecil B. De Mille Airfield, for instance, described by the Re-Mapping Hollywood archive at UCLA as having once stood “on the northwest corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Crescent Avenue (now Fairfax),” would, today, be opposite The Grove; on the southwest corner of the same intersection was Charlie Chaplin Airfield. As their names would indicate, these private (and, by modern standards, extremely small) airports were used by movie studios both for transportation and filming sky scenes. They were aerial back-lots.

Other examples include Burdett Airport, located at the intersection of 94th Street and Western Avenue in what is now Inglewood; the fascinating history of Hughes Airport in Culver City; the evocatively named, and now erased, Puente Hills “Skyranch“; and at least a dozen others, all documented by Paul Freeman’s aero-archaeology site, Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields (four pages alone are dedicated to lost L.A. airfields).

[Image: Charlie Chaplin Airfield in 1920s Los Angeles; photo courtesy of UCLA’s Re-Mapping Hollywood archive].

In a way, though, these airports are like the Nazca Lines of Los Angeles – or perhaps they are even more like Ley lines beneath the city. Laminated beneath 20th century city growth, their forgotten geometries once diagrammed an anthropological experience of the sky, spatial evidence of human contact with the middle atmosphere. Perhaps we should build aerial cathedralry there, to mark these places where human beings once ascended. A winged Calvary.

The cast of minor characters who once crossed paths with those airfields is, itself, fascinating. A minor history of L.A. aviators would include men like Moye W. Stephens. Stephens’s charismatic globe-trotting adventures, flying over Mt. Everest in the early 1930s, visiting Timbuktu by air, and buzzing above the Taj Mahal, would not be out of place in a novel by Roberto Bolaño or an unpublished memoir by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. And that’s before we really discuss Howard Hughes.

[Image: The Cecil B. De Mille Airfield, renamed Rogers Airport (or, possibly, Rogers Airport, which later became the Cecil B. De Mille Airfield); image via Paul Freeman’s Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields].

Of course, many of these aeroglyphs are now gone, but perhaps their remnants are still detectable – in obscure property law documents at City Hall, otherwise inexplicable detours taken by underground utility cables, or even in jurisdictional disputes at the L.A. fire department.

And they could even yet be excavated.

A new archaeology of airfields could be inaugurated at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, where a group of students from UCLA will brush aside modern concrete and gravel to find fading marks of airplanes that touched down 90 years ago, over-loaded with film equipment, in what was then a rural desert.

With trowels and Leica site-scanning equipment in hand, they look for the earthbound traces of aerial events, a kingdom of the sky that once existed here, anchored down at these and other points throughout the L.A. basin, cutting down into the earth to deduce what once might have happened high above.