Last week, we delved into the problems of reaching Los Angeles International Airport by ground transportation. This week, we remember a firm that looked to the skies, using helicopters to achieve the same goal.
Aviation engineer Clarence M. Belinn founded Los Angeles Airways in 1944, with the goal of becoming the first private firm to begin air mail delivery using helicopters. Belinn knew that the U.S. Army Air Force had been experimenting with the idea, and prepared his firm to be a front-runner for the private sector contract.
Los Angeles Airways then beat out several other firms to get approval from the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) to begin the service. On Oct. 1, 1947, LAA conducted its maiden flight, delivering express mail from its base at LAX to the central Los Angeles post office downtown, Terminal Annex, via its Sikorsky Aircraft S-51 helicopter.
The flight was a great success. By March 1948, the service had expanded to cover deliveries within a 50-mile radius of LAX, and even one route to San Bernardino, 65 miles to the east.
The company’s 95% efficiency rate led to profitability, and Belinn began looking toward new adaptations. He applied to the CAB to get permission to transport passengers on the new, larger S-55 Sikorskys, and the agency gave its approval to the idea in July 1951.
The new service began in November 1954, four months after a similar air service began in the New York area. The S-55s were much larger, and had room for ten passengers. In just a few months, LAA offered helicopter commuter flights to 25 destinations in Southern California, from the San Fernando Valley to San Bernardino and Orange County.
In the summer of 1955, LAA hooked up with the newly opened amusement park sensation Disneyland, offering passenger service directly to a dedicated heliport. Originally, the heliport was located near the park itself, but was moved to a more permanent location adjacent to the Disneyland Hotel when it opened in 1956.
Business really took off once the airline began using the latest Sikorsky model, the even-larger twin-turbine powered S-16Ls. Able to carry 28 passengers, the jet copters became LAA’s workhorse following their introduction in 1962.
In 1965, the CAB granted LAA a permanent license to operate helicopter passenger flights in the Los Angeles area. That same year, the company lost its government subsidy, an economic blow cushioned somewhat by United and American Airlines acquiring partial ownership stakes in the company.
LAA continued to thrive. Its helicopter service was a great way to beat the growing freeway traffic in the booming Los Angeles area, with most trips taking 25 minutes or less.The ride from LAX to the Disneyland Hotel took 15 minutes. Fun fact: I once rode on an LAA flight from Ontario International Airport to LAX in the late 1960s, on one of the S-61L copters.
The flights were so popular that, in December 1966, the Torrance Chamber of Commerce made a written request to Clarence Belinn of LAA to introduce its service to Torrance Municipal Airport. As far as we can tell, that route never went into operation.
Sadly, the company began to unravel following two deadly crashes in 1968.
The first occurred on May 22, 1968, when an S-61L eastbound from Disneyland to LAX crashed from a height of 2,000 feet onto a dairy farm on Alondra Blvd. near Minnesota St. in Paramount and burst into flames. All 23 aboard were killed.
Less than three months later, another S-61L crashed from 1,200 feet into Leuders Park on Rosecrans Ave. in Compton on Aug. 14, 1968. This flight also was headed eastbound for Disneyland from LAX. All 21 aboard were killed. Fortunately, no one on the ground was killed in either crash.
In both cases, problems with the blade rotor system were found to be responsible. In the May 22 crash, a malfunction caused one of the blades to strike the side of the copter, leading to the crash. Metal fatigue in the yellow main rotor blade was deemed to be the cause of the Aug. 14 accident.
As a result of the crashes, the company’s operations had to be temporarily suspended, including the popular Disneyland flights, and it began losing money fast. An October 1969 strike by its pilots didn’t help matters.
In September 1970, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and ceased operations after a proposed buyout deal by Howard Hughes fell through.
Local commuter airline Golden West took over LAA in 1971 and restarted the copter routes again in 1972, but its own financial problems caused them to cease flights after only a few months.
On Aug. 19, 1972, the last Golden West/LAA routes to and from Disneyland via helicopter were flown. Operations then were suspended, and they never resumed. Golden West itself went bankrupt and ceased operations in 1983.
“Downtown In Minutes: Part 1 – The Story of the World’s First Passenger Helicopter Operations,” by Craig Kodera, Airpower magazine, March 2004, Page 33.
“Famous Firsts in Autogiros,” by Fred Holladay, The Airpost Journal (Special Helicopter Issue), June 1956, Page 300.
“Los Angeles Airways to Disneyland,” Disney History 101 website.
Los Angeles Times files.
“The Story of Los Angeles Airways,” Tails Through Time: Short Trips on the Long Road of Aviation History (blog), June 1, 2010.
Torrance Press-Herald files.
“22 May 1968,” “14 Aug 1968,” This Day In Aviation: Important Dates in Aviation History website.