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LA’s Plan for Urban Air Mobility in the sixties

In the 1960s, the sky was the limit, with promises to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade and jet aircraft such as the 747 making aviation accessible to a strong middle-class. Aviation held the promise of the future to come and everyone was curious as to what would come next. Supersonic travel was all but guaranteed with the Concorde under development in Europe and the US Supersonic Transport competition underway in the USA, some cities started looking closer to home: how to integrate aviation into the everyday life of its citizens. Planning for cities featured in the Jetsons would have to start somewhere, and everyone’s eyes were faced skyward. Los Angeles was one of those cities.

Los Angeles had somewhat of a head start with urban aerial travel. The world’s first scheduled helicopter airline, Los Angeles Airways took to the skies in 1947, starting with airmail and moving to passengers in November of 1954.

Providing a teaser of what urban air travel could be, Los Angeles Airways offered service between LAX and a variety of destinations across the southland, offering at its peak 25 destinations.

From its humble beginnings with 2 seat tandem mail helicopters, they eventually grew their fleet to 5 helicopters with seating for approximately 30 passengers each. They offered direct service from LAX to different destinations across the Southland. It was possible to board a helicopter at Disneyland and fly directly to the gate and board your plane at LAX.

There were plans to expand with Sikorsky Skycranes that would be fitted with modular passenger compartments. The passenger compartments could be detached from the aircraft and loaded onto a truck in effect transforming the truck into a bus allowing last mile connectivity to passenger’s homes or destinations. 

Two major helicopter accidents in 1968 resulted in the loss of life of all occupants. These accidents, coupled with an emerging focus on aircraft noise and a failed commercial acquisition ultimately sealed the fate of Los Angeles Airways, and in 1971, flew their last flight.

1967 Master Plan concept for Central Terminal Area Expansion

Los Angeles Airways was one component and a forebearer of aerial mobility concepts in the southland, another were Los Angeles Department of Airports (predecessor to Los Angeles World Airports) funded studies conducted as part of the LAX Master Planning efforts of the late 60s and early 70s. Although LAX had inaugurated its new Central Terminal Area in June 1961, the explosion in passenger traffic as well as new aircraft that were entering service or being planned (such as the 747, Concorde and Boeing 2707) required even larger facilities than the recently opened terminal area could provide. 

These “Metroports” as they were called would be located throughout the greater Los Angeles Area, allowing point to point travel within the area or transfers to the core airports or in between the core airports. Most Metroports were designed to be the size of an average commercial building or parking structure. The largest Metroport concept studied would have been a Metroport located behind Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Built above the railroad tracks, the facility resembled more of an aircraft carrier than a transportation hub and would have the capacity to move 8-12 million annual passengers (similar to San Diego International Airport in 2019).

The largest Metroport at Union Station would not only serve local county destinations but also destinations further out in Southern and Central California. Designed with a short runway, it would enable specially designed aircraft to connect certain city pairs.

The grounding of Los Angeles Airways in 1971 who was a partner in the studies slowed the project, however it was the dual energy crises of the 1970s combined with a growing awareness of noise related issues that ultimately led to these plans being abandoned. 

Over fifty years later we are possibly closer to catching a sky ride from downtown LA to anywhere in the Southland. In the past decade, more and more companies have entered what is now being called Urban Air Mobility (UAM). Using newer technologies such as electric propulsion and autonomous or semi-autonomous systems, these companies are trying to address some of the original issues that hindered original attempts at aerial mobility, notably: safety, noise and cost. In addition, urban and airport planning in the 1960s and 70s was not as developed as it is today and with more focus on concepts such as environmental justice, sustainability and resiliency. These new players in UAM may be able to address the issues that plagued previous iterations of UAM; how they will address new concerns will be the test of whether UAM becomes a reality.

For a better understanding of Urban Air Mobility and Advanced Air Mobility, check out this article by Clint Harper at Urban Movement Labs.

All documents/images from the Flight Path Museum Archive.

Jean-Christophe Dick

Jean-Christophe has over 15 years experience as Airport Planner, currently at ESA, and has been on the Board of the Flight Path Museum since 2017. He is currently serving as the Museum President and Airport Historian. He is also a pilot and award-winning photographer .
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