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Before Santa Monica Airport, There Was Clover Field

Before “Cloverfield” was a monster, it was an airfield. As early as 1917, aviators were landing atop a mesa just southeast of Santa Monica, touching their wheels down on a narrow, grassy strip surrounded by stalks of barley.

Soon the primitive runway became a military airfield, and in 1922 the U.S. Army named it Clover Field in honor of Greayer Clover, a local fighter pilot killed in France during the First World War. Since then the site has served many purposes. First it was the western headquarters of the Army’s reserve air corps, and later Douglas Aircraft produced its famous line of DC planes there. The City of Santa Monica purchased the parcel in 1926 – a transaction championed by businessman Frank Bundy, whose namesake avenue appropriately leads there – and turned it into a municipal airport.

Today, it’s the source of intense local concerns about noise and safety. (Actor Harrison Ford notably crashed his vintage plane into a golf course shortly after takeoff in 2015.) It’s almost certainly doomed to close in 2028, under the terms of a consent decree between the city and the Federal Aviation Administration.

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When it does, the airport will be remembered as the location of many milestones in aviation history:

  • On March 17, 1924, a fleet of four Douglas World Cruisers, manned by U.S. Army aviators, took off from Clover Field. On Sept. 23, two of the pioneering planes returned, completing the first aerial circumnavigation of the world.
  • Five years later, the airfield hosted the start of the Women’s Air Derby. Nineteen of the world’s best female aviators – including its most famous, Toluca Lake resident Amelia Earhart – took off from Santa Monica on Aug. 18, 1929, racing their way to Cleveland, Ohio. The winner, Louise Thaden, completed the journey in 20 hours, 19 minutes.
  • And on July 1, 1933, the maiden flight of Douglas’s prototype DC-1 airliner, with its streamline design and comfortable, noise-insulated cabin, inaugurated the age of modern passenger air travel.                                                  

It hasn’t been known officially as Clover Field since 1927, when the City of Santa Monica, furious that radio announcers were referring to it as “Clover Field, Los Angeles,” insisted the airport’s name reflect its new ownership. That was long before producer J.J. Abrams reportedly borrowed the title for his 2008 sci-fi monster film from a freeway sign for Cloverfield Blvd – a street that once led to the barley field where biplanes landed.

 

An earlier version of this article appeared on the Los Angeles magazine website on Feb. 20, 2014.

clover field aerial view
Circa 1924 view of Clover Field in Santa Monica. | Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

 

clover field golf course
When the City of Santa Monica purchased Clove Field, it turned some of the property into the Clover Field Golf Course, seen here in July 1928. Later, airport expansion claimed the course. | Photo courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.
ruth elder
Ruth Elder (center) was among the 19 participants in the 1929 Women’s Air Derby from Santa Monica to Cleveland. | Photo from the Sept. 1929 issue of the U.S. Air Services newspaper.

 

1924 circumnavigation ticket
An admission ticket to the March 16, 1924, event marking the start of the first aerial circumnavigation of the globe.
douglas plant
For many years, Donald Douglas’ aviation company was a major presence at Clover Field. Page from the July 1926 issue of the U.S. Air Services newspaper.

Top Image: An early, undated view down Clover Field’s primitive runway. | Photo courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

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