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Profile of:“It’s no wonder I’m the luckiest guy in the world!”
—David M. Simmons
By John L. Seitz – Courier Managing Editor
“Howard, would you mind moving your plane? It’s been sitting in the same place under armed guard for the last 15 years.” That relatively simple request to a certain well known man with the surname Hughes was a just a minor sample of what David Maney Simmons has faced on almost a daily basis during his 60-plus years as an aviation executive.
The longtime Beverly Hills resident took his first flight in a Curtiss JN4D at age seven; a few years later followed up with a joy ride in a DeHavilland bomber with ace aerial cameraman Elmer Dyer who was filming the epic Hell’s Angels for that self same Mr. Hughes; and then was in attendance at the 1930 opening of the United Airport of Burbank. These three events, more than anything else, hooked Simmons on a career path which took him to every corner of the world.
The native Missourian was born in Springfield but headed West with his family, ending up in Beverly Hills where his father established himself in the real estate business. The youngster attended Hawthorne, the only school in The City at that time, where his classmates included Jimmy Rogers, Will’s son, and Richard Ince, son of famed movie pioneer Thomas Ince.
In the 6th grade, he transferred to the new El Rodeo School and later on to Beverly Hills High School. “When I was there, BHHS was run by the Los Angeles Unified School District and didn’t come under local jurisdiction until 1936.”
Simmons continued: “Of course, a lot of things were different in The City then. We used to play and race around a 275-acre plot known as Beverly Dr.- West which was the site of a large speedway track. The same location is now home to the Beverly Hilton, Regent Beverly Wilshire, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, and all sorts of others.”
While growing up here, he has lived in homes on Canon Dr., Rodeo Dr., Chevy Chase, Parkway and Coldwater Canyon. He and his popular wife, Barbara Butler Ince Simmons, another BHHS alum, have been married more than a half century and resided in the same Camden Dr. abode since 1967. Formerly the residence of Jane Wyman and, after that, Judy Garland, a location by the house was rented last year while Martin Scorsese was filming Beverly Hills’ sequences for his Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator.
Simmons earned a BS degree in business and finance with an emphasis on accounting from the University of Southern California. While at USC, his coach urged him to be a boxer. Instead, he restricted his future athleticism toward becoming a swimmer and master surfer (he was dubbed “The Great Whale”) and marathon cyclist going from Beverly Hills to Laguna Beach on the south and Oxnard on the north.
Later on, he did post-graduate work at Harvard University, and entered the management training program at Bank of America but in 1939 left to join Donald Douglas and his fledgling airplane company in Santa Monica.
With the outbreak of World War II, he was sent by Douglas as a technical representative to Eritrea in Italian East Africa, which was soon taken over by the British government. There, as a member of America’s Volunteer Guard, he participated in building a strategic airport which eventually served as a main supply route for Allied Forces in both the North African and East Asian campaigns.
He was later commissioned as an ensign in the US Navy and attended the Japanese surrender on Wake Island.
Upon his discharge in 1946, Simmons joined the Lockheed Air Terminal Company, a division of Lockheed Aircraft, where he remained for the next 38 years, first as an accountant, then into operations and finally as its president. The parent entity had been formed in San Francisco in 1912 by two aviation pioneering brothers, Allan and Malcolm Loughead (pronounced “Lockheed” to which their names were eventually changed). They moved the operation from the Bay Area to Santa Barbara, Hollywood and finally Burbank in 1928.
However, the company was done in by the stock market collapse and subsequent depression. It was bought out of receivership in 1932 by Robert and Courtland Gross, a pair of Harvard-educated Bostonian brothers, for $42,000 which had to be the corporate bargain of the century. They immediately went about assembling a crackerjack management team adept in all aspects of the business from sales, engineering and manufacturing to finance, product support and government relations with most of them remaining with the company well into the 1970s.
Lockheed primarily built the Electra, Vega, Orion, Altair, Sirius and Air Express single-engine, wood-structured aircraft until switching to the newly designed, all-metal, two-engine commercial planes named the L-10 followed by the L-12 and L-14. These turned out to be big sellers and when the British ordered 200 specially outfitted Hudson bombers in 1938 (a deal brokered by a company representative named Carl Squires), Lockheed became an industry giant overnight.
With the advent and duration of World War II, its production output included such names as the Constellation, Lodestar, Lightning, Ventura, Shooting Star and Neptune. Its employee ranks grew from 28 at the time of Gross takeover to an astounding 98,000 within less than a decade.
Meanwhile, when young Simmons returned from his naval hitch to sign on with the company, Lockheed Air Terminal was already a going concern—in fact, the fifth busiest in the United States as far as passenger traffic was concerned. The facility had been around since 1930 when the forerunner of United Airlines decided its existing Grand Central Airport in Glendale—then the Southland’s prime hub with all the major airlines using it—was getting too cramped.
United found a 243-acre parcel in a nearby town of 14,000 people called Burbank, which had a convenient location to downtown LA, Hollywood and Pasadena going for it along with ideal weather and soil conditions. After clearing off more than 100 huge oak and eucalyptus trees, a new commercial airport was constructed from scratch for $1.5 million, the costliest in history. Everything was carefully planned from the Spanish motif of the terminal to the runways and ample parking for cars.
Safety was the first priority. For instance, the asphalt 3,000 and 3,600-ft. runways were built with minimum grade to allow for smooth takeoffs and landings and their black coloring contrasted with the planted green alfalfa fields for dust-free visibility from the air. These were 300-ft. wide, expandable to 500-ft. with ample taxi areas so no planes would have to cross each other’s path.
The facility opened May 30, 1930 with great fanfare and a large crowd with one of the attendees being a preteen named Simmons, who was fated to run the place a few decades later. Within five years, all the major players including American, Western and TWA (known then as Transcontinental) shifted their operations to Burbank and as a concession to its competitors (and now tenants) United was renamed Union Air Terminal.
Charles Lindbergh flew in and out as did Toluca Lake-resident Amelia Earhart, who departed on her ill-fated round-the-world flight from Burbank in a Lockheed Electra but didn’t take a radio along because of the weight. Paul Mantz, who was the premier stunt and aerial photographer of his day had a hanger there and was her technical advisor. Wiley Post, Harold Gatty, Laura Ingalls, and Frank Hawks were some other pioneer pilots seen there frequently.
As Simmons points out: “There was no Los Angeles International in those days. In fact the current LAX property was something called Mines Field. This was largely populated by small charter operators, flight schools, private aircraft owners, maintenance shops, and related personnel. It didn’t even become a commercial locale until after World War II.
“Our company bought the Burbank facility in 1940 and gave it the title of Lockheed Air Terminal. It was a ‘natural’ being so close to the manufacturing plant and was used to test the bombers and P-38 fighters coming off the assembly line.
“However, our primary function was handling commercial passengers. By the time our rival LAX went commercial in 1946, we were already handling 1.2 million of them. However, the city of LA began pouring large sums on money to get what was then known as Los Angeles Municipal Airport going and many of our major tenants including United, America and TWA left Burbank for the literally ‘greener’ pastures. We filled this void by a developing supplemental airlines’ industry expanding large cargo operations, private planes, and charters such as Paul Mantz’s the “Honeymoon Express” to Las Vegas for weddings and divorces.”
Oldtimers recall one the airport’s wealthier patrons, Col. Roscoe Turner, would take his pet lion, Gilmore, on a joy ride in his plane every Sunday. It was said that tourists could see more celebrities and politicians at this terminal in a single day than on the Sunset Strip for a week. James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, and Doris Day were some of them with the close proximity to Warner Brothers, Universal and the then new Walt Disney studios making this more than a coincidence.
Numerous movies and TV shows have been filmed in and around the terminal including Top Gun with Tom Cruise (himself a pilot), Final Analysis, Demolition Man, Mannix and Perry Mason. “And Paramount paid us $25,000 in 1958 money for the opening shot for the Jerry Lewis comedy Geisha Boy.
“Of course, it was the aforementioned Hughes story that is one of my favorites. He was out at our airport much of the time but called me one day since I was in operations and frequently dealt with him. He needed a plane to get down to San Diego fast,” said Simmons. “I had to tell him ‘Howard, we don’t have anything available right now’. He soon spotted a twin-engined, private aircraft parked in a nearby hanger and inquired ‘who owns that?’. When I told him, he got that person on the phone and bought the plane right then and there. We fueled it up and he was off solo to San Diego and came back the very same night.
“The next day he sent a coterie of round the clock armed guards to protect the aircraft. For the next 15 years, it resided in one of the hangers. One day I called ‘the great man’ to advise him we had to move the hanger to make room for a parking lot. He removed the guards and donated the plane to Glendale College.
“Hughes also had a Constellation parked in close proximity to the passenger terminal building. He insisted on keeping the cabin temperature at 70 degrees both summer and winter. The air conditioning unit started leaking water to such an extent, a pool formed and reeds soon sprouted. After much discussion he relocated the plane to a distant part of the airport on soil which could accommodate the drenching..
“Howard was an incredible guy -a real genius who did so much not only for aviation but the medical field, as well, including his invention of an electrified hospital bed. This was brought about when he had that famous plane crash on Linden Dr. and Whittier Dr. when he trying to land at the LA Country Club. He was hospitalized for so long that’s where he got the idea for the bed.
“The man I knew was certainly not the eccentric movies like The Aviator, Melvin and Howard, and even The Carpetbaggers portrayed him to be. He also did so many anonymous kindnesses for people which the public will never hear about.”
Simmons continued: “When running an airport, you actually do come in contact your share of oddballs. I got called downstairs one day because the staff said there was a man calling himself ‘I. M. Mutt’ wearing a dog collar with a leash attached. He had paid for his ticket in cash but then disappeared when the passengers were called aboard.
“Shortly thereafter, some stunned people came out of the restroom and told us there was an individual down on the floor eating dog food. Obviously, we didn’t let Mr. Mutt on board despite the fact he had a bag containing $50,000! If that happened in 2005, he’d have been quickly out the door to the police station.”
Simmons did much more than run this one facility. During his almost four decade tenure, the Lockheed Air Terminal division designed and managed other airports throughout the globe while providing refueling services for 20% of the world’s airlines. As senior VP of the parent company, he was also on the road constantly to such outposts as Guam, Panama, and Saudi Arabia.
While on one of these long-distance jaunts, he was conducting some complicated negotiations in the Middle East with representatives of a powerful sheik who was in the room but kept glaring at him without saying a word. After more than a half-hour of total silence, the sheik walked over to a wary Simmons and stated: “You are James Stewart, are you not?”
And that was not to be the last time he was to be mistaken for the late Beverly Hills superstar and pilot. “A Japanese fellow came up to me at the Regent Beverly Wilshire and wouldn’t leave me alone until I gave him an autograph. I hope he didn’t end up selling it in Tokyo,” laughed Simmons.
“In 1967, Pacific Southwest Airlines began calling our airport Hollywood-Burbank in its advertising. We agreed that designation had more cache from a marketing standpoint, so Lockheed made the new name official.
“The operation had expanded to 600 acres but, for the first time, we started getting complaints from residents about the noise factor. Pressure was put on the Burbank city fathers who tried to stop any flight arrivals or departures after 11 p.m. We litigated the matter all the way to the US Supreme Court and won.”
Simmons continued: “We were the only private, commercial airport in the US, operating it entirely without a dime of government money. Keep in mind, when the airport was initially built, the area consisted primarily of orange groves and farm land but now the population was growing up around it and because of it. Wanting to keep peace in the neighborhood, we sent our people out to make personal contact with the complainers—something only a public relations-minded private company like ours would think of doing.
“When Lockheed shifted its business emphasis from aircraft to missiles and moved its headquarters from Burbank to Calabasas, Wall Street completed a $20 million bond issue for us and we embarked on a campaign to sell the facility. After several years of negotiations and receiving a $30 million contribution from the FAA, the airport was acquired in 1978 by a consortium from the cities of Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena for $52 million.”
Simmons remained at the helm until retiring from the airport presidency in 1984. Since then, he formed a partnership with a longtime associate Fred Gage to conduct various real estate and outdoor signing ventures. Currently, he has renewed his aerospace activities, developing newly patented products for military uses, and is chairman of the Aviation Pioneers Association, VP of the Cellar Club, and member of the Vikings and Harvard Club.
His wife and favorite dance partner, Barbara, is equally active with memberships in Friends of Robinson Gardens, Greystone Foundation, Fashionettes, The Muses, and Operation Children.
As David Simmons sums it up: “I couldn’t have had a better place to grow up than Beverly Hills and spending my life with Barbara. All that, plus having a career which has bridged the entire history of flight from fabric to aluminum to titanium and composites. It’s no wonder I’m the luckiest guy in the world!”
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