Vintage pictures show how LAX has changed over 90 years

2018 marks Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)'s 9...

Posted: Nov 29, 2018 11:06 AM
Updated: Nov 29, 2018 11:06 AM

2018 marks Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)'s 90th birthday -- and a lot's changed in nearly a century.

LAX started life as an empty field; now it regularly charts as one of the world's busiest airports.

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It was Charles Lindbergh's groundbreaking transatlantic flight of 1927 that convinced Los Angeles officials of the need for an airport in the City of Angels.

Opened in 1928 as Mines Field, today LAX is a major transport hub, benefiting from good weather and breezy takeoff conditions, thanks to the neighboring Pacific Ocean.

When it comes to LAX history, no one knows more than the official airport historian, Ethel Pattison.

At 93, she's been around longer than the airport itself. A former flight attendant for United Airlines, Pattison later worked in PR for the airport and now manages the collection at LAX's Flight Path Learning Center and Museum.

From convincing the airport officials that a newer, bigger airport was needed after the advent of the jet engine, to hobnobbing with The Beatles when they landed in LA in 1964, Pattison chatted to CNN Travel about her incredible aviation career.

LAX growth

In the late 1940s, Pattison graduated from the University of Southern California with an advertising degree. She worked for a nylon hosiery company for a couple of years, before she decided to pursue a career in aviation.

"I had a sorority sister that was a stewardess for United Airlines," says Pattison.

"I was inspired and so I was hired by United in 1951 in July and then I flew for a year and a quarter."

Pattison quickly fell in love with flying, although she never got to travel outside of the US.

"You have to realize there were no jets, it was all propellers," she recalls. "DC-3s, [DC-4s], DC-6, DC-6B and then the jets did not come till 1959."

For Pattison, working as a flight attendant was her dream job -- but when she got married she had to retire.

"In those days you could not be married and still fly," she explains. "That was the rule then if you were going to get married."

After her marriage, Pattison was keen to continue working in the aviation industry and she joined LAX in the public relations department.

"I came on in '56 -- it'll be 63 years," she says. "It's always fun and interesting and in public relations that's where the action is."

It helped that LAX was in the middle of a big expansion period. The international terminal was constructed in 1961 to accommodate the bigger and better planes that signaled the advent of the Jet Age.

"All of a sudden the planes were bigger, they carried more people and then you had to improve your facilities, make more room for passenger circulation as we call it," explains Pattison.

Pattison's role proved crucial in bringing LAX up to speed.

"We needed to pass a bond issue to make a new airport because we had a very small airport east of Sepulveda on Century Boulevard," recalls Pattison.

"So we passed the bond issue by giving tours to students and youth groups and adult groups -- everybody we can think of to educate them, to say yes to the proposition. That was 1956. It had been defeated twice before so we had an uphill battle, so we went to the grassroots and educated the children, had them tell their parents.

And so the measure, the bond measure, won eight to one. So it was a remarkable thing that happened."

Meeting The Beatles

LAX has long been good for a celebrity spot -- Los Angeles is home to Hollywood, after all.

Pattison's job in PR involved her hosting and welcoming the great and good to the terminal, from presidents to actors to musicians.

"We would always be involved in any celebrity arrival," she recalls. "I met The Beatles in 1964."

A keen photographer, Pattison couldn't resist capturing the moment when the Fab Four disembarked from the airplane. She also snapped a couple of shots from the press conference.

"I've taken pictures since I was a teenager so I do have a lot," she says.

"I just did it and then we had a professional [photographer] -- mine were kind of similar but more candid in a way."

She even has a photograph of herself with Paul McCartney.

"I wouldn't dream that 50 years later my pictures would be of interest to anybody, but they are," she reflects.

Official historian

Today, Pattison's still a key part of LAX operations. She's the airport's official historian and custodian of photographs of its varied history -- from her Beatles shots to photographs dating back to the 1930s depicting the National Air Races, featuring stunt pilots performing on gliders.

The Flightpath Museum is located in the former Imperial Terminal.

"It's open five days a week, 10-3 and we have visitors that come around and look at lots of memorabilia from airlines and aircraft companies and the airport itself," says Pattison.

"We have just a great little area here, great view looking north toward the runway system."

In fact, visitors to the museum can sit outside, with an escort, and watch the planes departing and arriving.

Pattison manages a team, mostly volunteers, many of whom have also worked at the airport for years.

"When you've worked that long you kind of know what should be saved and what might be interesting," she says.

"We have a couple of girls that started in PR when I was there and have retired from the airport itself -- one was in film operations, the other in ground transportation. But they're all very knowledgeable on the history because they started with public relations."

Dream job

For Pattison, a Los Angeles native, working at LAX is the dream.

"I live near the beach near the airport. And I guess now I've been lots of places in my travels and I know that if you knew the weather you wouldn't want to leave," she laughs.

"I think the bottom line is the weather out here is mild all around the time," she adds. "So people come and then there's plenty to do, many attractions."

Pattison loves documenting the changing face of LAX -- and she's invested in the changes that are to come too. The airport is currently undergoing major expansion and more developments are afoot.

"As long as I can be helpful, I'd like to just help keep the history going that way and talk to people," she says.

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