How Southern California’s Aerospace Industry Helped Revolutionize Surfing

"There are lots of other beach areas where surfing hasn’t taken off as much as it did in Southern California,” says historian Peter Neushul. “Aerospace is integral to all of that. Where you're living. Your access to the beach. The technology you take to the beach. Everything.”

Bruce Brown had already been to Hawaii plenty of times for his surf films. The North Shore of Oahu, while magnificent, was well-worn territory to the sandy-haired surfers who lapped up his movies at the Santa Monica Civic. For his next film, Brown wanted something different. He wanted South Africa, where he’d heard word of a small surf community from some board-shaping buddies. Brown contacted a travel agent about a flight and learned it would actually cost $50 less to keep flying east — all the way around the world — than to return the way he’d come.

“The Endless Summer,” the circumnavigating adventure that would make Brown a millionaire and spread the California Dream across the globe, happened because the director found out he could save a few bucks on a flight.

Ask someone who’s never been to Southern California what the place is all about, and you’ll likely hear tales of Hollywood, palm trees, gangs, skateboarding and, yes, surfing. Pose that same question to residents of Palmdale, El Segundo or Downey, and you’ll get a decidedly different answer: aerospace.

Southern California has been an aerospace hub since the 1920s, when more than two dozen aircraft firms, lured by soft weather, cheap land and loose capital, set up shop in the region. The industry kept growing during World War II when aircraft companies employed 2 million people and pushed out 300,000 planes. During the Cold War, the Department of Defense poured billions of dollars into Southern California, funding high-tech research into missiles, bombers and rockets.

The population of Los Angeles County more than doubled between 1920 and 1940, then doubled again between 1940 and 1960, and aerospace companies were a big part of that. Los Angeles had become a decentralized metropolis, a sublime sprawl that befuddled outsiders. Those aerospace companies were also a big part of the surfing boom, and not just because they helped make commercial jet travel cheaper for wandering wave-riders. Read full article.