By Bobbi E. Bruce
The city of Downey is located 12 miles from the world’s largest harbor and one of the nation’s largest airport and rail terminals. This location made Downey an ideal site to be part of a helicopter system ferrying freight and passengers to and from LAX, San Bernardino and other local points.
The need for faster transportation in the 1940’s and 50’s brought about the introduction of a heliport in Downey in 1962.
The Downey Municipal Heliport was located on Bellflower Boulevard just north of Imperial Highway and service began right after the first of the year in 1962. The service was directed by the action of the Downey City Council to keep Downey in pace with the growing needs of the city.
Los Angeles Airways had a fleet of helicopters that operated in the greater Los Angeles area. One of the Sikorsky helicopters could hold 28 passengers. At one time, Los Angeles Airways had heliports at LAX, Burbank, Anaheim (Disneyland), Newport Beach, Pomona, Whittier and Downey.
In its first year of passenger service, LAA transported 10,000 passengers. The number of passengers carried increased each year until 1967, when it peaked at 396,000. Most of the passengers were businessmen who were connecting to airlines at LAX. The busiest heliport was near Disneyland, carrying about 30,000 customers per month - many were tourists. Passengers enjoyed flights on December nights and were provided fantastic view of Christmas lights.
From the beginning of passenger service in 1954 until the end of 1967, LAA had carried more than 1.6 million passengers without a major incident.
Then on May 22nd, 1968, Flight 841 crashed in Paramount killing 23 people. The helicopter was a Sikorsky S-611, serial number 61060.
Not much later on August 14, 1968, another crash in Compton killed 21 people.
What went wrong with both crashes? Since not all the parts were recovered in the Paramount crash it was impossible to determine the exact cause, but it was thought to be blade damper failure. The Compton crash was caused by a spindle linking the rotor blades to the hub that failed due to a crack in the metal, causing one of the blades to break off.
After the crashes, passengers stayed away from the helicopters and ridership dropped from a high of 308,000 in 1967 to 39,000 in 1968. In Pomona, the heliport ticket agent reported that sales plummeted to 5 passengers per day. In 1971, LAA ceased operations and was purchased by Golden West Airlines.
If you want to know more, visit the Downey History Museum.