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THE NAME Cecil B. DeMille conjures up thoughts of Hollywood epics, not to say the classic film set comment, “Any time you’re ready, C.B.” Or, if you’re into old time radio, you know DeMille from the Lux Radio Theatre and his floridly delivered signoff, “… from Holly-wood.”
As well as being an epic-thinking film director, DeMille was also an aviation pioneer. He was fully prepared to swap his fledgling film activities for aerial combat, but World War I hostilities ended just about when he earned his wings.
DeMille founded the Mercury Aviation Company in 1918, his flying stock composed of war surplus Curtiss JN biplanes affectionately known as “Jennys.” Within a year there were three Mercury Air Fields in the Los Angeles area, all managed by Al Wilson, C.B.’s flying instructor. Air Field No. 1 was at the southwest corner of Melrose and what is now Fairfax; No. 2 was at Wiltshire and Fairfax (not far from today’s Petersen Automotive Museum); No. 3 was in Altadena, north of Pasadena.
Mercury Aviation was among the first offering regularly scheduled air service, with destinations as far as Bakersfield and beyond that to Fresno. It also carried airmail for the U.S. Post Office. One of Mercury’s oddest achievements was flying a Shetland pony to a Santa Barbara horse show. “Pegasus Pony” made the trip from Los Angeles with full ASPCA approval.
Film star Charlie Chaplin had a competing airline, he and his brother Syd running the Chaplin Aerodrome on property adjacent to Mercury Air Field No. 2. “All records broken,” promised one of their ads, “Los Angeles to San Francisco and return in one day.”
Of course, both companies were active in the business of making movies featuring aeroplanes. A fascinating book on this is Aviators in Early Hollywood, by Shawna Kelly, Arcadia Publishing, 2008.
Author Kelly is a great-granddaughter of B.H. DeLay, pioneer aviator who devised many of the techniques putting aerial adventures onto film.
Another book featuring DeMille aviation lore is D.D. Hatfield’s Los Angeles Aeronautics 1920-1929, Northrop University Press, 1973. My usual sources, Amazon.com and AbeBooks.com, list both. ds