Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

Aircraft Landings in CV – Successful and Unsuccessful

Because Los Angeles has been one of the greatest centers of early aircraft development, the Crescenta Valley has been used many times as an emergency landing strip for those often unreliable pioneering airplanes.

One successful emergency landing took place in May of 1931. A couple of daring young guys decided in the middle of the night to take a “joy ride” in a plane. They took off at 2 a.m. (when the bars close) from the now defunct East Side Airport down in the South Gate area. After buzzing around for an hour, they woke up to the fact that they were lost and low on gas.

It was typical May weather with fog and marine layer obscuring the ground. Through the dark haze they spotted two parallel lines of lights, like a lighted runway, and they set their sputtering biplane down between the two strings of lights. When they climbed out of the cockpit they found themselves in the middle of Honolulu Avenue in Montrose. They had miraculously slipped between the power lines crossing the boulevard.

The next morning, they gassed up and prepared to take off on the very wide pre-shopping park Honolulu Avenue. Montrose Elementary School sent all its students down to watch the spectacle, and at noon the two lucky would-be aviators took off from Montrose’s main street in a westerly direction. An L.A. Times photo caught the biplane several feet off the street where the Trader Joes is going in today.

Other early aviators have not been so lucky. In 1938, two Army Air Corp reserve officers took off in a two-seat training plane from Long Beach Airport and headed for the San Gabriel Mountains. Lt. Col. Kenneth Decker and Lt. Theodore Steiner had been airborne about three hours, and CV residents saw them circling the valley several times. No one knows exactly what went wrong, but it appeared to witnesses that they tried to land on Pennsylvania Avenue heading uphill. They perhaps caught a wingtip on the ground, or maybe hit a wire or clipped a pole, but they careened off Pennsylvania to the west near where the freeway crosses today. The spinning wreckage missed several homes before finally coming to rest in the backyard of 3146 Encinal Ave. the site now underneath the westbound Pennsylvania off ramp.

A poorly reproduced Ledger photo from 1937 shows the aircraft completely wadded up. The pilots Decker and Steiner had been both been killed on impact, but there had been no fire, perhaps indicating that the plane’s ignition was off, or that the switch had been turned off as they tried to land. It was mid-day and so was witnessed by many in the valley, including a group of boys playing on the football field of what is now CV High School. One of that group, Bob Crowe, is who told me about this crash.

An interesting closing postscript to this tragedy: In 1978 the Glendale News Press did an article on the beautiful and unusual walls at Dunsmore Park. As I’ve written about before, the walls of that park are similar to the Watts Towers in that they are a fantastic assemblage of colored stones and minerals from all over the US, along with car parts and kitchen utensils arranged into whimsical designs. They were created by an eccentric local, Milton Hofert, in a 10-year period between the mid-40s and mid-50s, who then handed over the land to Glendale for use as a park. In the 1978 article describing the stone and junk folk art incased in the miles of walls in Dunsmore Park, they wrote of a hand-made plaque Hofert had placed in one wall. He had inscribed “In memory of Lt. Col. Kenneth Decker, US Army Air Corps, crashed – La Crescenta, Dec. 10, 1937,” and around the words were arranged uniform insignia, uniform buttons, cuff links and a small gold airplane. Sadly, I’ve not been able to locate that plaque, and it was probably pried out, as have many of Hofert’s “artworks” for their souvenir value.

Yet another lost treasure of our valley.

Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. Reach him at

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