Historic California Posts, Camps,
Stations and Airfields
Air Force Plant 16
In 1929, a wealthy industrialist named
E.M. Smith purchased a 73 acre parcel from James Hughan, who
farmed oranges and castor beans on the site. Smith's EMSCO company
had a division called Albatross, which manufactured small aircraft.
In addition to manufacturing aircraft, Smith saw the former farm
land in Downey as a perfect landing field. The oldest buildings
on the Downey Site were built in 1929 to support the aircraft
manufacturing effort. In 1932, with the Great Depression lagging
and poor sales, EMSCO leased the site to Champion Aircraft Corporation
who manufactured small, inexpensive 2 seaters meant to fly at
low altitudes and low (as little as 10 mph) speeds. Seven months
later, Champion also left the site due to poor sales, and the
site was leased to Security National Aircraft Corporation. Security
was owned by Walter "Bert" Kinner, who designed and
built 2 planes for Amelia Earhart.
Ownership continued to change hands and
in 1936, Aviation Manufacturing Corporation moved their Vultee
Aircraft Division into the Downey Site at the suggestion of Gerard
"Jerry" Vultee, who once worked for EMSCO as their
chief design engineer. Vultee primarily manufactured large military
aircraft and sold planes to the governments of China, the Soviet
Union, Turkey and Brazil. Vultee was working on a contract with
the United States government and was flying back from Washington
DC when he and his wife were killed in a plane crash in 1938.
The company forged on without him, and in the 1940's, the Army
Air Corp awarded Vultee Aircraft a contract to make their training
planes, the Vultee Valiant Basic Trainer. The contract was the
largest order ever placed by the Army Air Corp. In need of additional
space, LA Architect Gordon B. Kaufman designed space which would
double Downey's size.
Then came World War II and security at
the plant was increased. In addition to the anti-aircraft gun
which was mounted on the roof, the entire plant was camouflaged
to blend in with the surrounding farmland. By 1941, the plant's
output represented 15% of all the military aircraft produced
in the U.S. and boasted the first powered assembly line in the
aircraft industry. Among many different types of aircraft, Vultee
produced the largest number of heavy bombers (B-24 Liberators)
in the country.
After the conclusion of the War, Vultee
was awarded a contract to study long-range missile weapons systems.
In the 1950's and 60's the site was officially known as AFP16
(Air Force Plant 16) and was working on developing the Navaho
Missile, whose technology would give birth to our first space
vehicles. In addition to all the innovation in technology, there
were also many mergers and consolidations in the industry. Vultee
gave way to Convair which became North American Aviation, which
merged with Rockwell Standard and finally North American Rockwell
In the late 1950's the plant became the
location for developing the Hound Dog AGM Missile, which was
the prototype for cruise missile technology. The company also
won the contract to make the "Little Joe Launch Vehicle"
to test the Mercury capsules. In 1960, the company was working
on the development of the X-15 aircraft, truly a pioneer in aviation
history. The X-15 aircraft was the first winged craft to reach
4, 5 and 6 times the speed of sound, and fly at altitudes greater
than 100,000 feet. In 1961 the company was awarded 2 contracts
from NASA: the Saturn SII launch vehicle and the Project Apollo
Spacecraft Development program. With that, Downey became the
hub of America's lunar mission. In 1964, the AFP16 facility was
transferred to NASA, thence being known as NASA Industrial Plant,
In July 1972, at the end of the Apollo
program, Downey was given the job of assembly and component manufacture
of the Space Shuttle Orbiters. Over the course of the next 13
years, 4 Space Shuttle Orbiters - Columbia, Challenger, Discovery
and Atlantis - were constructed at Downey. The Endeavor, which
replaced the Challenger, was also manufactured at Downey. Downey
would also be involved in the Skylab project.
During the 1990's, the workforce at Downey
was decreased and Rockwell was bought out by Boeing North America.
Boeing began consolidating its operations and announced that
it would close the Downey plant permanently by the end of 1999.
NASA Industrial Plant, Downey: Chronology of Historical Usage
Appendix A provides a chronological overview of activities that
have been performed at the NASA Industrial Plant, Downey, California.
Information incorporated was obtained from historical summaries
provided by Rockwell and NASA. Information contained in these
historical summaries has not been verified and cannot be validated
Pre-1929: Facility is a ranch operated by James Hughan. Land
area was a combination of orange orchards (Communique`, 1983)
and plowed fields. Windmill operated water well is associated
with the ranch house and barn (pre-1929 photograph).
1929, May 72.45 acres of land transferred to E. M. Smith who
formed Emsco Aircraft Corporation. Emsco blossoms to a two-runway
airport with a manufacturing facility and a flying school (Unauthored,
1932 Emsco Plant is idle and is leased to Champion Aircraft Corporation
for eight months. The facility is then leased to Curtiss Manufacturing
of Los Angeles for the assembly of trucks, busses, and airplanes
1933, February W.B. Kinner forms Security National Aircraft Corporation
and takes over the Downey facility to manufacture special folded-wing,
single-engine aircraft. Three planes were sold and Kinner abandoned
the plant (Unauthored, 1988).
Post 1933 - 1936? Baker Oil Tool Company operates the facility
(Unauthored, 1988). Information on their operations was not available;
possibly manufactured tools for the oil industry.
1936 Jerry Vultee creates Vultee Aircraft Corporation, a division
of Aviation Manufacturing Company, manufactured the V-ll a single-engine
attack bomber that was sold to Spain, China, Latin America, and
the Middle-East (Unauthored, 1988).
1941 Vultee Aircraft acquires a large minority interest of Consolidated
Aircraft of San Diego and forms Consolidated-Vultee, and later
Convair (Barton,1988). These two plants produced more than 13,000
aircraft during the war (Unauthored, 1988).
1940 - 1941 The United States Army Air Corps acquired 93.7 acres
of land adjacent to the Convair facility and constructed 644,700
square feet of factory space. Convair added about 178,000 square
feet to its working area. Overall, the facility was expanded
from 84,000 square feet to 906,700 square feet (Unauthored, 1988).
1946 Consolidated-Vultee received a contract in 1946 to study
a long-range missile program called the MX-774 Program. The program
was canceled in July, 1946 (Murray, 1981). Doors of the Convair
Downey facility closed shortly thereafter (Unauthored, 1988).
1948 North American Aviation (NAA) leased the Convair-owned and
government-owned properties. The Convair property is used for
storage and the government property is used for manufacturing
aircraft. The Aerophysics Laboratory, which consisted of a rocket
propulsion, electronics, nuclear power, and aerodynamic space-type
hardware research is housed at Downey (Unauthored, 1988). ·
NAA works on the MX-770 missile system.
Downey operations are renamed Missile and Control Equipment Division
(MACE) and are dedicated to missile technology (Barton, 1988).
1949 First high-thrust liquid rocked engine is constructed. Early
investigations at Downey show that nuclear-powered missiles would
be premature; therefore, NAA diverts their Aerophysics Laboratory
work to commercial applications. The first water boiler-type
nuclear reactor is put together at the Downey laboratory. The
reactor had the ability to power a flashlight (Murray, 1981).
1950 NAA purchased the Convair property (Unauthored, 1988).
1953, September NAA exchanged the property north of Imperial
Highway in Downey to the government and the property south of
Imperial Highway and Aviation Boulevard by Los Angeles International
Airport is deeded to NAA. The Downey facility became known as
United States Air Force (USAF) Plant #16. NAA is awarded a facility
contract to maintain, refurbish and expand the site (Unauthored,
1988). The Navaho supersonic cruise missile program, USAF Weapons
System-104A (WS-104A), begins from 1953 to 1957
(Unauthored, 1988; Barton. 1988). The Downey facility develops
the prototype (X-10), the rocket booster and ramjet (XSM-64),
and a full-scale Navaho (SM-64).
The Navaho results in the development of the chem-milling process
and brazing of stainless steel sandwiches (honey combed metal)
to develop a light-weight metal frame. In addition, the technology
for welding pressurized aluminum alloy tanks is developed. Technology
from the Navaho is also used to develop the Redstone engine (Barton,
1955 NAA divides into its various divisions and moves them off-site.
The Missile Division (space elements) and Autonetics Division
(electronics and avionics) remain at Downey. Rocketdyne (rocket-fueled
propulsion engines) and Atomics International (commercial nuclear
power generation) divisions move to Canoga Park in San Femando
Valley (Unauthored, 1988).
1957 USAF Plant #16 is about 1,453,137 square feet (Unauthored,
1988): The Hound Dog, Weapon Systems-131(WS-131) air-to-surface
missile program is launched (Unauthored, 1988).
1958 Space Act of 1958 is passed, which created the National
Space Council and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
(NASA) (Barton, 1999).
1959 NAA received the contracts for the Little Joe launch vehicle,
which consisted of a launcher, booster, and full-scale capsules
to be used in the development of the Mercury program (Barton,
1960 NAA reorganizes the Downey facility into the Space and Information
Systems Division (S&ID). The Downey facility offices are
remodeled (Unauthored, 1988; Barton, 1988). 1961 NAA received
contracts to build the Saturn S-II launch vehicle and the Apollo
Command and Service Module. NAA receives another facility contract
from USAF (Unauthored, 1988).
1962 Downev plant has 250,000 square feet of manufacturing and
test facilities added for the Saturn and Apollo programs. The
Autonetics Division departs to Anaheim and its vacated offices
are transferred to these programs (Unauthored, 1988).
1964 The USAF Plant #16 is transferred to NASA, as NASA Plant
#1. NAA receives a facility contract from NASA (Unauthored, 1988).
1965 - 1966 NASA plant #1 facilities are expanded for the Apollo
program (Unauthored 1988). Construction included Buildings 288
and 290. A S-II Pressurization System Facility is constructed
in the area just north of Building 288 (Barton, 1988).
1967 NAA merges with Rockwell Standard forming North American
Rockwell (NAR). The S&ID name is changed to Space Division
(Murray, 1981; Unauthored 1985).
1969 NAR is awarded the Space Station contract.
Early 1970s NASA's facilities cover about 1.7 million square
feet and the Rockwell facility covers about 450,000 square feet.
The Downey facility is about 200 acres. In 1970, Rockwell sells
two buildings located south of lmperial Highway to Los Angeles
County (Unauthored, 1988; Unauthored, 1995). Also in 1970, a
Rotational Research Facility is constructed to evaluate the effects
of rotation on a human's ability to perform operational risks.
The Skylab program originally called Apollo Applications Programs
1972 Rockwell is contracted to design, develop, test and evaluate
the Space Transportation Systems (STS), also known as the Space
Shuttle program (Unauthored, 1988). The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project
(ASTP) design development and testing are undertaken (Rockwell
1973 NAR and Rockwell Manufacturing merge to form Rockwell International
(Rockwell). Rockwell is awarded the Navstar global positioning
system satellite program (Rockwell News, 1983; Unauthored, 1985).
1974 Full-scale mock up is made of Shuttle located at the NASA
Downey facility, in Building 001,just west of the DEI room (Rockwell
1978 Rockwell is working on the Space Shuttle Orbiter's development
1979 Space Division receives contract to modify the Space Shuttle
Orbiters (Rockwell News, 1983).
1980s Downey Space Division is renamed Space Transportation Systems
Division (STSD) (Rockwell News, 1983).
1981 - 1986 Rockwell constructs four Shuttle spacecraft. A fifth
shuttle constructed was used for approach and landing test (Unauthored,
1988). Completion dates for the Shuttles are: Columbia, March
1979; Challenger, June 1982; Discovery, October 1983; Atlantis,
April 1985; and Enterprise, September 1976. The majority of the
engineering and manufacturing are accomplished at Downey and
final assembly is at Palmdale (Rockwell News, 1983).
1987 - 1991 Endeavor is constructed to replace the Challenger.
The Space Station Freedom program is being worked on (Rockwell
1992 Activities at Downey are consolidated (Unauthored, 1995).
1995 Rockwell is developing several new space surveillance and
anti-missile defense systems for the Department of Defense (DoD)
and, is the prime contractor for the Airforce Navistar GPS Block
II/IIA Satellites and launch vehicles X-33 and X-34 (Unauthored,
1995). Mid-1995, the manufacturing facilities are relocated and
consolidated at the Palmdale facility. Shuttle tooling from off-site
subcontractors and a Bell, Caliifornia warehouse are placed in
storage at various locations at the Downey facility (Unauthored,