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Flying Buses Would Have Linked Downtown to LAX

By Eric Richardson
Published: Tuesday, April 21, 2009, at 04:38PM
FLYING BUS-Model of helicopter with passenger carrying pod is inspected by Ann Orbeck. Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library [unitproj.library.ucla.edu]

FLYING BUS-Model of helicopter with passenger carrying pod is inspected by Ann Orbeck on April 3, 1965.

This evening, Metro will hold the first of five meetings updating community members on the "Harbor Subdivision," a rail corridor linking Downtown and LAX. It's a link that has been missing ever since Los Angeles constructed its International Airport, and over the decades the question of how to connect the two has been the spark for numerous proposals.

While rails (and monorails) have been the most popular proposal, the most creative may just be the city's 1960's idea to use helicopter-carried "sky lounges" to ferry flyers from Union Station.

It's the perfect proposal of the space-age 1960's: jet-powered helicopters, a version of the Sikorsky SkyCrane, would lift up a "pod" carrying 60 to 70 passengers and whisk it from Downtown to LAX in approximately nine minutes. Once there it would set the pod down, detach, and lift up another already-loaded pod for the return trip.

The "flying buses" proposal was unveiled in April of 1965, just days after the city's Department of Airports termed feasible a monorail, dubbed "Skyrail," that would connect the two hubs with a fifteen minute trip.

With either proposal, the Airports department hoped to build a terminal at Union Station that would handle up to 30% of passengers through the airport. The hope, though, was that the flying buses would be more flexible than a monorail route, offering the potential to build terminals in other parts of the city.

In 1966 the city applied for and secured a federal grant to study the idea's feasibility. Part of the research was contracted to William L. Pereira and Associates. The following year, Pereira wrote a piece for the L.A. Times praising the bevy of projects under study by the Airports department and painting a picture of how convenient they would make life for Angelenos.

Mrs. Murphy is going to Chicago. She leaves her downtown hotel and steps onto a bus-like trailer drawn by a small half truck, which drives her and 42 other passengers to a "metroport" elevated over the railroad tracks at Union Station. There the trailer, with the passengers still in it, is secured to a giant crane helicopter, gently lifted off the pad, and flown directly to Los Angeles International Airport. Upon landing the passenger lounge is quickly attached to another tractor, driven to the boarding ramp and, less than 15 minutes after she left her hotel, Mrs. Murphy is being shown to her seat by the airline hostess.

Also in 1967, the city council condemned a thirteen acre site next to Union Station for a service center into which the Downtown metroport would be integrated.

So what happened? While simple practicality may have eventually done in the idea, noise was one of the main objections brought against the metroport.

In 1969 the County Supervisors voiced their concern over possible impacts on the Music Center, which they said wasn't designed to withstand the volume of frequent flights. Officials at El Pueblo similarly brought their objections, asking that the Metroport be moved somewhere south of 8th and Alameda. Councilman Tom Bradley (later to become Mayor) also voiced his concern and called for full public hearings.

Work on what became Piper Technical Center finally kicked off in 1978, and the complex was dedicated in 1983. The only heliport included was the one for LAPD.

Metro's Harbor Subdivision study includes no analysis of flying buses in its list of alternatives. Those interested in lobbying for its inclusion can do so Downtown at an 11:30am meeting on Thursday, April 30th, at Metropolitan Water District, Room 2145.

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