It is unique to the United States, if not the world, that 14 of America's most famous aviation pioneers, including the Wright Brothers' mechanic, Charles Taylor, are buried just steps away from Burbank's busy airport and the former site of Lockheed's Skunk Works. Appropriately these graves are covered by dignified bronze tablets with shiny symbols of propellers and wings. These Early Birds rest beneath the dome of an ornate structure, so singular in its own right that it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is now called The Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation and Museum and since 1996 has been open year-round to the public. However, for decades the building and the pioneer aviators' graves deteriorated with neglect. It took a 6.8 earthquake and a quest to find the grave of a daring Bleriot pilot who died in 1910 to restore the Portal's place in American history.
The Search for John Moisant
In 1995, while researching the life of Harriet Quimby, America's first licensed female pilot, I first learned about John Bevins Moisant. John and his brother Alfred, formed a school on Long Island, NY, to license aviators and formed a flying exhibition team which toured the United States and Mexico. Matilde Moisant, their sister, joined Quimby in the school's first class and she ultimately became the second licensed female aviator in the United States. John had earned his license under the instruction of Louis Bleriot in France and soon captured the imagination of the world by becoming the first to cross the English Channel (Paris to London) carrying a passenger, his mechanic, Albert Fileux, and a kitten, he called "Paree-Londres."
John then quickly took America by storm winning the controversial Belmont Park Aviation Meet's race around the Statue of Liberty against European competition. (Eventually the prize money he won was reclaimed and given to England's Claude Graham White). On the last day of 1910, John was killed in New Orleans as he attempted to break the world's altitude records. He was hastily buried in a vault at Meterie Cemetery by his grieving family. Pilots may recognize "Moisant Field" or the call letters MSY for Moisant International Airport which was named for John. Today it is known as New Orleans International Airport. Although I lived in Southern California during 1995, I traveled to New Orleans to lay a flower at the base of Johnny's vaulted grave, and asked the cemetery office for burial records.
During a wild storm, rain-drenched and cold, I found the vault. Although it was small by comparison to the surrounding tombs, I had at least hoped for an inscription, but the stone face was eerily blank. I left a flower and note to John anyway. With thunder clapping between the stone mausoleums, a cemetery employee implored me to drive with him back to the office before I was struck by lightning. Back in the safety of their lobby I couldn't shake my hunch that something was not quite right about Johnny's grave. I pressed the receptionist to look for more information. Soon, fortified with leather-bound registers dated 1910, I found a record of his burial and a note hastily added sometime during the 1960s. In disbelief, I read that John Moisant's remains had been relocated at Matilde's request to Valhalla Cemetery in California. The reason I saw no inscription on his vault was because he was no longer there.
I had traveled more than 2,500 miles in search of Johnny's grave, only to discover he was within 10 miles of my home. When I returned to California, I hurriedly visited the cemetery where he and his sisters were buried.
I had never heard of the Portal of the Folded Wings, and I did not know that the 1994 Northridge earthquake had caused such severe damage to the exterior of the structure that it was almost torn down. Instead, the owners were convinced that the architecture was valuable enough to restore. When I saw the Portal for the first time in September 1995, it was a construction site shrouded in scaffolding 100 feet tall. I wore a hard hat when I entered via an area piled high with cement and tile debris. Under the grime I had no idea the walls were of white marble, nor that the sky-blue ceiling was painted with huge gold stars. Plywood covered the floor and the graves I wished to visit.
Learning from the past
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