“Blue Sky Metropolis” is a four part documentary chronicling the history of aeronautics in southern California. All the big names in aviation history are here and maybe a few you didn’t expect: Walt Disney, Howard Hughes, John Northrop, Glenn Martin, Amelia Earnhart and Wernher Van Braun. “Blue Sky Metropolis” is part of PBS’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.
To cover a century of history around aviation is a daunting task but one that two time Emmy Award winner and one time Peabody Award winner Peter Jones was happy to conquer. “It’s a great story and a big one, “said Jones. “When you have a subject like aerospace you have to keep the human drama first and foremost.” To do this Jones told the personal stories of the people who changed history.
Lieutenant William Powell was a WWI veteran who could not go to flight school because he was African American. The Army Flight Corp had commissioned a study about the ability of African Americans to fly airplanes. It stated that “Negros” lacked mental capacity and courage; and that they were prone to promiscuity and petty thievery. Powell was finally allowed into a small flight school in L.A. When he graduated he started his own flight school and air show for African Americans. All the proceeds went back into the community.
Everyone knows the story of Amelia Earnhart as being the first woman to fly across the Atlantic solo and how she disappeared, never to be found in 1937. Jones chose to tell a different story. “Her husband worked at Paramount Pictures. She was a fan of Hollywood and took a cue from Hollywood on how she posed and the products she sold. She was a celebrity and embraced star quality.”
Thanks to Earnhart women were being taken more seriously but were still seen as sex objects. “There was a beauty contest called ‘The Jet Pulpolsion Laboratory Miss Guided Missile Beauty Contest’,” says Jones. Feeling it objectified women, Jones didn’t use the footage; but now wishes he had included it.
Even Walt Disney got into the act, producing several propaganda films for the military. Parents were horrified at the thought of Mickey and Donald dropping atomic bombs. President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill watched the films when they met to discuss D Day.
One film, which was used to explain space travel to the public, starred Nazi scientist Wernher Van Braun. “Van Braun was a genius. His contribution was huge; but his past was building rockets for Hitler,” says Jones. Van Braun was snatched up by the United States after WWII. “We were competing with Russia for scientists, “explains Jones. “The public did not know about his Nazi past until after his death.”
American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969. Jones recalls being in school when Armstrong made that first step onto the moon, “Everything stopped. The televisions were rolled out and we watched.”
How does Jones envision the future? “The future is bright and unlimited. A young person can create an interesting program and suddenly they are part of the space program. It’s not just government funding anymore, its private people. Spacex just sent 25 satellites into space. Virgin is scheduled to put paying customers into space at the end of this year. Uber plans to have an air fleet. Instead of calling for an Uber car you will be able to call for an Uber helicopter. “
“Blue Sky Metropolis” premieres Sunday, July 14th at 8 p.m. PT on KCET before becoming available to PBS stations across the country during the month of August. Each episode will stream for free on the KCET app, the PBS video app and on YouTube, kcet.org/bluesky.