By Cecilia Rasmussen
Times Staff Writer
January 22, 2006
It's probably best known for a bit of fiction: the romantic final scenes in "
But for nearly 80 years, pilots have known Van Nuys Airport as the world's busiest noncommercial airport, with a takeoff or landing every 45 seconds. It's home to about 800 planes, ranging from corporate jets to puddle jumpers.
Barnstormers and daredevils — Florence Lowe "Pancho" Barnes, Amelia Earhart and Evelyn "Bobbi" Trout among them — broke records there. An experimental flying automobile was invented and flight-tested there.
When the airport opened in 1928, it was surrounded by farms and fields.
But as the city grew, housing hemmed it in, and the new neighbors grew to resent it.
Concerned about the airport's future and determined to memorialize its past, pilot and first-time producer and director Brian Terwilliger has produced a DVD valentine.
Terwilliger, who owns a Northridge production company, spent more than five years crafting the documentary, "One Six Right." The title comes from the compass heading painted on the tarmac of the airport's busiest runway.
"When pilots hear 'one six right,' they know they're home," said former TWA pilot and air safety consultant Barry Schiff, a narrator of the film.
"Every two weeks, an airport closes in the
Van Nuys Airport is in no danger of closing any time soon, however; it's far too important to the Valley's economy.
"It's the largest employer in the
Terwilliger, who learned to fly at Van Nuys, interviewed an eclectic mix of airplane lovers, including director Sydney Pollack, actor Lorenzo Lamas and news anchors Hal Fishman and Paul Moyer, all of whom learned touch-and-go landings at Van Nuys.
The airport harks back to the era when
By the late 1920s, more than 50 little dirt airstrips had been carved from farmlands and orchards.
The airport officially opened Dec. 17, 1928, the 25th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight. A bronze plaque was dedicated to the airport's visionary promoters and pioneer aviators who helped link Van Nuys with the rest of the world.
"It was one of the first engineered and designed airports in the nation, not like all the established ones with no facilities or forethought,"
From the start, the man in charge was Waldo Dean Waterman, a test pilot, designer and engineer for Bach Aircraft Co.
In 1929, three airplane manufacturing companies, including Bach, and 81 airplanes called the airport home.
Waterman began promoting nonstop races to
On Jan. 1, 1929, as other Southland airports were vying for attention, Waterman's promotional skills brought Army Maj. Carl Spaatz, Capt. Ira Eaker and their crew to Van Nuys. They set an endurance record, staying aloft nearly seven days in the "Question Mark," a three-engine Fokker C-2, and demonstrating midair refueling for the Army.
Waterman also encouraged daredevils to try for aviation firsts. The day after the Army crew took off, "Bobbi" Trout set an endurance record of 12 hours, 11 minutes, flying her Golden Eagle monoplane in circles over the airport.
Trout's flight reportedly infuriated Spaatz — who years later became a general and, in 1947, the first Air Force chief of staff. He complained to Waterman about a woman flying in his airspace, aviation historian Jack Carpenter says in the film.
" 'What do you want me to do? Shoot her down?' replied Waterman,' " Carpenter says.
Waterman himself broke the altitude record at the airport in July 1929, reaching 20,000 feet while carrying a 2,200-pound load.
On Nov. 22, 1929, Amelia Earhart took off from Van Nuys and set a speed record of 184 mph.
Pancho Barnes broke that record on Oct. 25, 1930, with 196.19 mph. She took aerial photos of the Stanford-USC football game in
But the 1929 stock market crash was disastrous for Van Nuys' aircraft builders and many of its plane owners, who went broke. According to the documentary, however, the place wasn't idle: On its landing strip, planeloads of Mexican liquor poured into Prohibition-era
By now, there wasn't much airport to manage. But Waterman stayed, even when Bach — his financial backer — went belly up. (The company reorganized under another name in 1931.)
In 1932, Waterman unveiled a flying automobile — a tailless flying-wing monoplane that he called his "Whatsit." He moved to
In 1933, debts forced the airport into the hands of a single owner: Drusilla Daily Warner. Warner's son, Dean Daily, ran the airport until 1941.
Daily, a former cameraman and soundman, used his connections with the film industry to promote the airport not only as a departure point but as a film location. While growing banana squash between the runways to make ends meet, he snared film shoots, including "Lost Horizon" with Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt in 1937 and "Test Pilot" with Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy in 1938.
By 1941, Daily had built it into the largest and busiest general aviation airport in the nation. But the Japanese attack on
"Six squadrons of P-38s trained here,"
After the war, the city of
As for "
By Rollie Baumann:
Our family lived in a house on a 10 acre walnut grove on the N.E. corner of Sherman Way and Hayvenhurst, adjacent to the airport, when WW II started. I was 9 years old. Ultimately this parcel of land was taken over by the Govt. for expansion of the airport and used, as stated in the article, as a base for training pilots in the P-38. I can vividly remember several graduation days for the various pilot classes when the sky would be filled with P-38's "showing off". It was a grand and glorious sight. I also, very vividly, remember the day when the Northrup "Flying Wing" flew over the airport. The excitement to see an "airplane" of this nature was overwhelming. How could it fly without a fuselage and tail, we all wondered?
During the war a number of companies on the airport property produced aviation related items for the war effort. One factory made the Timm Glider. This glider which, as you may remember, was filled with combat troops, towed close to German lines, and then set free to glide silently and land behind the enemy lines. I was quite familiar with the airport as I sold afternoon newspapers at several of these factories during the war years.
After the war ended one of the factories was converted to manufacture the Davis 3 wheel automobile, a revolutionary car for its time. I watched the fascinating demonstration of the car a number of times at the factory, which brought in hundreds of curious people. I remember Mr. Davis well as he always gave me a tip when he bought a paper. Unfortunately, it was ultimately determined that Mr. Davis only hand produced about 6 cars, changing the paint on them to make people think that he was "mass producing". The story goes that he was selling dealer franchises, with no intention of producing an auto. I felt bad when they sent Mr. Davis to the slammer as he was a really nice man, in my young naive thinking.
After my "gig" in the Navy and before I was hired by Northwest I lived in Van Nuys for about a year, working at the rocket factory (Rocketdyne) in Canoga Park. I was a member of a club that owned and operated a Cessna 150 out of the Van Nuys airport. Soooo, , , , as I said, the old Van Nuys airport is near and dear to my heart and brings back many fond memories.