Air Guard Caught in Debate About Site of New Base

Times Staff Writer

It could be a bad romance novel instead of a controversial military move.

The desert flower, pure and patriotic, is parading her assets and batting her eyelashes like windmills, trying to attract the flying hero in Air Force blue. Alas, he is hopelessly stuck on a wealthy beach beauty, who spurns him as a nuisance and wishes he would go away.

The center of this triangle is the California Air National Guard unit that has been based at Van Nuys Airport for the past 36 years, which must find a new home for its 1,500 members and 16 large cargo planes.

The Antelope Valley cities of Lancaster and Palmdale in the Mojave Desert would very much like to provide one, arguing that they can offer good flying weather, relatively cheap housing, free land for the unit’s buildings, convenience to training sites and a climate of enthusiastic public support for military aviation.

Lobbying Campaign

But the unit, the 146th Tactical Airlift Wing, appears bound instead for Point Mugu Naval Air Station on the Ventura County coast, despite protests from the neighboring city of Camarillo that it is unwelcomed as a source of pollution, noise, traffic and crash danger.


Lancaster and Palmdale officials have been lobbying Washington and Sacramento, pushing their own campaigns and backing each other’s efforts.

Sometime in the next few weeks or months, the Pentagon will write the last chapter, when the office of the Secretary of the Air Force rules on where the wing will be relocated.

The outlook now is for disappointment all around, except for those members of the wing who want to move to Point Mugu, which was classed as the “preferred site” during a complicated, two-year process of public hearings and input.

Even the members of the unit are divided. Some enlisted members say the officers want the unit to go west because more of them live in the West San Fernando Valley and neighboring areas of Ventura County, while enlisted members tend to live in the less expensive areas of the northeast Valley and in the Santa Clarita Valley, closer to the desert.

Economic Factors

The wing must move in part for economic reasons. The lease expired this year on its 62-acre base on the northwest corner of Van Nuys Airport, a token $1-a-year payment established when the Air Force donated the airport to the City of Los Angeles in 1949.

The 146th’s base is all that remains of the airport’s nearly 44-year-history as a military airfield, which began when the U.S. Army Air Corps commandeered what was then a virtually rural airstrip on the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

Not only would a new lease cost too much, but the wing’s officers say they are being crowded out by urbanization and the growth of civilian air traffic using Van Nuys, the third-busiest airport in the nation in terms of takeoffs and landings.

A basic part of the controversy over the move is the nature of the 146th. Like other military reserve and National Guard units, the wing must attract enough volunteers to remain in existence. Unlike units made up almost entirely of “weekend warriors,” the 146th has a core of 360 full-time members.

About 43 Flights Weekly

The full-timers, called technicians, staff a permanent military base that periodically swells with part-timers. The wing flies an average of 43 flights a week.

But both full- and part-time members can resign, and the wing’s top officers defend the move to Pt. Mugu as dictated by pressure to keep the current members and attract new ones.

“We did a survey of the technicians in middle management--the master sergeants, senior captains, majors and lieutenant colonels, the guys with the resident knowledge, who would be the hardest to replace,” said Lt. Col. Fred Clabuesch, the wing’s base engineer and one of 28 full-time officers.

“Forty-seven said they’d quit if we went to Mugu, but 87 would leave if we went to the Antelope Valley.”

The wing’s officers look on Mugu as a much better location for recruiting, he said.

The Air National Guard points to population forecasts estimating that by 1988 the zone within 50 miles of Pt. Mugu will have a population of more than 1.2 million in the crucial 17-to-29 age group. From there, the wing could continue to draw on the Simi Valley--which now supplies 10% of its members, more than any other area--and the big pool of youth in the San Fernando Valley, while adding residents of the Ventura County Coast and Santa Barbara.

Because the configuration of the mountains around the Antelope Valley makes for long, roundabout drives from much of the Los Angeles area, the Guard argues, its recruiting pool would be limited to the area within 50 highway miles, or basically the Antelope, Santa Clarita and northeastern San Fernando valleys. In 1988, that area is expected to have about 275,000 17-to-29-year-olds--less than a quarter of the anticipated Pt. Mugu pool.

“We can’t go north to Bakersfield or Fresno; they’ve already got their own units,” said Master Sgt. Riley Black, the wing’s assistant public affairs officer. “They’re afraid that sometime down the road, they’d be down to 50% and they’d be looking at us for elimination.”

That’s not how Camarillo, Lancaster and Palmdale see it.

“There’s general opposition to them coming here,” said Camarillo Mayor Tad Bowen. He said the major objection is the noise the wing’s planes would make as they pass over eastern Camarillo, especially over Leisure Village, a retirement community of 4,000. Resistance to the move is strongest among residents of the retirement community, eight miles northeast of the Pt. Mugu runway.

Camarillo Objection

Bowen also complained about the loss of 239 acres of farmland next to the Naval Air Station, on which the wing’s base would be built, as well as traffic congestion from hundreds of cars bearing the 1,200 part-time guardsmen to weekend duty tours.

Spokesmen for the 146th say they don’t believe the noise from their C-130s, each with four prop-jet engines, would be a bothersome addition to the noisy jet fighters and other planes that already use the Pt. Mugu strip.

The city is particularly unhappy, Bowen said, over the Guard’s plans to deal with air pollution. The final environmental impact statement on the move prepared for the Air Force estimated that the wing would add 48 tons of pollutants to the air each year. But the wing promised to offset the effects by donating $42,000 to Commuter Computer, a county-operated service that encourages car-pooling by matching drivers and passengers.

Bowen said he and the other Camarillo City Council members do not think the gesture would do anything to offset pollution from aircraft exhausts, even in the year when the one-time contribution would be made.

He said city officials are also worried about additional traffic on the flight path into Pt. Mugu, which crosses the flight paths into Oxnard Airport, seven miles northwest, and Camarillo Airport, six miles north. Oxnard Airport handles some commercial commuter planes and Camarillo Airport, a former Air Force base, is used by privately owned light planes.

Appeal to Governor

At the unanimous request of the City Council, Bowen earlier this month wrote to Gov. George Deukmejian, asking him to exercise his power as Guard commander to block the move if the Air Force decides the wing should move to Pt. Mugu.

A high-ranking source in the California Military Department, the office through which the governor runs the National Guard, said that, realistically, Deukmejian could not successfully resist the Air Force, and the chances that he would even try “are just about nil.”

Although the governor is technically commander-in-chief of the Air National Guard in peacetime, in practice the Air Force has the last word on many issues because the U.S. Defense Department supplies most of the Air Guard’s budget and defines its mission, he said.

“The budgeting for these folks is supported 94 cents on the dollar by the federal government, and once the Air Force says the situation demands that people be moved to point A or point B, that’s the ball game,” the source said.

Nevertheless, Camarillo is pinning its hopes on the governor, said City Councilman F. B. Esty, who became a leader of the move against the 146th’s relocation when he was mayor last year. “It is our legal counsel’s opinion that the governor has the authority” to halt the move, he said.

Supporters of Move

Not everyone in Camarillo opposes the possible arrival of the unit. The Camarillo Daily News and the Chamber of Commerce have come out in favor of the move.

The newspaper, in an editorial, blamed the City Council action on “a relatively small group of people.” Lamenting that so few residents had spoken out in favor of the move, the newspaper said: “It would be sad indeed and a shame on our city if the negative attitude that Camarillo has shown to this fine military organization is allowed to persist.”

Even some residents of Leisure Village have written to the wing, saying they would welcome it as a neighbor.

But the welcome would be far warmer in the Antelope Valley, said Lancaster Councilwoman Barbara Little, who began the drive to attract the 146th when she was mayor last year.

“We look on ourselves as ‘Aerospace Valley’ here,” she said, pointing to several military aviation installations in the area, including Edwards Air Force Base, celebrated in Tom Wolfe’s book, “The Right Stuff,” as the most famous test-pilot base in the world.

“We deal with men and women in uniform every day, and people here respect and honor the uniform.”

Instead of having to buy farm land at Pt. Mugu, the 146th could relocate to a cost-free site already owned by the government at Air Force Plant 42, the Antelope Valley partisans point out. Plant 42, on the northern edge of Palmdale, is an Air Force field and federally owned industrial complex where aerospace contractors and the Air Force complete assembly of jet planes and conduct test flights.

The Palmdale City Council unanimously passed a resolution favoring the relocation of the wing to Plant 42 and wrote Deukmejian, asking him to intervene. City Councilman Pete Knight, a former test pilot who set speed and altitude records in the rocket-powered X-15 in the early 1960s, was detailed to lobby the Air Force, and the city Planning Department helped develop documentation for the environmental impact statement supporting the Antelope Valley arguments.

The usually clear weather of the high desert, contrasted with the foggy mornings common on Pt. Mugu, would provide more flying time, the Antelope Valley supporters say. Little also discounts the argument that relocating to the desert would drive members out of the unit.

“That’s poppycock,” she said. “The mission morale would be higher here because they could fly a greater number of days every year, and they’ll be happiest wherever they can get the maximum number of flying hours to keep them up to the mark and prepared for their mission.”

Although there is less ground fog in the desert, Clabuesch said, “they have more days when there’s a severe crosswind, which is tougher on operations than a little bit of haze.”

Lancaster Mayor Lynne Harrison said Lancaster and Palmdale have mounted “an extensive lobbying campaign, contacting the governor, the California congressional delegation, Air National Guard officers in Sacramento and the Air Force.

‘Lot of Positives’

“There are a lot of positives for us,” she said, including the financial impact. “It would create new jobs and bring in new sales-tax dollars.”

The wing has an annual payroll and operating budget of $26.8 million, and the Defense Department has proposed spending $9.6 million on relocation expenses in the first year of the wing’s move, which is expected to take several years.

A major argument, she said, is that wherever the wing’s C-130s may be parked, they frequently come to the Antelope Valley to practice.

An important task for the 146th in wartime would be to deliver supplies to troops in the combat zone.

Supplies loaded on parachute-borne pallets can be shoved out the rear of the plane as it roars over ground troops at less than 1,000 feet.

Crews from the 146th often practice such drops on a stretch of desert in the Antelope Valley.

“It just seems so stupid for them to go to Mugu as far as the taxpayers are concerned,” Little said.

“You’re going to get kids from Van Nuys driving to Pt. Mugu on a congested freeway, jumping in their airplane, flying to the Antelope Valley to use our drop zone, then flying back to Mugu so they can drive back to Van Nuys. That’s a lot of time in planes that cost $3,000 an hour to fly, when they could keep the planes right here, a few minutes from the drop zone.”

Support Within Unit

Some of the unit’s members agree.

The move to Mugu “really isn’t in the best interests of the unit,” said one longtime senior member who asked not to be identified.

After practicing supply drops, he said, “in the Antelope Valley we’d be about four miles from home, maybe just get a couple of guys to stay over a few hours. From Mugu, we’re going to have to put crews on two days’ active duty, send them 90 miles or whatever to Lancaster in big trucks, pay them per diem to stay overnight, and have them drive back to Mugu, which isn’t exactly a direct drive on the freeway from the desert.”

Pt. Mugu is the favorite relocation site of some of the wing’s full-time officers, and of many of the pilots, who are part-time officers, he said.

“The officers bought houses in places like Thousand Oaks, while the enlisted people tend to live in places like Valencia and Canyon Country,” nearer the desert, he said. “Houses cost about 50% more around Camarillo than they do in the Antelope Valley and the enlisted technicians just won’t be able to live there.”

Many of the pilots--mostly former Air Force pilots who now hold airline or other civilian jobs--also live closer to Mugu, he said. “And they get the ear of the C.O. They can wander into his office and remind him that ‘Hey, you gotta have somebody who knows how to fly these planes.’ ”

The commanding officer of the 146th, Brig. Gen. Emil Bouckaert, is a part-time officer who lives in the Palos Verdes area, a long way from either site, Clabuesch said. The two deputy commanders, both full-time officers, live in Thousand Oaks, he said, “but we also have officers who live in the Palmdale area.”

Black, the master sergeant, contends that the central issue in the controversy is the ability of the wing to attract the right people in the age of the all-volunteer military, without the pressure of the draft to encourage men to consider a life of weekends in uniform.

“Back when there was a draft, we always had a waiting list of 200 to 400 names. We could be very, very picky. We had three-stripers (airmen first class) who were doctors and lawyers and things on the outside. But it’s not like that anymore, and we have to think about recruiting.”