L.A. Agrees to Jointly Use AF Base at Palmdale for Commercial Flights

Times Staff Writer

The City of Los Angeles agreed Wednesday to take partial control of an Air Force base in Palmdale for commercial airline flights, effectively delaying indefinitely the already moribund proposal to build a successor to Los Angeles International Airport in the Mojave desert.

The Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners voted unanimous approval of an agreement with the Air Force under which the city will take joint control of Air Force Plant 42 at Palmdale. It will be renamed Palmdale Regional Airport.

In return, the city promised not to build an airport on a vast tract of city-owned land in the Palmdale area until the capacity of the joint military-civilian airfield is exhausted.


The agreement, already approved by the Pentagon, is for 25 years, with an option to renew for another 25 years.

Although Clifton A. Moore, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Airports, said he feels that the city still will need to build an airport of its own in the Palmdale area before the end of the century, other airport planners said they cannot foresee a time when the capacity of Palmdale Regional Airport will be exceeded.

Lt. Col. Wayne Schnell, a representative of the Air Force, said the military now uses about 25% of the airport’s capacity, “and I think it may never fill up.”

The Pentagon sought the agreement because it has objected for years to a Los Angeles proposal to build Palmdale International Airport. Military officials said they feared that heavy commercial air traffic would interfere with test flights of sophisticated new aircraft at Air Force Plant 42 and nearby Edwards Air Force Base.

Air Force Plant 42, an Army Air Field in World War II, was purchased by Los Angeles County in 1947 and operated as a commercial airfield until the Air Force bought it in 1954. The City of Los Angeles, as the agent of the City of Palmdale--which leased part of the airport from the Air Force--again operated it briefly as a commercial airfield about 17 years ago, airport officials said. The city built a passenger terminal at that time.

Since then, the Air Force has used it as a manufacturing center for the aerospace industry. Northrop, Boeing, Lockheed and other firms have plants there and assemble aircraft from the Space Shuttle to the B-1B bomber.


The plan to build a giant international airport in the high desert, where it would be less likely to draw noise and pollution complaints and could expand at will, began to take shape in the 1960s. Originally, it was thought that a high-speed monorail would shuttle passengers the 58 miles between the city and the airport, flashing through a tunnel to be bored through the San Gabriel Mountains, airport officials said.

In 1968, the Department of Airports decided to buy almost 18,000 acres of land--about five times the area of Los Angeles International Airport--in the desert, and voters approved a bond issue. After years of legal battles with previous owners, the city paid $16 million for the land.

In the meantime, the federal government withdrew an offer of financial help to build the multimillion-dollar monorail, airport officials said. When airlines indicated no interest in moving to the desert, the proposal withered.

Los Angeles still owns the land and pays about $1 million a year to the City of Palmdale in property taxes. For years, the Department of Airports has been leasing out some of the land to pistachio nut growers, alfalfa farmers and other agricultural interests.

The agreement concluded Wednesday allows Los Angeles to contract with airlines for up to 50 “short-haul, domestic” flights per day to points within 500 miles, plus Seattle or Portland, Ore. The airport would be run by a committee of three representatives each from the city and the Air Force, which retains ownership of the land.

The city will pay the Air Force a fee based on the weight of each plane that lands. The fee is currently 20 cents per 1,000 pounds.


To date, the only airline interested in offering service from the field is Desert Sun Airlines, Moore said. A spokeswoman for Desert Sun said the airline--which flies 15-passenger commuter planes between Lancaster, Inyo Kern, Blythe, Riverside and Los Angeles International--is “extremely interested.”

Sam Greenberg, one of the five airport commissioners, said he thinks that the agreement is the best deal the city could get in the present circumstances.

“There’s just no business up there. People from Los Angeles don’t want to go all the way up to Palmdale unless there’s a high-speed rail line or something,” he said, and the city has no money for such a project.

He said he thinks that the city should hold onto its land there, however. He said the city had already paid four or five times what it was worth, “and who the hell would we sell it to?

“We might as well see it through now,” he said, adding that he doubts “that I will ever live long enough to see that airport built.”