On a stretch of Mojave Desert, the Los Angeles Department of Airports has big plans to build a vast airport, one that officials say will be needed as congestion grows above and around LAX.
Just outside Palmdale, 36 square miles of empty Mojave Desert stretch from a cluster of runways and aerospace plants to the hills on the horizon.
Coyotes and the Mojave green rattlesnake live there undisturbed, except for the occasional roar of advanced--sometimes top-secret--airplanes from the Air Force base next door. Occasionally, the serenity is shattered by “turf wars” between sheepherders competing for the scrubby brush that grows between ruined foundations of scattered houses demolished more than 15 years ago.
This empire of sand is a monument to the undying dream of the Los Angeles Department of Airports, which still hopes to build a vast airport on the site someday--one that officials say will be needed as congestion increases above and around Los Angeles International Airport.
The proposed airport has been scaled back since 1968, when the department announced plans for a “superport” for supersonic, intercontinental jetliners, plans which eventually came to nothing.
But in an era when complaints of a national airport shortage are growing, there is no doubt that someday Los Angeles will have an airport there, department officials insist. Conversely, even some members of the city Board of Airport Commissioners, which sets policy for the department, doubt that much will happen until well into the 21st Century.
In the meantime, the department has poured more than $100 million into acquiring and maintaining 17,750 acres of desert, a strip 9 miles long and 4 miles wide at points. The projected airport would be five times the size of LAX and the second-largest U.S. airport, surpassed only by the Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport.
The City of Los Angeles has paid Los Angeles County $8.9 million in property taxes in the past 17 years and the bill is running $750,000 a year, the airport department says.
Except for a $1.5-million federal grant in 1969, none of the money has come from tax funds. It has come from the airport department, which supports itself on fees charged to airlines, concessionaires and tenants.
The motive for acquiring so much land was to head off in the 21st Century a problem plaguing LAX and other U.S. airports today--political and legal assaults mounted by increasingly well-organized neighbors angered by noise and traffic. At LAX, the assaults have come from neighborhood groups in Westchester and El Segundo, resulting in changes in flight paths and expensive programs to buy or soundproof homes affected by noise.
The Department of Airports sees the huge tract of desert as a chance to build an airport where there will be no neighbors. The runways of the proposed airport are 6 miles from central Palmdale.
“We need to get operations moved up there from LAX, which is just bursting at the seams,” said Don Schultz, president of Ban Airport Noise, a San Fernando Valley-based group.
Airport officials maintain that a Palmdale airport would reduce traffic at Burbank and Van Nuys airports, but not necessarily at LAX. And there is no chance that any airport will be shut, they say.
According to some studies, “even with every airport in Southern California operating at full capacity, and a Palmdale airport open and handling 12 million passengers a year, we would still need yet another airport,” said airport department spokeswoman Virginia Black.
The Palmdale facility, she said, “is more to accommodate the growing need” rather than drain passenger loads from LAX, but it is too early to determine what impact an airport in Palmdale would have on LAX.
“We’re talking sometime off in the future. For all I know, we could be traveling in space by then.”
El Segundo Mayor Carl Jacobson said the Palmdale airport would be “way in the future. . . . Anything will be a help if it can relieve any traffic out of LAX--air or ground--but I’m not holding my breath that it’s going to drain anything from LAX. . . . We can hope, we all want it to.”
Population a Major Factor
Population growth in the Los Angeles Basin and surrounding areas will force construction of the Palmdale airport eventually, said Los Angeles County Supervisor Deane Dana, chairman of the Southern California Regional Airport Authority.
“There are studies that say the Palmdale area will be another San Fernando Valley one of these days, and we don’t want all those people pouring down the freeways to LAX,” he said.
In a survey published in the Atlanta Constitution last month, commercial pilots termed LAX the most dangerous airport in the United States, citing both congested air traffic and noise-control restrictions.
These are the kinds of pressures that will eventually force airlines and the city to begin using Palmdale, insists Clifton Moore, executive director of the Department of Airports.
“We were probably way ahead of our time in anticipating the demand for Palmdale airport,” Moore said. “But everything we’ve done since 1968 was correct, and we will still see a great airport someday in Palmdale.
“The predictions are for an increase in the population in Los Angeles of more than 3 million in the next 20 to 30 years, mostly the children of people living here now. LAX is approaching its capacity.”
As recently as 1978, LAX planning was based on estimates of a top capacity of 40 million passengers a year, Black said. That number was surpassed in 1986, and last year LAX handled 44.8 million. Current projections are based on an estimated load of 65 million passengers by 2000, she said.
In the absence of an airport in Palmdale, the department makes whatever money it can on its desert land. It leases the land for uses from manufacturing to farming and sheep grazing, and made $1.2 million on it last year. Occasionally, sheepherders whose employers have paid the city for grazing rights--$1 an acre per year--chase off other herders who sneak onto the land, according to Jim Bort, the manager of the site for the department.
The Department of Airports also runs an experimental farm to determine which crops will withstand the high desert’s blazing hot summer days and freezing winter nights. It raises, among other crops, pistachio nuts, which are distributed at department social affairs, packaged in jars with the department’s logo.
Two acres are planted in guayule bushes, a desert plant from which rubber can be extracted.
A Complicated Tale
Why the originally announced jetport was never built is a complicated tale involving money, the San Andreas Fault, demographics, the airline business, a high-speed train and the U.S. Air Force.
Those factors are still in the airport’s future.
Complicating the present is the fact that the City of Los Angeles already has a Palmdale airport of sorts.
Bordering the west side of the department’s desert tract is a 6,000-acre installation usually called “Air Force Plant 42,” but which includes the Palmdale Air Terminal, a deserted civilian airport built by Los Angeles. It has a terminal and taxiways, but has no airline service or passengers.
Plant 42 is a link between the aerospace industry and the U.S. government, where manufacturers complete assembly of aircraft and turn them over to the Air Force.
Lockheed, Northrop and Rockwell have plants there or on the neighboring Department of Airports land, some working on classified projects.
Rockwell is building the replacement for the lost space shuttle Challenger. Northrop is building the secrecy-shrouded stealth bomber. Although the Pentagon will not discuss the subject, it is widely rumored that Lockheed is building stealth fighters, which may have made test flights from there.
The Air Force has long opposed the city’s plans for a giant commercial airport at the site.
Just 30 miles north of Plant 42 is Edwards Air Force Base, which has been the Air Force’s most important flight test center since World War II. Edwards is where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, where the space shuttles landed and where generations of new fighter planes have been thrown around the sky, without worries of sharing the air with jetliners.
Air Force spokesmen said the military does not want commercial traffic using some of the airspace now reserved for military test flights and combat practice.
“The Department of Defense has opposed any big airport there since 1968 and we continue to do so,” a Pentagon spokesman said recently.
Plant 42 was once a Los Angeles County airport, acquired in 1947 but sold back to the Air Force in 1954. The city built the civilian passenger terminal in 1971, and briefly operated it for the City of Palmdale.
The Department of Airports faces many obstacles to attracting commercial services to Palmdale.
The Antelope Valley is a long way from the big passenger pools of the Los Angeles area--52 highway miles from Burbank, 60 from downtown Los Angeles and 73 from LAX. The Palmdale-Lancaster area population of about 80,000 is growing rapidly but still is not attractive to major airlines.
“At present, there is no demand,” Moore concedes.
Los Angeles originally opened the Palmdale Air Terminal, a 9,000-square-foot building on 54 acres leased from the Air Force, in June, 1971. One of its goals was to “establish a pattern of airline service into the Antelope Valley.” It didn’t happen.
One after another, three airlines offered service there, mostly commuter flights to Los Angeles. In 1978, 36,000 passengers used the terminal. But after that, traffic fell to between 12,000 and 20,000 a year until airline service ceased in 1983.
Cut Daytime Hours
The Department of Airports complains that the Air Force, which runs the control tower, reduced its operations to daytime office hours, effectively squeezing out commuter flights.
The Palmdale airport was conceived in the late 1950s, Moore said, although it was not endorsed by the Board of Airport Commissioners until August, 1968.
It was originally advertised as “the world’s largest intercontinental airport, for the planned supersonic and hypersonic jets.”
Los Angeles began acquiring large chunks of desert--one of the biggest was Walt Disney’s ranch--and demolishing the few scattered houses on the land.
The airport was to be operating by the mid-1970s, but obstacles in its path multiplied by the month.
All plans for large-scale passenger use have depended on some form of high-speed train linking the airport with the Los Angeles Basin.
Ground traffic congestion for those trying to reach LAX from the San Fernando Valley will eventually provide the spur to go to Palmdale instead, Moore insists.
“The day is coming when the idea of driving from the Valley to LAX in 30 minutes is going to be a joke,” Moore says. “It may take less time to drive to Palmdale from Van Nuys than to LAX.”
The federal government in 1970 chipped in $300,000 to study construction of a 150-m.p.h. monorail between LAX and Palmdale. As time went by, Black said, “the idea just sort of died as the administrations changed in Washington.”
In addition, the Sylmar earthquake of 1971 collapsed some freeway overpasses in the northeast San Fernando Valley, where a rail line would have been located. The damage pointed up the vulnerability of a rail system to earthquakes, because the rail line must cross the San Andreas Fault.
Airlines and passengers showed little willingness to go to Palmdale. The supersonic and hypersonic jetliners did not come along as expected. When the Concorde appeared, the United States banned cross-country flights at supersonic speeds, effectively limiting it to transatlantic flights.
The Department of Airports secured permits to build the airport, but the Sierra Club and the Palmdale Homeowners Assn. sued in 1971 to block the project, alleging inadequate environmental studies.
That began 16 years of a tortured legal odyssey that included an attempt by Caltrans to revoke the state construction permit on the grounds it was 10 years old. Los Angeles resisted and eventually won the dispute, with the state agreeing that the permit had been issued without a time limit.
However, the federal environmental review is still being challenged by the Air Force, and until the matter is settled, the airport project is not eligible for federal grants.
But backers of the Palmdale airport project had their hopes raised recently when California and Nevada decided to study building a high-speed rail line between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The line is expected to be paid for by private investors, probably European or Japanese. It would be built on highway medians and run as a private utility.
Airport officials have expressed the hope that the line be routed through the Palmdale airport site to the northern San Fernando Valley.
The department’s first priority is to get some kind of passenger service operating out of the air terminal on Air Force Plant 42, Moore says.
Cost of $36 Million
But if the need arose, the department could build the first stage of a new airport in “five years or so.” The plans include a 10,000-square-foot terminal, one runway and space for three jetliners. The estimated cost is $36 million.
The years of predictions that “Palmdale airport is just around the corner” have left skeptics in their wake.
Sam Greenberg, a member of the Board of Airport Commissioners for 15 years, predicts the airport will not be built until well into the 21st Century.
“There’s not going to be much action up there for a long time,” Greenberg said. “It’s a matter of how long it takes for the population to grow to the point where the heat is on politically and there’s no place else to go..”
Area: 17,750 acres
Acquisition Cost: $92 million
Annual Income: $1.2 million
Annual Taxes Paid: $750,000