Spy Planes and Firetrucks Can Ease Summer Doldrums for Children : Activities: Lots of things that are educational are also fun. And besides that, they’re all free.

<i> Lustig is a frequent contributor to View. </i>

It’s the middle of a long summer. The children are bored, and you’re looking for someplace different to take them, preferably someplace educational as well as fun.

Well, there are plenty of tours designed for children and their parents. How about a tour of the Burbank Airport? Or a hands-on inspection of the equipment at a fire station? Maybe a close look at NASA spacecraft and an SR-71 spy plane?

All of these and more are available, and all are free. Some are open only to organized groups; some have age limits; others accept everyone. Check before you go.

Fire Stations


Almost every fire department offers tours. But stay flexible; the tour may be interrupted by a call, or worse yet, you may arrive to find an empty fire station.

For the Los Angeles City Fire Department, call the Public Information Office at (213) 485-6054 during normal business hours Monday through Friday. Don’t try phoning individual fire stations--as a rule, the telephones are not listed. Even if you know the number, they’ll probably direct you to the information office.

According to Firefighter Gary Svider, the office will take your address, locate the nearest fire station and arrange a tour time, usually a weekday between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department, which serves much of the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys, has a similar policy. If you live in the Antelope Valley, contact the county Fire Department station in Lancaster at (805) 948-1180. In the Santa Clarita Valley area, call the Newhall station at (805) 253-7373.


The county not only has fire stations but also firefighting helicopters, based at Whiteman Airport, 12605 Osborne St., Pacoima, and known as Air Operations. Tour requests can be made through the Public Information Office at (213) 267-2411, at least a week ahead of time. Tours will probably be scheduled for the weekend and can be expected to take an hour.

“An excellent time would be between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m., when the helicopters are taking off for their standby stations,” said pilot Gary Bertz of the county Fire Department. “Otherwise, the choppers will only be static displays.”

Like fire stations, Air Operations is open to individuals or groups from a single family to about 40 people at a time.


There is something about airplanes and airports that appeals to almost everyone, and both major San Fernando Valley airports--Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena and Van Nuys--have organized tours.

At Van Nuys Airport, which caters to general aviation and is one of the busiest facilities in the country, the tour program is geared for visitors 6 years old and up. Booked in advance, the tour starts at 10 a.m. Mondays through Fridays until September. After that, tours shift to being scheduled at 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. They last about an hour and 15 minutes.

Visitors board an airport bus and tour the airfield with the aid of a guide, stopping at various points of interest. For example, they see how mechanics maintain and work on corporate jet aircraft, watch brand-new jets being customized and get a close look at the many aircraft that regularly visit the airport. The California Air National Guard and its Lockheed C-130s are no longer stationed here--they moved to Point Mugu near Oxnard--but visitors can sometimes tour the inside of a corporate jet and see what the cockpit looks like. Unfortunately, the control tower is off limits.

There is an observation area off Waterman Drive near Woodley Avenue where picnic benches have been installed, so you can grab a bite and at the same time watch the many landings and takeoffs.


Information about Van Nuys Airport tours can be obtained by calling (818) 785-8838.

At Burbank Airport, which caters to both general and commercial aviation, tours are scheduled almost every day for various organized groups, although you will still have to call for an appointment.

“Our tours start on the outside of the terminal building and work their way in,” said guide Pat O’Donoghue. “We show people the baggage service, skycaps, our Police Department and the noise monitoring system.” Other highlights include the security checkpoints, an explanation of the baggage X-ray system, and when available, the inside of a commercial jet and a peek at a cockpit. Tours of the control tower may occasionally be arranged, for adults only.

An airport history display documents the continual evolutionary changes of the airport, including photographs taken during World War II, when it was camouflaged to look like a pasture in aerial views.

A couple of times a week, O’Donoghue said, Sherlock, the Department of Agriculture beagle, visits the luggage area to sniff out fruit (remember, Burbank is in the Medfly quarantine area).

For more information, contact the airport tour office at (818) 840-8840.

Post Office

Ever drop a letter through the post office mail slot and wonder what fate has in store for it? Sure, it’s addressed to Sacramento, but that doesn’t mean it won’t wind up in Poughkeepsie.


Some local post offices will allow group tours, said John Conte of the U.S. Postal Service. Their telephone numbers can be found in the white pages of the telephone book under United States Government.

A guaranteed tour for everyone, however, is at the Van Nuys general mail facility, which is where local post offices bring their mail for sorting and routing.

“Most people don’t realize what a letter goes through after someone drops it through the slot,” said postal worker Pat Lonsinger. “Everyone sees the letter carrier or the person behind the counter, but they’re amazed at all the equipment necessary to process the mail.”

What visitors will see includes anything from ordinary mail bags to exotic canceling machines and automatic character readers, bundling equipment and weighing machines. Individuals, families and organized groups up to 30 are welcome.

The Van Nuys mail distribution center is at 15701 Sherman Way in Van Nuys, (818) 908-6625. Call at least one day in advance to make an appointment for a one-hour tour, taking place at 4:30 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. There are even free coloring books for the children.

Police Station

Ever wonder if the real police act like Kojak, Columbo or Joe Friday? If you’re a resident of San Fernando or Burbank, you can find out for yourself.

“Visitors get to see the entire facility, from the jail, to communications and vehicles, to where the detectives work and the briefing room,” said Sgt. Bill Green, 35, of the San Fernando Police Department.

The department welcomes organized groups and school tours of up to about 60 people, but because of time constraints, it can’t handle individual requests.

Tours are scheduled for Wednesdays any time from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but you’ll have to make an appointment at least two weeks in advance. The tour takes about an hour. For information, call (818) 898-1254.

Residents who visit the Burbank police station will not only get a tour, said Lt. Duane Dow, but a demonstration on how the sirens and lights work on the patrol cars, as well as a peek at the booking office. The jail area is off limits, however.

“It’s primarily aimed at elementary and junior high school children,” said Dow, “and we prefer groups no larger than 15.” Appointments for the Monday through Friday tours must be made a week in advance.

And there’s more.

The Burbank Police Department has an evening ride-along program for adult city employees and residents (sorry, no children) where they can tag along with the cops.

“The purpose is to let citizens actually see how the police function and get firsthand knowledge of what goes on out there,” said Dow. The program starts with a tour of the station and winds up with a three-hour stint in a patrol car, he said.

“All you have to do is call and say, ‘I’d like to be a part of the ride-along program,’ ” he said. “You’ll be contacted by an officer on the swing shift, be asked to fill out an application form, and then we’ll accommodate you as quickly as we can.” Both men and women are invited to participate.

For the daytime station tour, contact the Burbank Police Department watch commander at (818) 953-8744 before 3 p.m. For the evening adult-only ride-along program, ask for the watch commander at the same telephone number after 3 p.m. The station is at 272 E. Olive Ave.

Japanese Garden

Unlikely as it may sound, in the middle of the efficient and ultra-modern Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant at 6100 Woodley Ave. is a 6 1/2-acre Japanese Garden, complete with a lake and teahouse, available for public tours.

No tours are available inside the surrounding reclamation plant, since it is being expanded to allow for a higher volume of water.

No children under 12 are allowed on the one-hour Japanese Garden Tour, which is scheduled every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 9 a.m. and 10:15 a.m. by appointment only. Call (818) 989-8166 for information.

Space Base

Future astronauts as well as those who remember being in awe of John Glenn’s three orbits around the Earth might be interested in the NASA Museum at Edwards Air Force Base, near Rosemond in the Antelope Valley.

“There is a 24-minute movie explaining the history of the facility as well as the various major programs that are going on now,” said NASA’s Don Haley, “followed by a walk through the main hangar to see the airplanes we use.”

The exact equipment may vary, depending on what is being used that day, but includes research versions of the FA-18 Hornet and the F-15 Eagle, and the oldest B-52 still flying--it once carried the X-15 rocket plane. Raising the heart rate of exotic-airplane enthusiasts everywhere, the last active Lockheed SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft also is on view. Recently retired from the U.S. Air Force, the Mach 3, meaning the craft can attain a speed of about 2,000 m.p.h., the once-super-secret spy plane is now flying exclusively for NASA, performing high-altitude test flights.

Reservations are needed for the tours, which are at 10:15 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. Monday through Friday. Everyone is invited; just call ahead and see when they can fit you in.

Edwards Air Force Base is northeast of Lancaster off California 14. For additional information and exact directions, call (805) 258-3446.