Safety Record Vexes Airfield on City Fringe


Whiteman Airport is a place where motorists still drive out onto the taxiway and where controllers operate without radar. When the last tower worker departs in the evening, he leaves the runway lights on.

Whiteman is also one of the fastest-growing airports in the region, a booming profit center where 300 new hangars are planned--with 50 to be built this year--to reduce a waiting list of two years.

But as the once-isolated country airport emerges into a turbulent new era, it has acquired a different sort of notoriety: a significantly high number of accidents.


Eight have occurred in the last three years, including three double fatalities, according to a review of National Transportation Safety Board records. Each involved a pilot departing or arriving at Whiteman, accident reports show.

That record has alarmed some political leaders, who have questioned just how safe the airport is, a question that sends shivers up the spines of aviation enthusiasts fearful of losing yet another landing field, which are disappearing nationally at a rate of one per week.

Whiteman’s two much-larger neighbors have far better safety records, the files show. Van Nuys Airport, the busiest general aviation airport in the world with six times as much air traffic as Whiteman, had 13 accidents in three years, with two fatalities. In the same period, three accidents with no fatalities were reported at the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport, which has double the number of operations as Whiteman.

Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon last spring called for a safety investigation into the county-owned airport.

“The airspace in the San Fernando Valley is very busy, with three airports in close proximity and the many aircraft that transition over or through this area,” county Public Works Director Harry W. Stone responded. “Three or four of the . . . accidents were happenstance in relation to Whiteman Airport.” Although arguing that several of the incidents cited by Alarcon should not be attributed to Whiteman, Stone acknowledged that its rate of accidents “seems excessive.”

A 1990 county-sponsored study of the airport noted “a relatively high number of incidents” at Whiteman that it blamed on the predominance of recreational and flight-training operations. That report cited more than one accident per year at Whiteman between 1979 and 1990, a rate that a spokesman for a national pilots group said is typical of similar-size airports.


A Times study of current federal records revealed accidents that had not been included in previous tallies. Those figures raise the eyebrows of even the staunchest protectors of general aviation.

“The number of accidents [at Whiteman] does seem unusually high,” said Bruce Landsberg, executive director of the privately funded national Air Safety Foundation, which monitors federal statistics for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. But he said relatively small numbers of accidents can skew statistics.

An executive at Comarco, a private contractor that operates Whiteman and other airports, expressed surprise at the statistics. Asked to comment on the high number, Richard Loomis, a Comarco vice president, said, “We will have to take a look at each to determine if there was any real relationship to the airport.”

A Down-Home Atmosphere

Whiteman pilots, most of whom fly small, antiquated, single-engine aircraft, zoom in and out of an intricate air-traffic pattern over the San Fernando Valley. On air navigation maps, a tiny half-circle resembling a bite by Pac-Man marks Whiteman’s airspace, sandwiched into space reserved for Burbank and Van Nuys airports.

On takeoff, pilots at Whiteman have to make an abrupt left turn at “Four Stacks,” the city’s steam generation plant that serves as the ground marker separating weekend aviators from commercial jet traffic at Burbank.

“Whiteman is a pain,” confessed one FAA official, explaining the complexities of maneuvering air traffic through Los Angeles.


Whiteman is only 3.8 miles northwest of Burbank Airport, which annually handles almost 180,000 operations, mostly commercial jetliners and corporate aircraft.

Just six miles to the southwest is Van Nuys, which had more than 537,000 operations last year. Van Nuys has the eighth-busiest airport tower in the nation, ranking just below traffic at international airports in Phoenix, Miami and Detroit.

The three Valley airports make up only a tiny piece in the Southern California air-traffic puzzle, where 6,500 pilots a day compete for space in the sky. “The Los Angeles Basin is arguably the busiest, most complex airspace in the country,” said Tim Pile, FAA regional spokesman.

Despite its urban location, the atmosphere at Whiteman is laid-back. A shady lawn with picnic tables separates the runway from the airport office.

In the funky Crosswinds Cafe, a neon sign promotes Red Wolf beer. Flanked by white-painted brick walls and aged wood paneling, the room is dark, even on a clear, bright day. A blue skylight beams an eerie glow. Tiny colored lights drape from a faux roof over the bar. At one end of the room, two electronic dart games flash lights and beep.

On Friday nights, the cafe hops. People crowd into a room with a pool table, a dance floor and a bandstand. The late-shift air-traffic controller in the tower across the runway from the cafe goes home at 8 p.m., leaving the tower unmanned but the runway lights on. The din at the Crosswinds continues well past midnight.


The airport never closes. Occasionally, a twin-engine cargo plane, fogged out at Burbank, lands in the wee hours on the 4,000-foot strip, considerably shorter than those of its big brothers designed for modern jets.

Dusk on most weekends means time for “hangar flying.” Hosts set out bowls of pistachios and fire up butane heaters. Groups of aviation enthusiasts rove from hangar to hangar, trading stories about airplanes and flying.

“It’s a country airport in the middle of the city,” said John Marshall of Studio City, a 55-year-old semiretired television reporter who operates a biplane sightseeing business at Whiteman.

“Whiteman is family-oriented, recreational fliers of all ages; very friendly,” said Jon Bergstrom, 55, who took a job pumping gas at Whiteman in 1960. He became airport manager in 1991. “This is kind of a hobby that grew into a job.”

Whiteman is busiest on weekends, when pilots and their families fly to mini-vacations at Big Bear, Mammoth, Las Vegas or Mexico. Groups of four or five planes fly out together for breakfast at other airports, such as Santa Paula or Agua Dulce. (Flo’s Cafe at Chino is famous for its biscuits and gravy.)

“Old-time cars, guns and airplanes, we’re all into it,” Bergstrom said. “We all like outdoorsy, fresh air, and flying is a part of that.”


Chuck Hicks, an FAA district manager in Los Angeles, parks his plane at Whiteman.

“It’s in an excellent position as far as general aviation traffic getting in and out of the Valley,” said Hicks, who called Whiteman fliers “just a good group of people.”

Whiteman is the most profitable of the county’s airports, grossing more than $1.7 million a year in hangar fees and fuel sales, said Ted Gustin, the county’s aviation chief.

“It’s a moneymaker,” Gustin said. “It has more based airplanes than any other [county] airport.”

County supervisors in 1990 adopted a master plan for Whiteman, one that eventually will segregate auto traffic from the taxiway and replace and relocate temporary trailer offices with permanent buildings and private flight lounges.

Just a few years ago, a pilot at one end of the runway could not see a plane at the other end because the view was blocked by a hump in the middle. But some $7 million in safety improvements have been made in the last six years, including leveling, widening and resurfacing the runway.

Obstacles such as a water storage tank and tall trees also were removed. Pilots credit Comarco with finally getting things done at Whiteman that the county’s bureaucracy failed to accomplish.


Mistaking Whiteman for Burbank

Local pilots and airport officials quickly rise to Whiteman’s defense.

“The airport has gotten a bad rap,” lamented Leo Deason, 74, of Sylmar, a retired airline pilot who’s been flying in and out of tiny airports since they were no more than dirt strips in the ‘40s.

“Every time a plane from Santa Monica to who-knows-where lands at Hansen Dam, people say, ‘Oh-oh, another crash at Whiteman,’ ” Deason said. “It just isn’t fair.”

It took an act of Congress to get Whiteman a control tower. Before that, pilots talked to one another by radio or established visual contact to coordinate their landings and takeoffs.

The airport was founded in 1946 on a farm by sportsman pilot Marvin Whiteman Sr. and was purchased by the county in 1970.

Ten years ago, annual operations peaked at an estimated 140,000--far more than today--but were still below FAA standards that require 200,000 operations to qualify for a tower.

But just months after a deadly 1986 airliner crash in Cerritos--in which 82 people died when an airliner was struck by a small private plane--two incidents involving airliners and Whiteman fueled a congressional drive for a tower.


In December 1986, the pilot of a Continental Airlines DC-9 mistook Whiteman for Burbank Airport. Whiteman workers quickly phoned the Burbank controllers, warning them to alert the pilot, and frantically waved off the jetliner as it came within 400 feet of landing.

A week later, the pilot of another airliner dropped into Whiteman’s airspace to avoid a collision, entering space reserved for small aircraft.

Citing the incidents and complex air traffic around Whiteman, then-Sen. Pete Wilson led the battle for a tower. The FAA finally relented.

Officials today credit the tower with improving safety.

But tower manager Ron Swope said he would feel even better if radar were installed, allowing the controllers--most of whom are in training--to more efficiently track all air traffic over the northeast Valley.

“It’s a pretty tight line getting into the [Whiteman] airport, especially from the east,” Swope said. “If a pilot is not careful about what he’s doing, he can wander into [Burbank’s] airspace and we won’t know it. Burbank has radar, but they can’t always look up here.”

Controllers grab the phone and call Burbank if they fear one of their planes has strayed.

“We’re doing everything by eye,” Swope said. “Radar would help tremendously.” But he said the FAA has not responded to the airport’s requests.


After the most recent fatalities last fall, Comarco formed an airport safety committee that is looking at safety issues, and handed out fliers promoting safety.

No One on Ground Ever Injured

But why so many accidents? “The number is really high, but I don’t know why,” Swope said.

In the fatal accident last September, a student pilot, flight instructor and a passenger were aboard a single-engine plane that suddenly lost power during takeoff and crashed into two houses under the flight zone. Two people in the plane died and the instructor was seriously burned in the ensuing fire. Everyone on the ground escaped injury, although the houses were heavily damaged. Cause of the accident is still under investigation.

The student was an experienced pilot, completing FAA requirements for certification to fly a different type of airplane, associates said. The instructor, too, is highly experienced and respected at Whiteman, they said.

Another double fatality, last spring, was blamed on a mechanical failure--a frayed control wire, improperly maintained, that caught fire immediately after the plane took off, an investigator said. The plane crashed into a converted garage at a vacant house on Pierce Street.

A wrongful death suit is pending in San Fernando Superior Court over another accident, in 1995. Two men aboard a plane died after the pilot, unfamiliar with Whiteman, aborted a landing, hit a light pole and crashed into a vacant bakery at the south end of the runway.

The suit accuses the city, county and a dozen other defendants of failing to make safety improvements at Whiteman, despite reports of “many close calls” of near-accidents. Charles M. Finkel, attorney for the estates of the two men, said he plans to call numerous witnesses who “will testify that they have seen aircraft come very close to obstacles at both ends of the runway.”


Causes of other accidents, in which no one was injured, included mechanical failures, contaminated fuel, and pilot errors, such as a poor landing and failure to lower the landing gear. In three incidents at Whiteman in the late 1980s, accidents were attributed, in part, to drunken flying.

Gustin, the county’s aviation chief, pointed out that no one on the ground has ever been injured as a result of aviation activity at Whiteman, adding, “There are very few places in the world that have the [aircraft] concentration as that part of the Valley.”

As veteran Whiteman pilot-mechanic-instructor John “Dusty” Rhodes summed it up: “Airplanes are mechanical devices; they can break. But people need to understand that the airport is an integral part of the community.”


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Accidents and Valley Airports

Federal records show six deaths in accidents involving aircraft departing from or arriving at Whiteman Airport from 1995 through 1997.



1997 takeoffs ‘95-97 ‘95-97 ‘95-97 and landings accidents fatalities injuries Whiteman 89,700 8 6 1 serious, 1 minor Burbank 179,860 3 0 none Van Nuys 537,470 13 2 3 minor


Accidents involving Whiteman Airport, 1995-1997

Sept. 25, 1997: Plane crashes into houses. Two killed, one seriously injured.

Aug. 6, 1997: Plane flips over because of a bad landing.

July 28, 1997: Plane lands with gear up.

March 15, 1997: Mechanical failure, plane crashes into empty building. Two die.

July 15, 1996: Engine failure, plane crashes into frontyard.

May 18, 1996: Engine failure, plane lands on golf course.

July 28, 1995: Aborted landing, crashes into building. Two killed.

June 17, 1995: Contaminated fuel forces landing.