Here’s Looking at You, Van Nuys Airport of Old
It’s probably best known for a bit of fiction: the romantic final scenes in “Casablanca,” when Humphrey Bogart bids farewell to Ingrid Bergman.
But for nearly 80 years, pilots have known Van Nuys Airport as the world’s busiest noncommercial airport, with a takeoff or landing every 45 seconds. It’s home to about 800 planes, ranging from corporate jets to puddle jumpers.
Barnstormers and daredevils -- Florence Lowe “Pancho” Barnes, Amelia Earhart and Evelyn “Bobbi” Trout among them -- broke records there. An experimental flying automobile was invented and flight-tested there.
When the airport opened in 1928, it was surrounded by farms and fields.
But as the city grew, housing hemmed it in, and the new neighbors grew to resent it.
Concerned about the airport’s future and determined to memorialize its past, pilot and first-time producer and director Brian Terwilliger has produced a DVD valentine.
Terwilliger, who owns a Northridge production company, spent more than five years crafting the documentary, “One Six Right.” The title comes from the compass heading painted on the tarmac of the airport’s busiest runway.
“When pilots hear ‘one six right,’ they know they’re home,” said former TWA pilot and air safety consultant Barry Schiff, a narrator of the film.
“Every two weeks, an airport closes in the United States,” he said, dramatizing concern for the future of general aviation.
Van Nuys Airport is in no danger of closing any time soon, however; it’s far too important to the Valley’s economy.
“It’s the largest employer in the San Fernando Valley and contributes substantially to the Valley’s economy, with $1.2 billion yearly,” Mark Reynosa, an engineer and military aviation historian, said in a recent Times interview. He also appears in the film.
Terwilliger, who learned to fly at Van Nuys, interviewed an eclectic mix of airplane lovers, including director Sydney Pollack, actor Lorenzo Lamas and news anchors Hal Fishman and Paul Moyer, all of whom learned touch-and-go landings at Van Nuys.
The airport harks back to the era when Los Angeles was in love with flying. The Times promoted “air-minded” projects that eventually put Southern California in the forefront of aerospace. Those stunts figured prominently in the paper’s old news stories.
By the late 1920s, more than 50 little dirt airstrips had been carved from farmlands and orchards.
The Los Angeles Metropolitan Airport in Van Nuys, as it was first called, was the biggest, created by businessmen on 80 acres of walnut and peach groves. Children rode their bikes to the airstrips after school to gawk at the World War I Jenny biplanes aloft. Crowds came to weekend air shows to watch loops, spins and dives.
The airport officially opened Dec. 17, 1928, the 25th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight. A bronze plaque was dedicated to the airport’s visionary promoters and pioneer aviators who helped link Van Nuys with the rest of the world.
“It was one of the first engineered and designed airports in the nation, not like all the established ones with no facilities or forethought,” Reynosa said.
From the start, the man in charge was Waldo Dean Waterman, a test pilot, designer and engineer for Bach Aircraft Co.
In 1929, three airplane manufacturing companies, including Bach, and 81 airplanes called the airport home.
Waterman began promoting nonstop races to Cleveland and spring air races every Sunday in March and April. Soon the airport could boast of many aviation records.
On Jan. 1, 1929, as other Southland airports were vying for attention, Waterman’s promotional skills brought Army Maj. Carl Spaatz, Capt. Ira Eaker and their crew to Van Nuys. They set an endurance record, staying aloft nearly seven days in the “Question Mark,” a three-engine Fokker C-2, and demonstrating midair refueling for the Army.
Waterman also encouraged daredevils to try for aviation firsts. The day after the Army crew took off, “Bobbi” Trout set an endurance record of 12 hours, 11 minutes, flying her Golden Eagle monoplane in circles over the airport.
Trout’s flight reportedly infuriated Spaatz -- who years later became a general and, in 1947, the first Air Force chief of staff. He complained to Waterman about a woman flying in his airspace, aviation historian Jack Carpenter says in the film.
“ ‘What do you want me to do? Shoot her down?’ replied Waterman,’ ” Carpenter says.
Waterman himself broke the altitude record at the airport in July 1929, reaching 20,000 feet while carrying a 2,200-pound load.
On Nov. 22, 1929, Amelia Earhart took off from Van Nuys and set a speed record of 184 mph.
Pancho Barnes broke that record on Oct. 25, 1930, with 196.19 mph. She took aerial photos of the Stanford-USC football game in Palo Alto, returning to Van Nuys about the time the game ended.
But the 1929 stock market crash was disastrous for Van Nuys’ aircraft builders and many of its plane owners, who went broke. According to the documentary, however, the place wasn’t idle: On its landing strip, planeloads of Mexican liquor poured into Prohibition-era Los Angeles.
By now, there wasn’t much airport to manage. But Waterman stayed, even when Bach -- his financial backer -- went belly up. (The company reorganized under another name in 1931.)
In 1932, Waterman unveiled a flying automobile -- a tailless flying-wing monoplane that he called his “Whatsit.” He moved to Santa Monica and continued to tinker with the craft, debuting other models, including a wingless “Arrowbile” in 1937.
In 1933, debts forced the airport into the hands of a single owner: Drusilla Daily Warner. Warner’s son, Dean Daily, ran the airport until 1941.
Daily, a former cameraman and soundman, used his connections with the film industry to promote the airport not only as a departure point but as a film location. While growing banana squash between the runways to make ends meet, he snared film shoots, including “Lost Horizon” with Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt in 1937 and “Test Pilot” with Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy in 1938.
By 1941, Daily had built it into the largest and busiest general aviation airport in the nation. But the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that December changed everything. The Army took over, enlarged the airport, extended and paved the runways and called it home.
“Six squadrons of P-38s trained here,” Reynosa said in the Times interview. “It was also the first location for production test flights of America’s first jet fighter, the P-80.”
After the war, the city of Los Angeles bought the airport as war surplus for $1. The city renamed it San Fernando Valley Airport in 1949. In 1957, it became Van Nuys Airport and the runway was extended to 8,000 feet. The Sherman Way Tunnel supported the longer runway. Today, the airport encompasses 730 acres.
As for “Casablanca,” the hangars and Art Deco tower (torn down in the 1960s) appear in background scenes. But the famous farewell between Rick and Ilsa, on a foggy Moroccan runway, was filmed on a Warner Bros. soundstage.