Retirees return to old LAX power plant to help usher in new utility

Retired plant engineers at Los Angeles International Airport have been called back to work to help current plant workers as they phase out the old heating and cooling utility and bring the new $438-million power facility, left, on line.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Officials kept their cool as they turned up the heat to finish construction of a new central utility plant in the middle of Los Angeles International Airport.

LAX operators invited retired plant engineers to return and help run the old heating and cooling plant while current engineers were being trained to operate a new $438-million facility.

On Tuesday, the retirees will be on hand at noon when 79-year-old former chief building operating engineer Walt Garrick flips the switch to shut down the old plant, which has been in continuous operation keeping airport passengers and workers comfortable since 1961.

Garrick was the senior engineer in charge of running the heating and air conditioning plant when it first opened. When it was upgraded in 1982, Garrick oversaw the modernization. He retired in 2002 after spending 42 years running the plant, which sits in the shadow of LAX’s control tower.

Since his retirement, Garrick has traveled monthly from his West Hills home to have lunch with his former LAX co-workers.


When airport officials began training current utility plant employees last fall to operate the new plant’s machinery, they decided to ask the retirees to come back and help run the old equipment.

“We needed a transition team,” said Bob Johnson, a senior engineer with LAX. “We could have hired outsiders, but we’d have had to train them. These guys know the plant inside and out. And once everybody else heard that Walt was on board, they enthusiastically jumped in.”

Garrick said he will be sorry to see the 53-year-old circular-shaped central plant demolished next month. Its site will be used for a 1.6-million-gallon thermal storage tank that will hold chilled water to cool airport terminals during the day.

“We all feel like it’s the end of an era,” Garrick said. “It’s funny to think that I was here for the entire life of this plant.”

Former operating engineer Ed Callegari, who retired 31/2 years ago after spending nearly three decades at LAX, said he was happy to return and help.

“Coming back was a pleasure,” the Carson resident said. “This place was beautiful. I’ll be sad when it’s knocked down. It’s sad to see it go.”

Retiree Don Ris, who helped run the plant from 1988 to 2010, said working in the middle of LAX was exciting.

“All of us feel like this is a family,” said Ris, of Lakewood. “We all enjoyed working here. It wasn’t just a job, it was our lives. Most of the machines here have a 25-year life span. But we doubled their life expectancy by keeping them well maintained.”

Other retirees who returned to help keep the old equipment humming were Al Acuesta, a Fullerton resident who retired in 2005, and Bob Lopez, who lives in Long Beach and retired after transferring in 2007 to the city’s Department of Water and Power.

Present-day plant engineers said they welcomed the old-timers’ return.

“Seeing them is like seeing former NBA players,” said Adrian Gomez, of Rowland Heights.

The new plant will double the airport buildings’ cooling capacity and increase steam-heating capacity by about a third to allow for new LAX construction. Its gas turbines will generate nearly 9 megawatts of electricity for the airport, with excess power exported to the DWP’s electrical grid.

Officials said remnants of the old plant’s antique-like control room will be preserved and displayed outside the new plant’s digitalized and computerized nerve center.