With a martini in hand, John Cashen was deep in a discussion of military electronics, when a 747 jetliner seemed to float past in slow motion onto LAX’s south runway complex.
Cashen, who pioneered the radar-evading design of the B-2 Stealth bomber, stopped to watch the plane — just a few hundred yards away — thunder past his table at the Proud Bird, the aerospace industry’s favorite watering hole for more than a half-century.
“There’s no place else like this in the world,” said Cashen, 76, who retired from Northrop Grumman in 1993 but still consults for the firm.
The biggest names in aerospace have sat at the bar here to watch the planes land, people such as Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh and Neil Armstrong.
But the Proud Bird’s days may be numbered.
John Tallichet, the current owner and son of the late founder, said it will close Nov. 21, after an unsuccessful two-year effort to negotiate a new lease from the property owners, Los Angeles World Airports.
The city airport commission says it can’t help the historic gathering place, saying that federal law, which controls some aspects of airport operations, requires current market value for rents.
Although Boeing Co., Northrop Grumman Corp., the Aerospace Corp. and Raytheon Co. all have major facilities nearby, the industry is much smaller than in its heyday and less able to support the red-meat-and-fish dining room.
Nonetheless, supporters of the restaurant are outraged by the upcoming closure, saying that it would mean the loss of an important piece of Los Angeles’ history.
Tallichet blames a tangle of federal and city laws that have raised his costs.
Under city law, airport businesses must pay a “living wage” of nearly $16 per hour, even though the Proud Bird merely sits on LAX-owned land. It can’t compete with nearby restaurants not subject to the rule, Tallichet said.
At the same time, federal law compels the airport to charge a market-based rent for the property. Tallichet’s lease expired two years ago and he had hoped to obtain a new 20-year lease, based on the old rent of about $200,000 per year, he said. But the airport commission said it would have to set the rent at about $500,000 annually, based on its market assessment.
Gina Marie Lindsey, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, said she does not want to drive out the Proud Bird, but the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation already has opened an investigation that includes the Proud Bird lease and has been pressuring the agency to explain why it has not already increased the rent.
“We are not seeking to close down the Proud Bird,” Lindsey said. “It is not something that is fixable by the Los Angeles World Airports. We have actually done what we can to help them.”
If a historic Hollywood restaurant with connections to the entertainment industry were in a similar situation, patrons say, the city would rush to save it. A spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti had no immediate comment.
Tallichet is hoping for an eleventh-hour miracle, though he has formally notified employees, patrons and the airport that it is closing.
Lovers of airplanes have a lot to appreciate at the Proud Bird, which was opened in 1958 by Tallichet’s father, David, who flew a B-17 over Europe during World War II.
The restaurant is surrounded by about 20 vintage aircraft, some mounted on poles and others parked on an adjacent grass field.
The collection includes some of the most important airplanes built in Southern California, including the North American P-51 Mustang, considered the top fighter of World War II, and the Douglas DC-3 transport, which dominated civil aviation for more than a decade.
A few of the planes are genuine aircraft, but others are fiberglass replicas that were produced by the Tallichet family.
“At one time, we had the largest collection of World War II aircraft,” Tallichet said. “My dad traveled around the world looking for old planes. I didn’t see a lot of him when I was growing up.”
Inside, hundreds of photographs line the walls, paying tribute to the industry that has helped propel the Southern California economy, starting with Glenn Martin’s aircraft shop in 1912 that was housed in a former Santa Ana church.
There are special exhibits for the elite contractors once headquartered in Southern California: Lockheed, Northrop, Douglas, Hughes, North American Aviation, Consolidated Aircraft and Vultee Aircraft, among others, many of them long forgotten by the public.
The most renowned test pilots have their own displays, among them Tony Levier, the late Lockheed pilot who made the first flight in the U-2 spy plane, and Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier.
The restaurant recognizes heroes of past wars, such as the Tuskegee Airmen, African American pilots who flew with a distinguished record in World War II. It named a special banquet room for them, and the few remaining members of the unit and many survivors of the late airmen make regular visits.
“There’s nothing like the Proud Bird,” said Theodore Lumpkin, 93, a Tuskegee Airman who served in Italy during the war. “It makes a connection with the community in so many ways, spreading the word about the Tuskegee Airmen.”
“That would be a disaster if the city put them out,” said Craig Huntly, the historian for the local chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen. “The Proud Bird is more than a restaurant. It is a custodian of a rich history of our city and made it available to the public.”
In a narrow, wood-paneled hallway, there is a tribute to women aviators, among them famed racing pilot Jacqueline Cochran, wing-walker Lillian Boyer, African American pilot Bessie Coleman and, of course, Amelia Earhart.
The restaurant, and its adjoining banquet rooms, have counted on the aerospace industry near LAX for decades, hosting celebrations of mission successes, retirements and promotions.
Test pilots from Edwards Air Force Base have long held their annual bash at the Proud Bird. Hughes Aircraft has held giant parties for their missions, such as the 20th anniversary of Surveyor, the first spacecraft to successfully land on the moon.
Robert Hoover, a World War II fighter pilot who gained later fame as a test pilot, said he has been going to the restaurant since the 1960s, dining with Lindbergh, Doolittle and Yeager, as well as Paul Tibbets Jr., the pilot of the Enola Gay bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb.
“It will be a sad day for aviation in our city if it closes,” Hoover said.
[For the record, 6:40 p.m. Nov. 9: An earlier version of the post referred to the Los Angeles World Airports Commission. It is called the Board of Airport Commissioners. It also misidentified Gina Marie Lindsey’s title. She is executive director of Los Angeles World Airports.]