Van Nuys Airport to be Memorialized in DVD

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.

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.

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