A quest to southern California to find and fly some classic American planes

By Geoff JonesIn the sixties there were more than sixty designated landing grounds, airfields and airports in the Greater Los Angeles area. This is now down to around thirty. Land prices, housing and commercial developments are putting the squeeze on. Despite this, aviation is still very strong here and has a unique and distinct feel.

My plan was to take in flying at five airports in the area – Chino, Corona, Flabob (Roubidoux), Santa Paula and finally, what is claimed as the busiest general aviation airport in the world, Van Nuys. CHINO AND CORONA My first visit to Chino in 1982 was when it really was ‘cow country’ but now new houses and warehouses are closing in on the airport and soon there won’t be any cows at all. The fuel bowser here cruises the lines of lock-up hangars and tie downs looking for customers, but is never that busy. Why? Well many of the Chino pilots make the ten minute ‘hop’ south to Corona airport located in the next county because aviation fuel taxes there are less – pilots can save up to $0.50 per US gallon. It’s become a honey-pot for thirsty GA aircraft. Hopefully Chino will survive and prosper. It is home for a range of warbirds and their support organisations, including Ed Maloney’s Planes of Fame Museum. Huge investment is taking place with new hangars and associated facilities. One of these, Pioneer Airport, right on the main ramp, is a development by Les Whittlesey, organiser of the Western Waco Association (WWA) fly-in I was scheduled to attend. Seven large hangars, each capable of storing about five or six regular GA aircraft have been built, with lots of smart, peripheral landscaping. Five have already been sold or leased, and close by more are going up. Les’s affliction is classic aircraft – he and his father have two biplane Waco’s and the most shiny and pristine Lockheed 12 twin you would ever wish to see. For this reason the WWA had invited the few remaining Lockheed 12’s on the US West Coast to be guests of the WWA. Three examples made it to Chino, with shades the required eyewear for such a sea of highly polished aluminium. About ten pilots braved the wind in their Waco’s most from the areas surroundings Los Angeles, but all eclipsed by the Saturday afternoon arrival of one pilot from Greenwich, Connecticut, 3000+ miles away on the opposite side of the States. He had taken eight days of flying, and non-flying when the weather turned bad, to reach California in his 1940 Waco UPF-7 biplane. The Waco arrivals from Rialto, Sacramento, Fresno and Aqua Dulce paled into insignificance. FLABOB Saturday lunch for the Waco pilots was to be 15 minutes flying away to the north-east of Chino at Flabob, often known as Roubidoux or Riverside. This magnificent airport was the birthplace of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) first regional ‘chapter’ in 1953, founded by Ray Stits. Flabob’s long and fascinating history would fill several volumes as it embraced many aspects of GA and sport aviation through the years. I met up here for some local flying with former Stinson 108 ‘Skywagon’ owner Dave Cheney, who was keen to show me his newly acquired Piper PA-20 Pacer, originally a PA-22 Tri-Pacer but converted to a taildragger configuration. Dave shares a hangar at Flabob with a Cessna 180 owner and for his half he pays $250 a month rental and there are no landing fees. Avgas at Flabob currently costs Dave $4.05 per US gallon, which he cannot be persuaded is an absolute steal. We flew a few circuits to familiarise me with the PA-20, getting a real close up view of Mount Roubidoux, a rock landmark at the transition from downwind to left base, all the time using the Unicom to tell other plots in this busy airspace of our intentions. Then we headed north at not above 2500ft under the controlled air space that surrounds the Ontario International airport. Before long you realise how heavily developed the area is, housing, railroads, freeways, golf courses and then it’s the mountains. Forced landing locations just don’t exist, a pattern that is repeated throughout the densely populated greater Los Angeles area, with a population of 17.7 million in ’06 and second only in density to the New York area. Back in Chino the WWA evening event was headlined by Brian Terwilliger, the film director of One Six Right. This film about Van Nuys airport is a must for any self respecting aviation family. Of the many sequences in the film that tell the story of flying in and out of Van Nuys, the cloud dancing routine in a Pitts, to the music of Enya, has to be one of the most enigmatic in aviation film history. The film also deals with the disaster of the 2003 bulldozing and enforced closure of Chicago’s Meigs Field by the then mayor, Richard Daley. SANTA PAULAIt was on to Santa Paula north-west of LA and close to the Pacific coast, an early morning drive reliving my youth and Beach Boys record collection, along the Ventura Highway. That Santa Ana wind had a mind of its own. On Saturday afternoon the wind at Santa Paula was a gentle 6kts – this morning it was trying to replicate the name of the local aircraft sales company Screaming Eagle, regularly registering 40kt plus. It was my first direct encounter with wild fires, the local fire-brigade and highway Patrol helicopter trying to douse the flames. The smoke and ash were being blown down the valley by the wind, reducing visibility and chocking the air. Flying here with Dave Watson in his DH.60 and DH.82 Moths was looking very unlikely. Dave is considered “Mr Moth USA”. A retired Lockheed aeronautical engineer, he now runs Splitpin, a spares and information service for DH Moths and DHC Chipmunks. Santa Paula, like Flabob, is one of the LA area airfields dripping with history and nostalgia. Tucked in the bottom of the narrow Santa Clara valley alongside the river, its rows of higgledy-piggledy corrugated iron hangars look dour and uninviting. Ghosts of Hollywood legends such as Steve McQueen, Gene Hackman and Leonard Nimoy pervade the field that so many other Hollywood notables have flown from. The Aviation Museum of Santa Paula tells the whole story and more; open the first Sunday of each month and other times by appointment (www.amszp.org). VAN NUYS I leave Santa Paula – by road – but find the freeway blocked by the Highway Patrol. I have to do a 180� turn and a major diversion. A wildfire up ahead is too close to the road for safety and the emergency services need full and free access. Next stop on my itinerary is to be Van Nuys airport and perhaps my luck will change and I’ll be able to get some flying in here. Ever since I saw Brian Terwilliger’s film ‘One Six Right’ at Chino a few days earlier I’ve been looking forward to my visit to the “world’s busiest” GA airport. I was lined up to meet Steve Rez at the Aero Club very close to the base of the tower on the west side of the airport. The streams of Gulfstreams, Lear Jets and BBJs was incessant, despite the continuing strong winds. They service the LA business community and nearby Hollywood, so say no more. Biggest of the FBOs on the east side of the field is Clay Lacey Aviation with all that Hollywood glitz you’d expect. Photography here is strictly banned in case you happen to ‘snap’ some A-list celeb. Prevailing wind at Van Nuys is from the south so that both 16 runways are most frequently used. The 94th Aero Squadron restaurant is right in line with the threshold of 16 and you can sit on its terrace, drink in hand, watch planes and listen to World War II era music. And whilse bizjets predominate, every aspect of GA is catered for here from vintage biplanes, to helicopters, to warbirds and regular 172s. The Aero Club has a typical selection, Cessna 172, PA-28 Warrior and Seneca IIs available for rent wet at $99, $103 and $211 per hour respectively. Block book ten hours and the rates reduce by about 5%. Steve and his crew will organise TSA approval for you to fly – it takes a couple of days to organise – assuming you have a valid UK licence and medical. Then the world is your oyster, including the low level route at 2000ft right over the top of LAX (Los Angeles International airport). Be warned though that the airspace around LA is extremely busy and it takes a while for the British ear to become acquainted with the often quick and clipped US accent. At LAX (on the ground), if you haven’t had enough of the gridlock on the LA freeway system and haven’t had enough of aircraft, you can dine in style amongst a cache of preserved WWII warbirds, adjacent to short finals of runway 26 left in The Proud Bird Restaurant. Then for some ‘heavy’ airliner take off action, continue west along Imperial Highway to Jim Clutter Park, a designated viewing area on a small hill where the international mix of airlines will amaze. And if that LA smog dissipates, you can even see the famous HOLLYWOOD sign nestling in the hills about ten miles away to the north.The greater Los Angeles area affords a tremendous variety of all types of flying and aviation activity. With the US dollar at over two to the pound sterling there are absolutely fabulous flying bargains to be had.