HAWTHORNE — For months, the program to upgrade the Municipal Airport has been confined to the drawing board of bureaucrats and planners. But now that seems to be changing.
Ground was broken two weeks ago for construction of an automated flight service station--one of 61 such facilities the Federal Aviation Administration is opening across the country for general aviation pilots.
The station, which will open in the fall and serve an area extending from Orange County to Paso Robles, will give pilots a centralized facility for filing flight plans and obtaining advisory information on weather and airport conditions during flights. It will be staffed by 50 federal employees, and the city will receive $7,000 a year for land leased for the facility.
Also, in about a month the city will advertise for bids for the first phase of a two-year, $1.5-million project designed to make the airport safer and more efficient by improving such things as lighting, paving and drainage and providing additional tie-down space for aircraft. The city is obtaining FAA money for the work.
Matter of Pride
"Our plan is to make the airport something the city can be proud of and the users will be happy to come to," said Robert D. Trimborn, the 33-year-old airport administrator, who learned to fly in Hawthorne several years ago.
After booming during the 1960s and 1970s--topping out with 300,000 landings and takeoffs in 1978--airport business began falling off until it reached a low of 98,000 takeoffs and landings in 1981. Trimborn said the rate has climbed back to 150,000.
The decline was not confined to the 65-acre Hawthorne airport. The larger, 385-acre Torrance Municipal Airport has had a nearly 50% drop in takeoffs and landings since 1974, when there were 480,000, according to Airport Manager Jock Cagaanan. There were 271,000 in 1984.
Faced with choices about the airport's future a year ago, the Torrance City Council chose to keep it a recreational flying and training facility. A 20-year master plan calls for upgrading the airport through replacement of old buildings and reconstruction of Airport Drive to provide frontage for lessees. The main taxi ramp was reconstructed.
Reasons for Decline
Both airports blame economic downturns and increased fuel and insurance costs for thinning the ranks of aircraft owners and flight-school students.
"People overlook us," Hawthorne's Trimborn said, explaining that the changes in store for the airport--particularly the FAA facility, which is replacing four existing Southern California stations--have a strong public relations component.
"The station will put Hawthorne on the map and will enhance our auxiliary businesses because pilots like to bring students to airports that have these stations," he said.
Boosting airport revenues is also a major consideration in the wake of pressure from some City Council members who believe the city should be earning more money from the facility. Revenues for the current fiscal year are estimated at $471,200, which is $150,000 short of the airport's operating budget.
Trimborn said he would like to modernize the facilities of the airport's three tenants, who run flying schools, sell aviation fuel and charter airplanes. He said the last commercial buildings at the airport were built in 1952 and "they are in bad shape."
"We need to enhance the revenue-generating capacities of these businesses," he said. "People like to use modern facilities."
More Space for Planes
The airport now has 320 aircraft tie-downs. All are being used and there is a waiting list for them. Trimborn said the improvement program will provide 20 to 30 more spaces for planes.
In the future, Trimborn said, the airport will look at expanding services, including the introduction of commuter airlines. "That's five years away," he said.
Unlike Torrance, where noise complaints resulted in curtailment of nighttime takeoffs and led to a lawsuit against the complaining homeowners by a pilot, the Hawthorne facility has had good relations with its neighbors during its 40-year life as a city airport.
"We've had maybe 10 complaints in the last 12 months," said Trimborn.
But the airport's location along 120th Street, three miles from giant Los Angeles International Airport, keeps some business away, Trimborn said.
No Problem With LAX
"Some pilots are queasy because they see Hawthorne as too near LAX and feel there is too much traffic," he said. But he said the problem is "psychological" because there is no air traffic conflict with LAX, which has a designated flight corridor that is strictly controlled. Trimborn said there has never been an accident involving aircraft from Hawthorne and LAX, and an FAA spokesman said there is "no air space problem" between the two airports.
A thorny problem that Trimborn inherited when he came to Hawthorne nearly two years ago--turmoil between airport management and pilots who use the facility--appears to have tapered off.
"Relations between us and the city are pretty good right now," said John Fields, an aerospace engineer and president of the Hawthorne Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn.
Fields said that while airport facilities are old, they are "reasonably well maintained. It is a good airport and it works for those who are there."
Origin of Dispute
The dispute between the city and the pilots was originally over a revision of airport rules and regulations, and it escalated into a campaign by the association for an Airport Commission to advise the City Council on airport affairs.
Just over a year ago, the council turned down that proposal but suggested that the association serve as a kind of unofficial airport advisory committee.
Fields said that function is being served, pointing out that the association assisted the city in applying for the airport improvement funds.