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'Hollywood Air Force' Survives Dispute

December 08, 1988|T.W. McGARRY

"The Hollywood Air Force," which once flew biplanes out of Griffith Park, was the object of a long, political tug of war between a rejected suitor and a reluctant new neighbor.

The 146th Tactical Airlift Wing of the California Air National Guard--nicknamed "The Hollywood Air Force" by other military fliers--marked the halfway point of its 2-year-long move from Van Nuys to Point Mugu with a spectacular mass departure Saturday.

The 1,500-person unit, the largest Air National Guard tactical airlift wing in the United States, traces its origins to an Army National Guard squadron that began flying open-cockpit biplanes in 1924 from a dirt airstrip used by early mail planes in Griffith Park. According to the wing's historians, the airstrip is now the parking lot of the Los Angeles Zoo.

A permanent mark of the wing's 36-year stay in the San Fernando Valley is the tunnel that carries Sherman Way under one runway of Van Nuys Airport.

From 1955 to 1960, the unit was charged with defending Los Angeles from long-range Soviet bombers, and the runway was lengthened to accommodate F-86 jet fighters. The street was in the way, but the city insisted on keeping it intact, so the tunnel was built.

The jet fighters drew noise protests from neighbors, but with the arrival of the ICBM age, the fighters were phased out.

Even after the unit switched to cargo planes, protests continued. The gate on Balboa Boulevard, convenient to Valley-based protesters, was the scene of many protests during the Vietnam War, when the wing operated medical evacuation flights that brought wounded soldiers home.

As recently as August, 1987, 34 anti-Contra demonstrators were arrested during a protest against the wing flying supplies to American embassies and military missions in Central America. Spokesmen said few or no weapons were carried, and the flights had no connection to the Contras' U.S.-backed war in Nicaragua .

The wing began searching for a new home in the early 1980s. Officers said it was being squeezed out of Van Nuys Airport by a combination of factors.

The airport--the busiest general aviation airfield in the world--and its surrounding area had become too crowded for military use, both in the air and on the ground, they said. For safety reasons, military-style flying became impossible about 10 years ago, spokesmen said. The wing's planes remained based in Van Nuys but were flown to Air Force installations elsewhere for training.

Lease Income

In addition, the Los Angeles Department of Airports has long coveted the 62 acres occupied by the Air National Guard, which could bring $1.7 million a year or more in lease income on the commercial market.

The city charged only $1 a year under terms of the agreement by which the federal government donated the airfield to the city after World War II. But the city also charged a "runway-use fee," which grew from $6,999 in 1948 to $76,000 by 1982.

When the $1 annual lease expired in 1985, the city extended it only after the guard agreed to a $300,000 annual runway-use fee and a monthly rent of $235,235 if it was not off the site by Dec. 31, 1989.

The search for a new home became involved in a municipal tug-of-war. Air National Guard officers preferred Point Mugu on the Ventura County coast. They said it was a better area for recruiting and retaining personnel, especially pilots and the about 350 full-time members who keep the wing functioning when "weekend warriors" are unavailable.

City leaders in nearby Camarillo protested, however, complaining that the wing would bring noise, pollution and safety problems. Palmdale and Lancaster, on the other hand, lobbied heavily to have the wing transferred to the Antelope Valley, saying it would be an economic boon.

Bureaucratic Shoving Match

Members of Congress, the governor and other officeholders were swept into the struggle between the two regions in a 3-year-long bureaucratic shoving match, while the Air National Guard tried both to fend off the ardent courtship of the desert cities and overcome resistance from Camarillo.

In the end, the Air Force, which supplies 98% of the Air National Guard's budget, decreed that the wing would go to Point Mugu.

It remains to be seen whether the unit will keep its nickname. "The Hollywood Air Force" and "Hollywood Guard" were originally taunts by air guardsmen elsewhere, and Air Force regulars, because the Van Nuys base and its planes were so convenient to Hollywood that they appeared often in films and television programs, including "Raid on Entebbe," "The Six Million Dollar Man," "Firefox" and "Call to Glory."

Undaunted by the nicknames, members of the wing adopted them proudly--to the annoyance of some top Air National Guard officers, some said--and emblazoned them on unofficial cap emblems and a flag.

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