LA VERNE — So you're up there. The little airplane bobs lightly across airy swells, and the San Gabriel Valley is spread out 1,000 feet below. Where do you go?
How about Brackett Field in La Verne? There's a little restaurant in the administration building. You can sit on an open-air terrace there and watch all the Beechcraft and Cessnas touching down daintily on the airport's parallel runways.
Once in a while a whistling Lear jet, as sleek as an M-1 round, will rocket into the sky, or some World War II antique will sail in with a guy who looks like a young Van Johnson at the controls.
It's an airplane fanatic's dream locale, with a backdrop of the craggiest San Gabriel Mountains. People have been known to move, lock, stock and barrel, to La Verne or San Dimas just so they could be close to Brackett.
Take Alan and Karen Smith, formerly of Yorba Linda. Alan Smith says their recent move to the Via Verde section of San Dimas, a mile away from Brackett, placed them in a rare statistical category--"people who actually moved out of Orange County."
The couple are regulars at Norm's Hangar these days, taking their coffee and scrambled eggs on the awning-shaded terrace before going up for a spin in their Cessna 310, a nifty twin-engine plane with room for six people.
"We really liked the airport and we wanted to be close," says Alan Smith, customer services manager for Southern California Edison.
John and Ken Nissen, the brothers who manage the little restaurant, say there are a lot of people like the Smiths. Their customers shove the tables together on Saturdays and Sundays to plan airborne excursions to Death Valley or the High Sierra, or they just sit there, dreamily taking in the panorama or listening to the control tower chatter that is broadcast over speakers in the restaurant.
"You have your pilots and your wanna-be pilots," says Rob Cheek, another recreational pilot who lives nearby.
There are also plenty of folks flying in from Las Vegas or Anaheim for breakfast or lunch at Norm's.
"On nice days, you'll see them coming in, one after the other," says John Nissen, a short man with a neat, marmalade-colored beard. You'll probably see them ordering omelets and bacon cheeseburgers at Norm's too, or else waiting at the front door for an empty table.
Norm, for whom the restaurant is named, is the brothers' father, a longtime restaurateur who has operated coffee shops at county golf courses for more than 20 years. Right now, he's in Palm Springs, keeping tabs on his restaurant at the Palm Springs Municipal Golf Course.
Like most of the customers, father and sons have all been bitten with the flying disease. "Yeah, I'll get up a couple of times a week for a half hour, 45 minutes," says Ken Nissen, stepping from behind the grill.
Nowadays, the conversation at Norm's focuses a lot on fuel prices. The price of 100 octane low-lead airplane fuel has shot up about 25%, to better than $2 a gallon, since the Persian Gulf crisis.
"You used to be able to just jump in a plane and say, 'Let's go fly,' " says Roy Wallace, a flight instructor who is one of the Sunday morning regulars at Norm's. "Now you have to make an event of it."
People also fret a lot about privatization. The 286-acre airport is owned by Los Angeles County, which is committed to selling off its five airports. Airport Manager Doug Nelson acknowledges that the Public Works Department has been negotiating with contractors to take over Brackett.
"I think the only thing people have to worry about is if a private contractor decides to raise the (rental) rates," Nelson says.
Brackett is, of course, a choice location for Southern California recreational fliers. It's outside that 30-mile radius around LAX, where private planes must be equipped with special transponders to broadcast their altitude and location.
"You don't have to cross the Los Angeles Basin to get in or out," says Smith. Natural passes through the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains, carrying fliers north, northeast or east, extend out from Brackett like spokes from a hub.
Nestled between Bonelli Park and the Fairplex, the airport is largely isolated from residential areas--and neighbors complaining about the noise.
And pilots say it's a gem of an airport.
"It's the prettiest one in Southern California," says Joyce Johnson, who got her pilot's license to keep up with her retired husband. "In the wintertime, there's snow in the mountains . . . the whole bit."
But hangar space is in short supply. The airport's 260 hangar spots rent for between $265 and $470 a month, says Nelson. And there's a long waiting list. Brackett's 250 tie-down spots go for $52 a month.
Part of the ritual at Norm's is grumbling about expenses. "People have this idea that we're all rich," says Cheek. "But most of us are poor because we're pilots. It's paying $50 for a cup of coffee . . . Think of it. We travel 100 miles for a cup of coffee and a hamburger."