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FOR KIDS : Aviation Adventures : Groups young and old as well as families and individuals enjoy visits to Van Nuys Airport.

March 05, 1993|HEATHER W. MORGAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Heather W. Morgan writes regularly for Valley Life.

The rains have ended. Clouds streak across the sky like bold strokes made by a preschooler's paintbrush. Quietly sitting on top of a picnic bench, legs crossed, Zack McAllister and his two sons, Ryan, 8, and Austin, 4, watch their changing patterns.

"I see one coming. Way over there," Austin says, breaking the silence and pointing north.

The boys stand up. Ryan congratulates his younger brother's discovery with a high-five slap.

"That's No. 4 and we just got here," Ryan says. "Looks like a high wing to me."

For the McAllisters, watching the planes take off and land at Van Nuys Airport from the public observation benches has become something of a monthly ritual.

"Being divorced, I only have the boys two weekends a month," said McAllister, a Van Nuys salesman. He lives only miles from the airport, but McAllister admits that it wasn't until his son's class took a tour several years ago that he decided to incorporate the activity into their regular calendar of events.

"It really fascinated him. So now we come on Saturdays with a picnic lunch and just watch for a while. I don't feel so much like a 'Disneyland Dad' anymore. This is so much more, well, uplifting. There's something about looking up . Takes your mind off of your problems and puts us in a good mood. We also get into some pretty heavy conversations."

The McAllisters aren't the only ones who have discovered the treasures of Van Nuys Airport. Thousands of schoolchildren, Boy and Girl Scout troops, senior citizens groups and residents have come to Van Nuys Airport annually since the tours began in 1964, said Stacy Geere, director of the airport's public relations department.

"You can almost see the wonder in their eyes when they take the tour," Geere said. "There's just something magical about airplanes that stirs all of us.

"You really get the opportunity to touch and see what makes this operation tick. The larger commercial facilities just can't offer that."

The tour of the largest non-commercial airspace in the United States, covering 725 acres, runs slightly more than an hour.

"This airport is an intricate part of the San Fernando Valley. Its history is woven into the fabric of the community," Geere said. "And like any history, it's still fresh and vibrant and constantly changing.

Originally called Metropolitan Airport, the field opened in 1928 with about 80 acres of land. By 1929, Hollywood types such as Howard Hughes, Hoot Gibson, Cecil B. DeMille, Gene Autry and Wallace Beery were using it. That same year, Amelia Earhart set a new speed record at one of its air races.

With the onset of World War II, the U. S. Army acquired 163 acres of airport property and supplemented it with an additional 163 acres to construct what became known as the Van Nuys Army Air Field. At the war's conclusion, the city of Los Angeles acquired the airport from the War Assets Administration for the grand sum of $1.

It officially became Van Nuys Airport in 1953. Today, more than 800 private aircraft call it home, with more than 1,500 takeoffs and landings daily. The area includes a restaurant, hotel, golf course, fire station and flight schools. About 8,700 people work there.

The Aviation Expo air show, which began about 30 years ago, now draws about 250,000 annually. The airport has been the location for many films, the most famous "Casablanca." Recent Hollywood features filmed there include "Toys," "The Bodyguard" and "Forever Young."

The airport is also working in conjunction with Los Angeles Unified School District to provide buses for schools that are unable to afford transportation to the site. Geere hopes that the service will be operational within the year.

"Ever since my oldest went on the airport tour, things have changed for the better between us," McAllister said. "We're into building model airplanes, and we visit the library and read about fighter planes. And sometimes when we're all sitting here, we get talking about other things like the clouds, the wind and the sun."

Where and When What: Tours of Van Nuys Airport, 16461 Sherman Way, Van Nuys. Hours: 9:30 and 11 a.m. Mondays through Fridays and the first Saturday of the month. Price: Free. Children must be 6 years old. Reservations required. Call: (818) 785-8838.

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