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An Air of History : Aviation: An era is drawing to an end for the 63-year-old terminal building at Burbank Airport.

March 22, 1993|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was 1928--the glory days of aviation--when the United Aircraft and Transport Co. began to dig up farmland in the northwest corner of Burbank to build what was envisioned as a state-of-the-art airfield.

The nation's first multimillion-dollar airport would, by opening day, May 30, 1930, encompass 234 acres with five runways and a three-story, Spanish-style terminal on the southeast corner of the field.

To reduce dust, alfalfa was planted on unpaved areas around the runways.

In the six decades since, the alfalfa has been replaced by jet hangars, flight schools and a military aviation development center. The terminal, damaged by a kitchen fire in 1967, was rebuilt and expanded.

And the airport, after four name changes, is now the Burbank Airport.

But the biggest change in the physical evolution of the formerly dusty airfield at the foot of the Verdugo Hills will be set in motion today when the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority chooses a site for a new, expanded terminal to replace its aged facility.

Construction of a new terminal will address a longtime criticism by the Federal Aviation Administration that the current building, so up-to-date in 1930, is closer to the runways than modern safety regulations allow.

But the new facility will also be bigger and more modern to accommodate the 10 million passengers the airport is expected to attract annually by 2010. Currently, nearly 4 million passengers fly in and out of the airport annually.

Among the five terminal replacement plans under consideration, the airport authority commissioners appear to favor a two-level facility on about 140 acres at the northeast boundary of the airport, a terminal of 670,000 square feet--about four times the size of the current 163,344-square-foot building.

But when the wrecking ball is put to the old facility, a significant player in the history of aviation will go down in the rubble.

"This will be a real milestone event," said David M. Simmons, 77, who was 14 when his father flew him into what was then called United Airport during the opening day ceremonies almost 63 years ago. "Every historical figure in aviation was in that building at one time."

Simmons should know. After leaving the Navy in 1946, he worked for Lockheed Air Terminal, the company that owned the airport for 38 years and continues to operate it for the cities of Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena. He was president of the company for 16 years.

"It's certainly going to be a sad day for those of us who were associated with the building," he said.

The airport officially opened on Memorial Day weekend in 1930 with a massive three-day blowout. The airport's runways were 300 feet wide and 3,600 feet long, and the 234 acres of airport property provided more paved landing area than any other airport at the time.

The terminal, measuring about 27,000 square feet, was a Spanish-Colonial-style building, with oak lining and trim that made it look "like some Franciscan mission," said Jim Foy, who said he often patronized the terminal's Sky Room Cafe. Foy is on the board of directors for Friends of Burbank Airport, a pro-airport group made up of residents and business leaders.

The opening day festivities included the dropping of flowers on nearby cemeteries, a parade, the release of homing pigeons, several air races and stunts, and social events, such as a dance on the roof of the new terminal building.

By 1934, the airport had been renamed Union Air Terminal and was the principal airport for the metropolitan Los Angeles area. In those days it served 59,000 to 98,000 passengers a year.

It was during this time that Amelia Earhart, a resident of North Hollywood, spent most of her time at the airport, usually to test or repair the planes she purchased from Lockheed Aircraft, which had begun building wooden airframes in 1928 on an adjacent airstrip.

At various times in those early years, other aviation pioneers would fly in and out of the airport, including Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly across the Atlantic solo; Wiley Post, who made the first solo flight around the world, and Howard Hughes, the wealthy flying enthusiast who was to become an aerospace tycoon.

They spent most of their time at Lockheed, but were sometimes seen at the Sky Room Cafe having a cup of coffee or tea.

Lockheed purchased the airport in 1940 for $1.5 million, renaming it Lockheed Air Terminal. A year later, the United States would declare war on Germany and Japan, and Lockheed's P-38, a twin-engine fighter plane, would play an outstanding role in air battles in the European and Pacific theaters.

To protect Lockheed from a feared Japanese bombing attack, the military launched a $2-million effort to camouflage the airport. Trees and shrubs were scattered throughout the fields, and the parking lots were tented in chicken wire and feathers and other material to create the illusion of alfalfa fields. Movie scenery techniques were used to make buildings look like farmhouses and apartments.

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