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Buzzing the Airport : From landmark hangar to sleek corporate jets, the public can get a look behind the scenes at Van Nuys' busy general aviation facility.

August 13, 1993|DAVID LUSTIG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; David Lustig is a Chatsworth writer

Anyone who lives in the area knows that Van Nuys Airport, which the Federal Aviation Administration ranks as the busiest general avia tion airport in the United States, is located smack in the middle of the San Fernando Valley.

What most people don't know, however, is that not only does Van Nuys Airport have an interesting history, it has a fascinating present. And the curious can take a free tour courtesy of the city's Department of Airports.

Created from 80 acres of farmland in 1928 and named Metropolitan Airport, Van Nuys became San Fernando Valley Airport in 1949 and took its current name in 1957. Today, the airport encompasses 724 acres and handles about 500,000 flights a year, making it the busiest airport in the United States handling only non-commercial flights.

From its creation, it became a mecca to many Hollywood luminaries cum pilots, including Howard Hughes, Hoot Gibson, Cecil B. DeMille, Gene Autry and Wallace Beery. It also became a preferred place to shoot movies that needed an airport.

In order to tour the facility, visitors need to call the airport for a reservation. Depending on demand, reservations should be made anywhere from a few days to a week or two in advance.

9:30 a.m.: The tour starts at the Million Air facility parking lot on the north side of the airport.

The volunteer tour guides give a brief description of what will be seen. While the tour group is usually 90% children accompanied by adults, mostly from school tours or organizations such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, all ages are welcome. The tour is not exactly the same each time, differing in content depending on what companies have aircraft parked outside.

9:35 a.m.: Traveling about 15 m.p.h. on access roads, the bus passes rows of private aircraft--more than 1,000 call Van Nuys Airport home--some tied down in the sun and others in a carport-like arrangement.

Everything is explained, from maintenance operations and companies that customize corporate jets to the blast fences at the end of the runways, the rules of the air and why pilots must obey them, all to the din of nearby aircraft taking off and landing. Aircraft used in movies and television shows are always of interest. On this particular tour, we find the helicopters from "Riptide" and "Airwolf."

9:50 a.m.: First stop is the Los Angeles City Fire Department's Station 90, which has the dual role protecting the airport and operating as a regular fire station for the surrounding community.

Visitors get to inspect the fire station and also see Crash 90, a giant yellow four-wheel-drive truck specifically designed for airport and aircraft accidents. Sometimes the Fire Department tour is cut short due to a call--it happened during our visit--and everyone can watch the trucks start up and roar out onto Woodley Avenue.

10:15 a.m.: The bus may stop at an old hangar, partially fenced off, partially falling apart, partially in the throes of rebuilding.

For movie buffs, however, this is not just another old airport structure. It's the hangar that appeared in the 1941 Warner Bros. film "Casablanca." Adults invariably crane their necks looking for Col. Strasser as he tries to stop Victor and Elsa from boarding the last flight to Lisbon.

The tour passes an avionics division of Hughes Aircraft employing a number of one-time Navy jets for flight testing. Other aircraft, including a French-made Caravelle and a Douglas DC-3, sit nearby. Visitors are usually surprised to learn that part of Lockheed's famous, super-secret Skunk Works was once located here.

Next to the aircraft is a picnic area with tables and benches and a magnificent view of everything that happens at the airport. It can be reached by turning onto Waterman Drive from Woodley Avenue. It's open every day.

10:40 a.m.: Passing various flight schools, inevitably, the conversation swings back to the many movies, shows and commercials that have been shot here.

For "The Six Million Dollar Man" TV show starring Lee Majors, this was Ventura Air Force Base.

In the movie "Raid on Entebbe" with Charles Bronson, it was both Israel and Uganda, and for "Firefox" it was a site deep inside the Soviet Union.

More recently, parts of "For the Boys" with Bette Midler and James Caan were shot here, as was some of Clint Eastwood's latest movie, "In the Line of Fire."

The guides point out interesting and unusual aircraft stationed here, including a gaggle of television news helicopters from stations 4, 5, 11 and 13, and an air ambulance that flies to inaccessible areas to airlift injured people to hospitals.

Other aircraft are on standby for the transport of organs needed for transplants.

The control tower is off-limits to large tours or those with children under 16.

Smaller tours that include the control tower can be requested.

10:45 a.m.: As the tour winds down, the bus stops at the Condor Squadron, a fleet of World War II single-engine training aircraft that perform aerobatics and stunts.

When available, a Condor pilot will give an impromptu speech on what the fliers do, air safety and the fun of flying.

11 a.m. to noon: While the tour officially ends at the parking lot where it began, consider going to the Waterman Drive observation area.

If you have a scanner that can pick up FAA frequencies, try 121.7 for the tower and 118.45 for air traffic control.

Where and When To schedule a tour: Contact Van Nuys Airport at (818) 785-8838. Hours: Tours are scheduled Mondays through Fridays and on certain Saturdays at 9:30 and 11 a.m. Children must be at least in the first grade and groups of 10 or more are required. Price: Free.

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