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JAUNTS: In and Around the Valley | THE VALLEY

An Air of History

Van Nuys Airport tours give visitors a grounding in aviation and the past.

May 01, 1997|IRENE GARCIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you're an aviation enthusiast or just curious about what airfields are all about, take a tour of Van Nuys Airport.

It's free and the 725-acre facility is loaded with history and interesting aviation tidbits.

For instance, the airport was created in 1928 on 80 acres of farmland, much of it covered with trees, and with one dirt runway.

Now the airport features an 8,000-foot concrete runway with an instrument-landing system, a 4,000-foot training runway and a large control tower. There are more than 500,000 takeoffs and landings a year, and about 850 aircraft are based here.

Those facts are part of the introduction you get while boarding the bus, which takes visitors behind the gates, just a couple of hundred feet from where planes take off and land.

"People really love being so close to the activity," says tour guide Clarice Kirkpatrick. "We have people of all ages take the tour and lots of tourists."

Out-of-town folks love the Hollywood history most. Many of the field's large hangars have been used in movies, including the classic "Casablanca," with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman; "For the Boys," starring Bette Midler; the more recent "The Body Guard," starring Kevin Costner; and the very recent "Dante's Peak," starring Pierce Brosnan.

A number of television shows and other lower-profile movies have also been filmed at the airport. In addition, many Hollywood celebrities and other famous people, including U.S. presidents, have chartered planes at the airport, which is operated by the city of Los Angeles and allows only privately owned aircraft.

One of the tour highlights is a row of vintage World War II aircraft--known as AT 6--used during the war to train pilots. All 10 have been restored and each is painted with either the allied symbol or a German swastika.

"They're used to fly in air shows and special holiday events," Kirkpatrick says. "Sometimes they're used to fly in funerals or perform mock aerial combat."

Throughout the two-hour tour, Kirkpatrick explains in detail how a plane's engine works and the difference between the various single-engine and twin-engine aircraft. She points to each plane as the bus slowly passes by and explains that fuel is stored in the wing.

Then comes the helicopter area, where most television news choppers are based. They come and go throughout the day, and most have a camera attached to the front.

There are also a number of fire department helicopters used in rescues and fire fighting. "You see that big, white ball that sticks out of the front of the TV news helicopters?" Kirkpatrick asks the group. "That's a sophisticated camera system that costs $500,000. That's about what the helicopter costs."

The group gets off the bus and takes turns sitting inside a small, two-passenger craft. A flight instructor explains how the plane works while each visitor has a chance to sit inside and look at the control panel.

"People really love going inside the planes, especially kids," said tour guide Janice Goforth, also a licensed pilot. "Many of them come back and take flying lessons."

BE THERE

Free tours of Van Nuys Airport are weekdays at 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m., and at various times the second and fourth Saturdays of the month. Bus meets at Million Air-Van Nuys, 16700 Roscoe Blvd. Call (818) 785-8838.

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