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Orange County

Fullerton's Airport: It's More Like a Way of Life

Aviation: Longtime friendships and a communal love of flying define a long-established, down-home facility.

January 14, 2002|KIMI YOSHINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fullerton Municipal Airport doesn't look like much: an asphalt landing strip, an air traffic control tower and boxy, nondescript buildings.

But people who frequent the 74-year-old field say it's a place where dreams are born. More than that, it's where they come true.

Here, lifelong friendships are forged over a daily cup of coffee. Aspiring airline pilots fly solo for the first time. And corporate executives can shed their suits and ties to become fighter pilots for a day, staging mock dogfights.

"There's not another place like this in the world," said Ira Brummel, 75, a retired developer who has been coming to the airport since the 1950s.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 17, 2002 Orange County Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Airport--A Jan. 14 article about the Fullerton Municipal Airport gave the incorrect names for the airport's founders. William and Robert Dowling were the founders.

The airport has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a former pig farm when crop-dusters landed on the site as far back as 1913. Placentia citrus ranchers William and Robert Downing founded the airport in 1927, silencing critics who declared the parcel good only "for raising bullfrogs."

By 1948, it was the fourth-largest airport in the state and nicknamed the "Fullerton Air Force" by the Federal Aviation Administration because of the 200 planes based there, compared with 96 at Orange County Airport, which would become John Wayne Airport. In the 1970s, the airport, then flanked by businesses and apartment complexes, held as many as 600 planes, with a months-long waiting list for hangar space.

Once there were at least 27 airfields in Orange County. Today, only three remain: Fullerton, John Wayne and the Los Alamitos Naval Air Station. In fact, general-aviation airfields--for private but not commercial aircraft--have been disappearing across the state. About 30 such airports have closed statewide since 1976, according to the California Pilots Assn.

And each time there's a crash involving a small plane, critics' voices rise again to call for more regulation, more security. On Jan. 5, Whittier pilot Don Dirian died when he mysteriously nose-dived into a field in Buena Park, half a mile from the Fullerton runway. On the same day, in Florida, a 15-year-old boy stole a plane and crashed into a Tampa office tower.

"We're in the cross hairs," said Rod Propst, manager of the city-owned and -operated airport. "There's no question about it."

The two incidents raised very different issues. The Florida crash, coming after the terrorist slaughter of Sept. 11, sparked a broad debate about whether private planes and pilots should get more scrutiny. In Fullerton, neighbors immediately questioned the safety of having an airport so close. Some spoke to the news media about petition drives and flight-path changes and complained about the number of planes. But Propst said nobody had called him. And so far, there are no plans at City Hall to change things.

Such criticism rises and ebbs whenever a crash makes news. In Fullerton, there have been 17 fatal crashes since 1960, killing 34 people, including one bystander, Propst said.

It all comes at a time when general aviation, though still popular, is on the decline. Fewer people are flying because of the higher cost of lessons, insurance and aircraft. Veterans by the thousands, who were military-trained or paid for lessons through government grants after World War II and the Korean War, are dying off. And in cities across the country, developers are hungrily eyeing such prime property, flat and unfettered.

At Fullerton, many aviation lovers refuse to even consider the idea that someday even their beloved field might be closed.

"The dream of flying is never going to go away," said Bill Griggs Jr. of Aviation Facilities Inc., a flight training center at the airport.

A Busy Airport, Once Much Busier

On any given day, there is a steady stream of pilots from Fullerton, Whittier, La Mirada and other surrounding communities. Wide-eyed children sit on benches in the observation patio, clutching their 40-cent cans of Mug Root Beer.

The airport may be a little past its prime, but it still averages roughly 100,000 takeoffs and landings a year. That's more than one-fourth the number at John Wayne, the county's only commercial airport. But the number represents half the business Fullerton had when general aviation in the United States hit its peak in the 1970s.

Fullerton isn't as busy as Van Nuys, considered one of the nation's busiest general-aviation airports. But it is unique in other ways. The City Council has a deep, long-standing commitment to the airport's success. After Sept. 11, for example, city officials voted to forgive 20 days of rent in September because FAA restrictions prevented many small planes from flying.

The airport relies on no city general fund money for its $1-million operating budget. It generates its own revenue by leasing to businesses or renting hangars and tie-downs to pilots, Propst said.

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