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Here's Looking at You, Van Nuys

Filmmaker is capturing the history of an airport made famous by actors' lines and pilots' deeds

June 02, 2004|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

Filmmaker Brian Terwilliger is different from most people. The 28-year-old Northridge man doesn't think of Van Nuys Airport as a noisy nuisance.

For him, the 75-year-old general aviation airport, most famous as the place where Rick and Ilsa's farewell was filmed for "Casablanca," is as precious and endangered as the California condor.

"Every two weeks, an airport closes in the United States," Terwilliger said as he finished seven months of filming last week at the San Fernando Valley facility. Happily for Terwilliger, Van Nuys is not in danger of closing any time soon, said airport spokesman Richard French.

This fall, Terwilliger hopes to release his documentary on the airport -- said to be the busiest general aviation airport in the world, with almost 500,000 takeoffs and landings annually.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 10, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Van Nuys Airport planes -- An article in the June 2 California section about filmmaker Brian Terwilliger's documentary on Van Nuys Airport described the World War II-era aircraft that the Condor Squadron keeps at the airfield as fighter planes. The planes were used to train combat pilots.

A Connecticut native who moved to Agoura Hills as a teenager, Terwilliger is a devotee of general aviation airports, the less romantic cousins of the grand international airports that have replaced rivers and railroads in dreams of adventure and escape.

The first-time producer-director points out that Simi Valley, Woodland Hills, Calabasas, Glendale, Thousand Oaks, Newhall and North Hollywood all once had airports of their own.

VNY, as the Federal Aviation Administration has designated the 725-acre facility, has special meaning for Terwilliger. He said: "I learned to fly here," soloing in a Cessna 150 when he was 19. But he also sees general aviation airports as the underappreciated workhorses of flying.

Most people learn to fly on small planes at small airports, he said. In addition to being the training ground for the bulk of the nation's pilots, small airports provide berths for private jets and other planes. They offer hangars and workshops where aviation innovators can tinker and invent, and serve as bases for public-service operations, such as those that deliver human organs for transplantation.

The Los Angeles Unified School District trains students to be aircraft mechanics at Van Nuys Airport, which is also a base for Fire Department helicopters.

Van Nuys has had a far more romantic history than most airports, in large part because of its association with the movie industry.

Howard Hughes and Gene Autry were among the many industry figures who used it. Much of Laurel and Hardy's "Flying Deuces" was shot at the airport, as were scenes with Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in "The Bodyguard." Last year, the airport appeared in "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle."

Terwilliger and his crew did more than 60 interviews for the project, talking with director Sydney Pollack, actors Fess Parker and Lorenzo Lamas, and others who perfected their takeoffs and landings at Van Nuys.

Terwilliger also interviewed people who live near the busy airport to see how they felt about the inevitable noise. While many have pushed for stricter controls on loud aircraft, others say the noise is something you get used to.

Terwilliger, who has a degree in business from Cal State Northridge, learned filmmaking on the job, starting with an internship at a Burbank production company. He has worked on commercials, music videos and feature films. "Usually, the bigger the project, the smaller my role," he said.

He has been working on the documentary for four years, raising something less than $500,000 from investors and assembling a team of eight, including a writer and a cinematographer.

Last week, he talked to members of the Condor Squadron, who keep their World War II-era fighter planes at Van Nuys and fly in formation at police funerals, Memorial Day parades and other special events.

Besides socializing in their clubhouse, the men participate in Civil Air Patrol searches for downed fliers and perform other rescue operations.

Carter Clark, who drives from Orange County weekly to fly with the squadron, thinks more businesspeople will turn to general aviation airports in the future because of the heightened security and long delays associated with flying commercial jets.

Individual lease-holders are responsible for providing security on their planes at Van Nuys, as at other general aviation airports, spokesman French said.

For many of the 50 or so members of the squadron, Clark said, much of VNY's appeal is its convenient location within the city of Los Angeles.

"If you have an airplane, you have to have an airport," said the retired Air Force pilot. "If the closest airport is a hundred miles away, you might as well not have an airplane."

"Everybody has their own story, their own version of the airport," said Terwilliger, who also recently interviewed aviation businessman Clay Lacey, who collects planes, breaks the occasional speed record and whose aerial photography appears in the film "Top Gun."

Terwilliger said one of the pleasures of the project has been uncovering lesser-known facts about the airport, where the legendary Pancho Barnes was a stunt pilot and Amelia Earhart shattered a speed record.

Marilyn Monroe was discovered at the airport. As Norma Jean Dougherty, the teenage bride was working 10-hour days on the assembly line at Radioplane Co. The firm built drones -- radio-controlled model planes -- used to train antiaircraft gunners.

In 1945, David Conover, an Army Air Forces photographer, was dispatched to the airport to take photos of women working as part of the war effort. He couldn't stop snapping pictures of a beautiful young woman with curly red hair and a sweet smile.

Terwilliger, shooting his documentary on high-definition video, hopes his picture gets a theatrical release and is eventually released on DVD.

Everyone he's talked to holds a piece of the puzzle that is Van Nuys Airport, he said. He hopes his documentary will be the definitive retelling of that epic story.

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