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Van Nuys Air Show Flies Into the Wild Blue Yonder

After 43 years, the annual display of aerial might has to end to make way for a private plane parking area and a Fire Department facility.

June 12, 2006|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

After more than four decades, the Van Nuys Airport air show took its final bow Sunday, ending an annual celebration of the region's contributions to aerospace, general aviation and America's military might.

Against a backdrop of cloudy skies and American flags fluttering in a gentle breeze, Los Angeles City Councilman Tony Cardenas, whose district includes the airport, sparked gasps of surprise during an opening ceremony address when he said: "This airfest may be the last of its type."

Instead, he explained, the site long reserved for the air show would become a parking area for private planes, and a Los Angeles Fire Department facility. Together, he said, the new uses would "generate millions of dollars" for the city.

The one-day finale drew a higher than expected crowd of about 65,000 spectators who wandered through displays of more than 50 classic airplanes and restored military aircraft.

It also featured Los Angeles' first flyover by the world's most advanced warplane -- a thundering and fierce-looking F-22 Raptor fighter jet.

Overall, however, it was a bittersweet event for many regular visitors at Los Angeles' only air show and staple of San Fernando Valley culture.

"I'm in shock, and sad," said Wayne Salleng, a veteran pilot who has not missed a Van Nuys show since 1963.

Bettie Pappas, co-owner of a vintage aluminum-clad DC-3 that drew appreciative crowds, was among several display operators who lamented the loss of yet another venue to show off their air machines and raise the funds needed to maintain them.

"The future doesn't look good for air shows in general," said Pappas, who charged visitors a dollar to climb aboard the plane that once dropped paratroopers on D-Day and later served as a Panamanian airliner. "Because of higher fuel costs and small airports closing down across the nation, there are fewer and fewer places we can take this plane to."

"Five years ago, we'd go to 10 to 15 different locations," she said. "Now, we go to maybe five a year."

This year, there will be more than 270 air shows performed across the country, according to the International Council of Air Shows. A decade ago, there were nearly twice that number of shows, the group said.

Aviation authorities and city officials said Van Nuys Airport's Rockin' AirFest 2006 was a victim of the site's success as the world's busiest general aviation airport with half a million takeoffs and landings each year.

If all goes according to plan, the former California Air National Guard space now used for air show activities will soon accommodate small propeller planes. It will also anchor expanded Los Angeles Fire Department facilities.

Coby King, chair of the Van Nuys Airport citizens advisory council, said, "using that land for a one-day event just doesn't make sense anymore with so many other pressing needs in the local aviation community."

Still, many participants were disappointed when he said during opening ceremonies Sunday that "while the Rockin' AirFest will soon be just a memory, the airport will continue to move ahead."

Among them was Al Kepler, proud owner of a bright orange AT-6 Texan fighter plane that was on display for the sixth year in a row.

As dozens of youths gathered around his plane, which was built in 1943 and has a maximum speed of 205 miles per hour, he shook his head and said, "I had no idea this was the show's final year. What a shame. And what a great loss for the kids."

A few yards away, the displays were opening floodgates of memories for aviation enthusiasts such as Bob Armstrong, 74, of Pacoima, who pointed out that "this show is so much easier to get to than ones out at Edwards Air Force Base or Point Mugu."

The Van Nuys Airport air shows started shortly after the airport was created in 1928, and were among the first launched in California. They became an annual symbol of military pride under the sponsorship of the California Air National Guard in 1963.

Back then, many spectators said they attended the show because they had served in the military, worked in the aerospace industry or were wannabe pilots and leaped at the opportunity to see aircraft up close.

The B-2 stealth bomber made its first public appearance over Los Angeles at an event in 1996 that drew nearly 350,000 visitors.

Throughout its existence, the air show served as a fundraiser for several local nonprofit groups that set up concession stands. But airport authorities acknowledged that it was never a money-maker for the city.

After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, it became increasingly difficult to attract crowd pleasers such as high-tech war planes, because they were committed to military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2003, a bond measure was approved to build a $30-million Los Angeles Fire Department facility at the site, taking up a large portion of the airport used to put on the air show.

"At one time, this was a huge and significant air show, one of the best," said Brian J. Terwilliger, director and producer of a new documentary film about Van Nuys Airport called "One Six Right."

"Then it became a scaled-down version with mostly static displays," he added. "Now it's closing. This is especially troubling because fewer and fewer people are learning to fly."

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