LOS ANGELES – If you love aviation, chances are you’ve seen or heard of One Six Right. The 2005 independent documentary produced and directed by Brian Terwilliger (Living in the Age of Airplanes) romanticizes the art of flight at one of the world’s busiest general aviation airports: Van Nuys. And if you haven’t seen the film, perhaps you’re familiar with its namesake, as 16R/34L is the more popular of the two parallel runways at the California airport.
While the movie is chockfull of breathtaking visuals set to a beautiful score by composer Nathan Wang, it also touches on the sobering reality that general aviation airports are a dying breed. Whether it’s due to a lack of profitability, the “need” to build something bigger and better on the acreage or noise complaints from neighbors who arrived long after the airport did… these airports are closing at a staggering rate – one per week on average.
One of the most notable GA airports that fell prey to this trend is downtown Chicago’s Meigs Field. The single-runway airport, which opened in 1948, closed the night of March 30, 2003, when then-Mayor Richard Daley sent in crews to bulldoze X-shaped gouges on the runway – a more “in your face” way of saying “this runway is no longer in operation.” Typically, these “out of order” Xs are just painted on the runway surface. And suddenly Meigs – which for a number of years was seen as “the little airport that could” – just couldn’t. It caused a lot of heartbreak for a lot of people, and understandably so.
There’s something about flight and about the aviation industry in general that just draws people in… it seems you either know a little bit about it, or you’re completely engrossed in it. That’s why for the latter group, it’s tough to see these havens seemingly vanish into thin air.
Van Nuys is by and large a perfect example of an airport that is teeming with people who are passionate about flight… people with aviation in their blood. Whether it’s the pilots who frequent the airport, those who work at Van Nuys or even the enthusiasts who come out to the observation area just to hear the engines, smell the jet fuel and watch the miracle of flight unfold before their very eyes… I’m willing to bet they’d all tell you there’s something different about this airport… something special.
Earlier this month I had the privilege of visiting Van Nuys and taking a behind-the-scenes tour of the airfield. Upon arriving, I was immediately taken back in time as I remembered so vividly the airport’s rich history depicted in One Six Right – a movie I’ve seen more than a few times. As my husband and I made our way there from the LAX area, my excitement grew and grew… from seeing the first Van Nuys sign on the highway, to driving through the famous Sherman Way Tunnel and ultimately arriving at the airport’s well-known observation area – I was in heaven… complete and utter AV geek heaven.
A Rich History Appealing to the Young and Young at Heart
The airport opened on December 17, 1928 – 25 years to the day after the Wright Brothers made their famous first flight. Initially called Metropolitan Airport and changing its name in 1949 to San Fernando Valley Airport, it wasn’t until 1957 that the airport changed its name for the last time to Van Nuys.
Throughout the 30s and 40s, Van Nuys became a popular location to shoot Hollywood films. Did you know Marilyn Monroe was first discovered there while working on an aircraft assembly line? Crazy, huh? Famous actors and filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille and Howard Hughes often flew into the airport, and in 1942 scenes from the classic film Casablanca were shot there. That same year, however, in the midst of World War II the U.S. government purchased the airport.
They converted it to a military base and purchased additional acreage to construct the Van Nuys Army Airfield. The military didn’t hold onto Van Nuys for long though – in 1949, the City of Los Angeles purchased it for one dollar with the agreement that the California Air National Guard base could continue its operations there.
Through the 50s and 60s, the airport saw an increase in activity as general aviation grew in popularity and aerospace companies began to base space-age projects there.
In the 70s and into the 80s, Van Nuys was clearly becoming one of the busiest GA airports in the country. In 1975 the airport opened the FlyAway Bus Terminal running nonstop bus service between Van Nuys and LAX. The buses – which still run today – helped alleviate traffic and parking congestion at LAX. In 1988 the well-known observation area opened, which continues to draw in people of all ages to this day, offering visitors a multisensory experience: prime aircraft viewing while listening to live audio from the Van Nuys air traffic control tower.
Through the 90s and into the 2000s, Van Nuys continued to grow. Today the airport contributes roughly $2 billion to the local economy and supports more than 10,000 jobs.
Famous for More than Flight
One of the really neat things about Van Nuys is that you’ve likely seen a movie or even a music video that had scenes shot at the airport, without even having realized it.
As I noted earlier, famous scenes from the classic movie Casablanca were filmed at the airport, but that was just the beginning. A huge part of the sci-fi classic Silent Running was shot at Van Nuys in 1971. And for those who aren’t too keen on classic filmography, several scenes from various seasons of HBO’s Entourage were shot at the airport too.
Movies aren’t the only art that put Van Nuys in the spotlight either, as several music videos were shot in part at the airport, including Britney Spears’ Stronger, Metallica’s The Memory Remains, Blink-182’s All The Small Things and Kiss’ God Gave Rock and Roll to You 2.
See? It’s not just aviators or film buffs who can find a connection to Van Nuys… punk rockers, metal heads, pop fans or even straight up rock and rollers have likely seen the airport, even if it was just on TV.
So, Now That You Know… It’s Time to Go!
Trust me, if you’re in Southern California and have a couple hours to spare, go pay a visit to Van Nuys – you won’t be disappointed. And for those who live in California and haven’t yet been to this economy-boosting aviation mecca… what are you waiting for? Get out there!
These small airports are becoming extinct, and it’s happening quickly. And seeing the runways and towers get bulldozed is at the very least heart wrenching for those whose lives are enveloped in aviation. Van Nuys truly is the perfect example of a GA airport that’s about more than just flight… Van Nuys is about art, it’s about love and it’s about family.
There just so happen to be two parallel strips of asphalt there that can take you nearly anywhere in the world – but that’s just an added bonus.