It happens with alarming frequency: You read a story in your local newspaper about someone pushing for the closure of the local airport. Perhaps it’s an election year, or locals accuse the airport of being solely a playground for the rich, a danger to public health, and/or an economic drain on the community.
There are calls for the airport to be shut down and the property redeveloped—and sometimes these efforts span decades and are successful. Other times, the pilots and businesses in the community are able to thwart the closure effort using facts at a time when emotions are running high.
Case in Point: Whiteman Field
One of the latest airports to appear on the closure radar is Whiteman Field (KWHP) located in Pacoima, California. KWHP is one of five general aviation airports owned by Los Angeles County.
The airport was built in 1946 in a neighborhood that at the time was filled with middle-class engineers and technicians, most of whom worked at local defense plants or by people who were involved in the movie-making industry. Most of the homes were built in the 1930s and the neighborhood thrived.
As the years rolled on, the neighborhood surrounding the airport began to decline and the airport grew. In 1973, the county of Los Angeles purchased 100 acres of land adjacent to the airport, evicting a trailer park and revamping the property to lengthen and realign the runway so that it could accept larger aircraft.
Today, the airport sports a 4,120-by-75-foot paved runway and is home to approximately 600 aircraft, ranging from corporate turboprops to public agency helicopters. There are several businesses at the airport, including flight schools, light manufacturing, and storage.
A satellite view of the airport shows it is now surrounded by homes and light industrial buildings, as well as freeways and railroad tracks. The neighborhoods around the airport are described by the local media as “low income housing.”
One of the most vocal groups supporting the airport’s closure is Pacoima Beautiful, a community organization that, according to its website, was established in 1996 by a group of concerned mothers who were worried about the pollution and deteriorating conditions of the community.
The website alleges that “for the better part of 75 years, Whiteman Airport has been more detrimental than beneficial to our community,” and as such, they are calling on the county of Los Angeles to close the airport, which they perceive to be a playground for rich people with airplanes.
Steven Frasher, public information officer for Los Angeles County Public Works, says that is not an accurate assessment; instead, he says the airport is an economic engine.
“Whiteman Airport is home to numerous businesses, Glendale Community College’s pilot training program, and various non-profit aviation organizations,” he says. “As described in the 2020 Economic Impact Analysis for the County-owned airports, Whiteman Airport directly supports approximately 275 jobs, representing $22.7 million in employee wages. Overall, the airport and surrounding communities benefit from over $112 million in total airport-related—direct, indirect, and induced—spending each year.”
Frasher adds that the airport is home to law enforcement and firefighting operations, medical services, as well as youth programs and provides space for community events.
FLYING made several attempts to reach members of Pacoima Beautiful as well as members of the Pacoima City Council and the Los Angeles County and Board of Supervisors, but our telephone calls and emails have not been returned.
Accidents in the News
According to the NTSB—and feeding the calls for closure—there have been several accidents and incidents in the vicinity of KWHP over the past decade.
The most recent was in April when a Cessna Skymaster went down 4 miles north of the airport along a freeway embankment. According to the preliminary report, the twin had just taken off from KWHP when the pilot reported to the tower that his landing gear was not fully retracted. The pilot asked to stay over the airport and climb to 2,500 feet. The tower approved the request. There were no further radio transmissions from the pilot. Witnesses on the freeway reported seeing the airplane in a left turn then the nose dropped and the airplane spiraled to the ground. The pilot was killed, but no motorists were injured.
In January 2022, the airport made national news when the body camera of a police officer captured the rescue of the pilot of a Cessna 172 that made an off-airport landing on the railroad tracks near the airport after an uncommanded loss of engine power shortly after takeoff. The injured pilot was pulled to safety seconds before a train hit the aircraft.
Foothill Division Officers displayed heroism and quick action by saving the life of a pilot who made an emergency landing on the railroad tracks at San Fernando Rd. and Osborne St., just before an oncoming train collided with the aircraft. pic.twitter.com/DDxtGGIIMo— LAPD HQ (@LAPDHQ) January 10, 2022
The most publicized crash was in 2020, when a Civil Air Patrol Cessna 182 came down on a city street a few hundred feet short of the runway and within 50 feet of an occupied home. The pilot was killed, and the aircraft burst into flames.The pilot had reported a loss of engine power and was trying to glide to the airport. It was a VFR morning, and the video of the burning aircraft putting black smoke into the clear blue sky was on every television station in the area. The fire destroyed the aircraft and two parked cars. It also singed the front yard of a home. The homeowner—who still lives there—notes it is frightening to her when she hears aircraft overhead.
James Miller, the former manager of Whiteman Airport, notes there have been accidents at the airport, but that the city council and other elected officials are quick to exaggerate or misrepresent the facts.
“Their statements can be outrageously false,” he says. “People who want to close the airport make outrageous statements like ‘everyday people are dying from lead poisoning from the airport,’ and we ask, ‘Can you show us the 350 death certs from last year to show the statement is accurate and true?’ and of course they can’t.”
These exaggerations do get the attention of local politicians, says Miller, noting that after the January incident the Pacoima City council passed a resolution calling for the closure of the airport and urged the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to do the same.
In May, U.S. Rep. Tony Cárdenas, who represents the city of Pacoima in Los Angeles County, called on county officials and the FAA to close the airport for 30 days so that a safety audit could be completed.
“The surrounding community is literally afraid for their lives,” Cárdenas told the Los Angeles Times. “There are way too many crashes coming in and out of Whiteman Airport.”
No Plans to Close the Airport
According to Miller, “None of the crashes have something to do with the safety of the airport—the control tower works, the airport has proper lighting, but there is no need to shut down the airport to conduct a survey. There have been incidents in the previous 10 years, but a gear-up landing or a hard landing is not an accident. An airplane running off the runway but not off the airport property is not an accident.”
“There is no plan to close the airport,” Frasher says. “Los Angeles County has not made any decision to close the airport, nor has it made any determination as to whether any FAA Airport Improvement Program grant funds could be returned to the Federal Aviation Administration.”
According to the FAA, “Los Angeles County, which owns Whiteman Airport, has received $4.8 million in Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants for Whiteman since 2006. The most recent grant was in 2021. When airport operators accept AIP grants, they agree to certain conditions. One of these conditions is to keep the airport open for at least 20 years from the date of the most recent grant.”
The FAA adds that they have not received a request from Los Angeles County to close Whiteman.