Under the hot June sun, Whiteman Airport celebrated its 75th anniversary with an open house, giving the public a chance to gaze at the variety of aircraft that are housed there.
However, the controversy of two crashes this year and numerous calls for the airport’s closure hovers in the air above the tarmac.
Organizers of the June 25 open house took the opportunity to officially thank the four Los Angeles Police Department officers who saved pilot Mark Jenkins from being struck by a passing train on Jan. 9, after his plane crashed onto the train tracks in Pacoima just outside the airport.
Two of the officers who helped extract Jenkins from the wreckage, Robert Sherock and Christopher Aboyte, were in attendance. A plaque was also presented to the LAPD Foothill Station, where the four officers are posted.
Although that incident resulted in no fatalities, the same could not be said for the incident on April 20, when pilot John King was killed after crashing into an embankment alongside the westbound Foothill Freeway in Sylmar. King had taken off from Whiteman Airport.
There was also the November 2020 crash, when a plane crashed on Sutter Avenue and collided with two cars, killing the pilot.
The National Transportation Safety Board reports that there have been 16 aviation accidents related to Whiteman Airport since 2009. As a result, the airport has faced an increasing number of calls to be shut down from politicians and community groups.
Most recently, Rep. Tony Cárdenas wrote a letter to the LA County Board of Supervisors in May, asking for a 30-day voluntary shutdown of all non-emergency flights for a safety audit. LA Councilmember Monica Rodriguez has called for the airport’s closure, formally proposing a resolution to the City Council in December 2020 to do so.
The County Board of Supervisors has created a Community Advisory Committee to explore the future of the airport, and one possible recommendation would be to cease operations there.
Many who attended the open house, however, were generally opposed to closing the airport. As summed up by Pacoima resident Jose Urrutia, “It’s kind of dangerous, but accidents happen.”
Isaac Sanchez and his son Dominic, also from Pacoima, came to the event after seeing flyers while walking their dog. Dominic wants to be a pilot and was signed up for the Young Eagles program (which provides free flights to kids ages 8-17). Isaac lamented the recent efforts to shut down the airport, stating that LA County has more pressing issues.
“They should worry about other stuff, like homelessness,” Isaac said. “I hope they don’t shut it down because there’s a lot of programs here for the little ones instead of them doing drugs.”
Another Pacoima resident, Josue Gomez, held a similar opinion. “Is it really that dangerous? If they want to take care of the [San Fernando] Valley, they have bigger problems, like homelessness.”
Alfredo Yede of Sylmar said he has liked airplanes his entire life and dreamed of one day being a pilot himself, but lacked the funds to make it a reality. He said he used to take his family to the airport after church every Sunday and just watch the planes for an hour or two.
Yede understands that accidents can happen, but said it is not a reason to shut the airport down.
“This is a chance for kids [to learn how to fly]. If it is taken away, then it will be harder for them,” he said.
Villa San Juan came from Burbank after seeing an ad for the event on Facebook. She admitted that she does not know how the community feels about the airport since she is not from the area, saying that all she knows is that some people complain about the noise.
But San Juan argues the surrounding communities should be grateful there’s an airport at all.
“I hope someone is protecting this airport,” San Juan said, “because if there is no one, this won’t be here.”
Tomasi Kiggundu from North Hills said it isn’t right to shut down the airport because pilots would have to find other places to house their aircraft.
“Other airports will be crowded if the planes have to relocate,” Kiggundu said. “This place should be open.”
Cecilia Cardenas of San Fernando said she heard about the event through a family member, who is a vendor. While she is interested in learning more about the programs at the airport, she said that safety should be a top priority.
“If it’s for safety, then it probably should be shut down,” Cardenas said. “The lot could turn into something for the community. That would be great.”
Dennis Lord, who is a member of the LA County’s Aviation Commission, pointed out that not everything that involves planes rests entirely on the airport’s shoulders. He said once an aircraft leaves the ground, what happens after that is under the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
“The County of Los Angeles works very hard, as does the commission, to ensure that we have safe operating facilities for which aviators can operate from, and the FAA backs us up with funding for the appropriate things to have a safe environment for aviation,” Lord said.
“The FAA is also responsible for pilot credentialing [and] maintenance of aircraft, so those elements need to be addressed by the FAA. The airport system is taken care of by the county. … They [the county] have no bearing on what happens off the airport.”
He did say the airport could have done a better job in terms of its “cleanup response” following the Nov. 2020 crash, but added that Whiteman has since updated its policies. Lord further emphasized the importance of the airport being part of the community and said it would continue to do so.
“We’ve presented the facts and we let the facts speak for themselves,” Lord said.
Los Angeles resident Neil Casey has housed his plane at the airport for almost six years. The pilot said he comes to Whiteman because the airport caters to smaller aircraft and is close to where he lives.
While he knows that accidents make the news — adding that the April crash “was a tragedy” — Casey said it doesn’t mean that the airport is unsafe, pointing out that there are thousands of flights that go off without a hitch.
“I know I’m biased, but I see it up close,” he said. “This airport gives people a chance with new, exciting and possibly lucrative opportunities. If I lived next door, I might get annoyed too, but I hope people come and see how things are done here.”
Steve Burger – the deputy director for transportation for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works – touted the airport’s numerous benefits, such as its Young Eagles program and the emergency response units that use the airport as a base.
“When I think about the work we do to serve you here as managers of this airport, it makes me proud,” Burger said. “That’s what we’re here for, to serve you.”