By Antonio Pequeño IV
Special to the SFV Sun/el Sol
Whiteman Airport in Pacoima was pushed another step toward closure after the Community Advisory Committee voted in favor of recommending the airport be shut down.
In the committee’s final meeting, held via Zoom on Feb. 23, it approved a motion for the airport to cease operations. The motion was introduced by Veronica Padilla-Campos, executive director of the grassroots nonprofit organization Pacoima Beautiful.
The committee will now submit its recommendation to the LA County Board of Supervisors, and that several health and safety measures be implemented prior to closure. The full recommendation will be submitted later this spring, according to Annakaren Ramirez, policy director for Pacoima Beautiful.
“Although the fight to close Whiteman Airport continues, we celebrate this victory on our path to justice,” Pacoima Beautiful officials wrote in an Instagram post.
“The vote was frustrating but unsurprising,” said Matthew Stone, a licensed pilot living in Simi Valley who has no professional or institutional affiliation with the airport but has flown from Whiteman Airport extensively. Stone has been among the most vocal supporters of keeping Whiteman operating. He attended and spoke at the final committee meeting on Zoom.
Both Stone and Ramirez noted that in addition to the supervisor’s final decision, the recommendation to close Whiteman Airport would have to be considered by the Federal Aviation Administration.
“The airport is obligated to operate for at least another decade or so based on the grant assurances they have with the FAA,” Stone said. “It’s not going anywhere overnight.”
The advisory committee, formed in 2020 by the supervisors, is made up of 18 local stakeholders that include community activists, residents and representatives from the offices of Los Angeles City Councilmember Monica Rodriguez and Supervisor Lindsey P. Horvath.
Other influential voices supporting the airport’s closure, but not on the committee, include Congressman Tony Cárdenas, who sent a letter to the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board requesting a comprehensive safety review of the airport.
At the meeting, some committee members cited concerns from residents living near Whiteman being subjected to pollution, property damage and plane accidents.
“That site could be a lot more for the community,” said Ernesto, a participant in the online public comment portion of the Zoom meeting, who did not list his last name. “We need parks, we need places where we [can] congregate, we need places where we could do a lot more than having this place that just dirties our air.”
Stone said that the desire of those wishing to keep the airport operational is rooted in seeing the airport as an infrastructural asset. He had previously taken issue with the composition of the committee, noting that Councilmember Rodriguez was one of the two people in charge of choosing members.
“Monica Rodriguez has made all sorts of strong anti-airport comments, so people were most curious to see her naming half [the committee] when she’d already come out as an anti-airport firebrand,” he said, adding that he had been concerned about panelist neutrality when it comes to matters of the airport.
The battle over Whiteman Airport is one that has gone on for years, according to Stone, who said that Pacoima Beautiful was intent on the airport’s closure long before the advisory committee was formed.
James Miller, the former manager at Whiteman Airport, also made his dissatisfaction known about a potential closure during the committee meeting.
Miller had supported a motion to keep the airport open by Penny Alderson of Vista Aviation, an aircraft maintenance company operating at Whiteman. It called for the county to address safety and potential environmental impacts from airport operations and pursue the sale of unleaded fuel at all County airports “as soon as possible.”
Job training programs were also part of Alderson’s motion, including aircraft and power plant mechanics schools, and aviation programs associated with local community colleges and universities.
“I believe that addresses all the issues that concern the community,” Miller said. “It has provisions to address the noise problems, the pollution problems and the safety problems while still allowing the airport to remain open as a viable part of the community.”
Alderson’s motion, which was backed by multiple meeting attendees, was rejected by the advisory committee.
Other parts of the Padilla-Campos’ motion include LA County not accepting federal grants that extend the operational timeline of Whiteman Airport, the implementation of a curfew ordinance, new air conditioning units, door bottom seal strips and noise canceling windows for all housing units adjacent to the airport and a lead poisoning study.
One of the more controversial measures the committee wants the supervisors to approve is the prohibition of the sale, storage and use of leaded aviation gas, and to cease all operations requiring the use of leaded aviation gas at Whiteman Airport until there is a commercially viable replacement fuel available.
Pacoima Beautiful has taken issue with the leaded fuel used by planes at the airport as being a health hazard.
“Unfortunately, these single piston engine planes use leaded aviation gas,” Ramirez said. “It’s really the last kind of transportation fuel that still uses it. Cars, everything else, have ended the use of leaded fuel due to its very significant public health issues and threats.”
“We need to implement mitigation solutions immediately, meaning the end of the use of leaded fuel that’s been contaminating our community,” Ramirez said.
But Miller argued that such a move was currently not possible.
“Prohibiting the sale of [leaded] fuel is prohibited by the FAA,” he said. “They require that airports continue to make leaded and low-leaded fuel available until a suitable drop-in replacement has been identified and becomes universally available.”
“To prohibit the use of aircraft that use [leaded] fuel would be cumbersome at best because aircraft coming to the airport from other parts of the country do not have any options for getting [leaded] fuel.”
Whiteman Airport was built in 1946 and acquired by Los Angeles County in 1970. It has been home to more than 600 aircraft, including private airplanes as well as police, firefighting and media helicopters, and is used as a base of operations for response to wildfires. Glendale Community College also uses the airport for flight training and several other flight programs for minors.
The public facility spans 182 acres of land and operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Whiteman proponents have argued that any motions to close the airport are not the mandate of the community advisory committee. They point to the unanimously approved motion of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, which led to the creation of the committee and called for maintaining the airport’s functions.
Portions of that motion state that local stakeholders would be engaged to undertake a “community-driven master plan for Whiteman Airport that maintains the property’s primary function as an airport but provides for the creation of local jobs, community beneficial uses, and open space opportunities.”
In January of 2022, the supervisors did direct their staff to identify documents and data that would need to be presented to the Federal Aviation Administration if the county at some point decides to seek the airport’s closure.
If the airport is closed, Pacoima Beautiful and Padilla-Campos have proposed that the space could be used for mixed-income housing, retail and public service agencies among other entities.
How sad it is that the committee completely ignored life long residents that are the majority to speak up and want to keep it open. Basically those that are against abuse of power have now abused their power and manipulated their way into having it closed. While it is far off they were given a step toward an unjust choice.
Pacoima needs no more housing and the airport would be a great site to add training and a school for youth interested in aeronautics and aviation but now that won’t be possible.
They will live to regret this choice.
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