Under the unexpectedly hot October heat, Whiteman Airport once again opened its hangar doors to welcome the community to gaze at the numerous single-engine planes housed at the airport and learn more about the programs offered there.
All along the tarmac, about a couple dozen planes in a variety of colors sat on display for community members to come and get an up-close look. One silver-colored plane had the American flag painted on its side. Another plane was bolder in its show of patriotism, being painted red, white and blue – complete with the stars and stripes. Others were simpler, including a white plane with blue stripes or a yellow plane with part of the hull painted black.
Dozens of people showed up throughout the day despite the intense heat, some bringing their children along to not only look at the planes but sign them up for free flights through the Young Eagles program, available for kids ages 8 to 17.
One family was Eduardo Hernandez and his two sons, Michael and Nathan, who took the opportunity to fly for free.
“It was really good, it was my first time flying,” 12-year-old Michael said, recalling he was nervous at first due to a fear of heights, but got comfortable once up in the sky. “The pilot asked me if I could fly it, so it was pretty good.”
“It was really fun [and] a new experience,” said 10-year-old Nathan, who flew in the same plane as his older brother. He said he was still shaking a little out of nerves, but similar to his brother, they went away once he was up in the sky.
Similar stories played out throughout the afternoon as more and more kids signed up for the program that the airport has offered to youth for 30 years.
“We’ve already flown more than 11,000 kids on their first introductory ride out of Whiteman Airport over those years,” Young Eagles program coordinator Dave Kolstad said. “Now we’re over 2.25 million kids who have flown nationwide, not just at Whiteman. In fact, our chapter right here is the second busiest in the entire country.”
While the airport’s fair is an opportunity for Whiteman to demonstrate to the community the positives of having a smaller-sized airport so close to them, it can be hard to talk about this particular airport without mentioning the controversy that has hovered over the tarmac for several years.
Organizations including Pacoima Beautiful and politicians such as Los Angeles City Councilmember Monica Rodriguez have called for Whiteman’s closure, citing health concerns and recent crashes involving aircraft that had taken off from the Pacoima airport.
On April 20, 2022, pilot John King was killed after crashing into an embankment alongside the westbound Foothill Freeway in Sylmar. Earlier that same year on Jan. 9, a train collided with a plane that landed onto the train tracks right outside the airport, though pilot Mark Jenkins was fortunately pulled out of the plane with seconds to spare. And in November 2020, a plane crashed on Sutter Avenue and collided with two cars, killing the pilot.
Supporters of Whiteman, however, have pointed out how unlikely it is for a plane crash to occur, especially when compared to the likelihood of someone getting into a car crash on one of LA’s freeways or even the streets near the airport.
Despite the efforts made to get Whiteman closed, Kolstad is optimistic of the airport’s future.
“There were two petitions during all this brouhaha about this thing: 8,000 people were in favor of keeping the airport open and fewer than 2,000 people wanted to see it closed, so the odds are pretty strong,” Kolstad said. “There are hundreds of jobs available right there in the airport. There’s one fellow who has worked at the airport for 20 years and lives in Pacoima … so there are a lot of opportunities there.
“That’s one of the reasons for the Air Fair, … to introduce kids to things that they haven’t seen before,” Kolstad continued. “Let them get hands-on experience with some of this stuff and learn that way because you learn an awful lot more through your own experience than you do by somebody telling you.”
Others in the community who showed up to the event are also in favor of keeping Whiteman open, including Mauricio Urquilla and his son Hessler, who came from North Hills. Hessler is part of Project JACKPOT, where San Fernando Valley youth can construct an aircraft, which they will eventually fly in, with the mentorship of aviation experts.
“It’s sad what they’re trying to do,” Mauricio said of those trying to shut the airport down, “because it [Whiteman] helps a lot. There’s a lot of free programs for kids, teenagers. … As long as it’s still here, we’re going to support them 100 percent.”
Rolando Ramirez, who lives near the airport, came later in the day with his two kids to check out the event. Ramirez, who has thought about getting his own pilot license, didn’t mince words about how he felt about the effort to shut down Whiteman.
“I hate it. I hate it,” Ramirez said. “If something happens, I’m going to come down and support the airport. I don’t want it shut down. It’s the only thing we have in Pacoima. I mean, we got no high-rise [buildings]. We got none of that.”
If Whiteman were to close, that would also cause problems for the pilots who would have to find somewhere else to store and fly their planes, said pilot Sheldon Moberg.
“There’s a need for these types of airports because when you get to the larger airports [including] Van Nuys, Burbank, LAX, you don’t want these smaller planes at [those] airports. That would cause another safety problem,” Moberg said. “So having these types of airports … it gives a home to these kinds of airplanes.”
Matthew Stone, a pilot from Simi Valley, pointed out that it wouldn’t just be pilots that would be affected by a potential closure, but emergency response teams – including disaster relief, firefighting and the Civil Air Service – that use Whiteman as a base.
“It’s important to the LA county fire people that the airport stay open because when they can work out of this tower, they get what they need much quicker,” Stone said. “The fire chief said in county meetings … if the airport closes, the county fire operations will be hindered.
“There’s a lot at stake.”