Movie Magic

Documenting 75 years of aviation history at Van Nuys Airport

BY PATRICK J. MATHEWS (From AOPA Pilot, September 2004.)

Imagine that you are sitting on the horizontal stabilizer of a 1940s United Airlines DC-3 as the airplane slides down the glidepath to touchdown. This perspective and other sophisticated visual effects will soon be seen in a stunning new documentary on the world's busiest general aviation airport, Van Nuys Airport in Southern California.

The documentary is the brainchild of Brian J. Terwilliger, a young local filmmaker and private pilot who wants to archive the never-before-told history of this fascinating airport. For three years this project has been Terwilliger's all-consuming passion as he set out to research and document the airport's 75-year history. Along the way he uncovered rare footage and historic photographs, and he spoke with hundreds of pilots, including 83-year-old Ben Harper who witnessed the dedication of the new Los Angeles Metropolitan Airport (as Van Nuys Airport was first known) on December 17, 1928. Terwilliger realized that generations of older pilots, like Harper, who flew at Van Nuys in the early years were quickly disappearing, so it was imperative that stories too were recorded for posterity. It didn't take long until the community was abuzz as pilots, air traffic controllers, and aviation buffs of all generations came forward with their unique stories, photos, and memorabilia.

This is no ordinary documentary. Terwilliger believes that a movie about aviation, shot in Southern California, should be done to the quality and scale one would expect from the entertainment capital of the world. Using digital high-definition format, the production is being shot on the same 24P Panavision camera codeveloped by George Lucas for his Star Wars films.

Using specialized equipment such as the Super Technocrane (a telescopic arm), special nose-mounted cameras on helicopters, and air-to-air photography, the film is designed to both inform and entertain anyone with an interest in aviation and to celebrate the progress and aeronautical achievements of man, on location, where much of it happened.

The film encompasses more than 75 years of history. You'll experience a typical day at Van Nuys, meet the men and women who fly and work there, and have an opportunity to get a firsthand closeup of some of the fabulous aircraft that call Van Nuys home both on the ground and in the air.

And you'll meet some familiar and surprising faces and hear from them just how this airport played an important role in their flying lives.

An abundance of blue skies and wide-open spaces had a strong appeal then as it does today, and men with vision and ambition came to the Golden State in the 1920s to launch industries that would eventually bring growth, wealth, and worldwide fame to California. Since then these industries have become the linchpins of the airport's success. Today Van Nuys Airport generates more than $1.3 billion in revenue to Los Angeles and the surrounding San Fernando Valley communities.

In 1928 the 20-mile drive between Los Angeles and the bean fields and walnut groves of the San Fernando Valley was the difference between city and country life. So a new 80-acre airfield to cater to aircraft manufacturers, like the Bach Aircraft Co., support companies, and flight training was pioneered in rural Van Nuys. By 1929 two hangars were open (one still exists today) and airplanes were departing and arriving on two intersecting, clover-covered runways. Almost instantly the new Los Angeles Metropolitan Airport was making money. On any day you may have seen Howard Hughes, Pancho Barnes, or Frank Hawks testing new airplanes, or Amelia Earhart or Bobbie Trout endeavoring to set a new airspeed record. It wasn't long before the movie crowd followed. As it is today, some of Hollywood's biggest actors were soon flying into the airport, Wallace Beery and Gene Autry among them.

The first test of the interdependency of aviation and filmmaking came with the Great Depression. Few people could afford to fly in the 1930s. The airport went bankrupt. But in 1933 the field changed hands and local businessman Dean Dailey assumed management. Dailey was successful in convincing movie producers to make a number of movies at the field including Test Pilot and Lost Horizons. While hundreds of movies and television shows have since been filmed at Van Nuys Airport, it is best known for its brief starring role with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. The former control tower, a distinctive white stucco structure, is clearly visible in this movie classic.

In 1942 the U.S. government acquired the airport and the Army took over, expanding the field by adding 163 acres, and renaming it Van Nuys Army Air Field. The war effort got into full swing and it wasn't long before Timm Aircraft was manufacturing CG-4A-T1 gliders for the Army and the new N2T-1 Tutor for the Navy. In 1943 the Army established 428th Fighter Squadron flying Lockheed P-38 Lightnings at Van Nuys and Lockheed established a flight-test center. By 1944 Lockheed was doing final assembly of T-33s there, and later, helicopters and other jet aircraft.

One day in 1945 an Army photographer, Pvt. David Conover, was sent to photograph workers in a new plant, Radioplane, at Van Nuys. The 1940s actor Reginald Denny had conceived the idea of using large radio-controlled models as target drones for gunnery practice. There, on the drone assembly line, Conover first professionally photographed a beautiful young worker. She would later go on to a new career as pinup and movie sensation Marilyn Monroe.

After World War II, the War Assets Administration deeded the majority of the airport to the City of Los Angeles, which renamed the airport as San Fernando Valley Airport. It was converted to a municipal airport with a proviso that the Air National Guard remain. The city demolished many of the wartime structures and extended Runway 8/26 to 3,800 feet. (No runways configured in an east/west direction exist today.)

With postwar prosperity and the return of thousands of veterans, a new market for general aviation was born. New flight schools and fixed-base operations mushroomed and some well-known names established businesses there: Valley Pilot's Flying Service, Roger Clark Air Service, Norm Larson Company, Schaefer Air Service, and Skyways, to name a few. By 1953 the Air National Guard was in new quarters hosting the 146th Fighter Bomber Wing. Over the years, until April 1990, this active base operated North American P-51s and F-86s, and Lockheed C-130s. The airport was expanding and a longer runway was needed, so in 1957 work began on extending the main runway (16R/34L) from 6,000 feet to 8,000 feet to include the Sherman Way underpass. An additional 300 acres had been acquired by this time, and in the same year the airport was given its current name, Van Nuys Airport.

While the airport was expanding so was Los Angeles. The city spread to the north and south as people poured in from the East and Midwest. The San Fernando Valley became a closer and affordable option for families living in the Los Angeles Basin and so it wasn't long before Van Nuys Airport had a lot of close neighbors. However, in the hangars and behind the chain-link fences some impressive milestones were being achieved in aircraft development: Lockheed built, modified, and test-flew the TP-80C (T-33A); the YF-94 (Starfire); and the AH-56A (Cheyenne) helicopter. In 1965 AeroSpacelines first flew the Super Guppy, a blowfish version of the Boeing Stratocruiser especially designed and built to fly the large booster rocket sections for the emerging space program.

Van Nuys air traffic peaked in the 1970s. Tough liability laws, the Vietnam War, and a weakening economy saw the number of general aviation airplanes at the field decline to about half of what it once was (see "Van Nuys Airport," page 82). Manufacturers turned their sights on a new market, the coming jet age and the need for personal and corporate jet aircraft. However, Van Nuys still ranks as the world's busiest general aviation airport and is ranked at number eight overall among airports in the world. The Van Nuys air traffic controllers do a masterful job of mixing pilots of every experience level and aircraft of every size and speed with the more than 150 corporate jets based there.

The popular annual Van Nuys Air Show, which brought together the world's top military and civilian airplanes each summer, was discontinued this year because of security concerns. It was a major disappointment to the hundreds of thousands of fans who used to make the annual pilgrimage. Over the years the airport has played host to aircraft of every kind from the Lockheed U-2 to Air Force One to the Stealth Bomber and the Lockheed F-117 fighter.

The documentary, One Six Right, coming late this fall, will tell this extraordinary tale. But who would finance a project of this scale?

Terwilliger turned to friends and relatives and to local business interests to raise funds. Pilots and aviation buffs are a passionate lot, with many donating their know-how, aircraft, or equipment to be part of the production. Men such as legendary air traffic controller Phil Aune, the "voice of Van Nuys." His calm, distinctive tone has reassured pilots for more than 40 years regardless of the workload or visibility. Or then there's hotelier Jim Dunn. Dunn's unique Airtel Plaza has catered to overnight pilots and the Van Nuys flying community for years. Dunn was first to get behind the project. Then there is Si Robin, chief executive officer of Sensor Systems. His passion for the airport, his enthusiasm, and his desire to see this film made were invaluable. Kevin LaRosa, the owner of Jetcopters, also gave generously by helping to plan and fly some of the spectacular in-flight sequences. Many more people, too numerous to mention, also gave.

Still, it was often hard going. Terwilliger tenaciously kept to his creative vision and would not be swayed to take shortcuts, compromise on quality, or sell out to commercial interests.

The result is a film that showcases the important role this airport has played in U.S. history and the contributions it has made to world aviation. It's a Southern California landmark as important as the Mulholland's aqueduct, Burbank Studios, or the Hollywood Bowl. While other Los Angeles area airports such as Bob Hope Airport (formerly Burbank) and Santa Monica Municipal Airport (formerly Cloverfield) also played important roles in the development of both U.S. civil and military aviation, Van Nuys has, for 75 years, been a constant in pioneering safe and dependable air transportation at every level of the flying spectrum.

Patrick J. Mathews, AOPA 1134012, of Indian Wells, California, is a 1,400-hour private pilot. A freelance writer, he owns a 1993 Beechcraft F33A Bonanza.

Van Nuys Airport

Van Nuys Airport is based in the San Fernando Valley about 20 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. During hours of operation it functions as a controlled field in Class D airspace. Van Nuys Airport lies under Bob Hope Airport's Class C airspace, which itself borders on Los Angeles International Class B airspace. The airport offers an ILS approach from the north as well as VOR or GPS-A, VOR/DME, and LDA-C approaches. At 3.9 degrees the Van Nuys ILS uses one of the steepest glideslopes in the country.

  • Two parallel runways operate in tandem (16R/34L and 16L/34R).
  • In 2003, the latest full year for available statistics, there were 807 aircraft based at the airport. These were listed as follows:
    • 158 corporate jets
    • 508 piston aircraft
    • 70 helicopters
  • More than 100 of these jets are Gulfstreams, the largest base of these aircraft worldwide.
  • In 2003 there were 466,449 aircraft operations at Van Nuys, making it the busiest general aviation airport in the world.
  • Van Nuys averages 1,500 takeoffs and landings each day.

Source: 2003 L.A. World AirportsPJM

For more information on the documentary of Van Nuys Airport, One Six Right, visit the Web site (

web page last updated October 07, 2004