Van Nuys Airport: The Story of an L.A. Icon

A fascinating history with all the elements of a blockbuster film

Gulfstream IV at Van Nuys Airport
Gulfstream IV at Van Nuys Airport | Instagram by @vannuysairport

Van Nuys Airport (VNY) has all the elements of a blockbuster film—action, adventure, war, world records, movie stars, mystery, and suspense. It’s the story of success, defeat, and reinvention—the ultimate "little engine that could" —and yet it can be considered one of the largest "hidden gems" in Los Angeles because there is so much to learn and experience—and much of it is free.

Aerial view of Van Nuys Airport
Photo courtesy of Van Nuys Airport, Facebook

Spanning more than 730 acres of land, VNY is located in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. With an FAA Tower and two parallel runways—an 8,000 foot main and a 4,000 foot training runway —it is one of the busiest general aviation airports in the world with over 700 non-commercial planes flying in and out daily, averaging 217,000 takeoffs and landings a year. It is also home to over 100 business tenants on surrounding blocks around the airport.

Along with Los Angeles International Aiport (LAX), VNY is owned and operated by Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), under the direction of a policy-making Board of Airport Commissioners appointed by the Mayor of Los Angeles.

In 2016, the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation issued an economic impact study that reflected Van Nuys Airport’s position as an economic engine contributing $2 billion annually to the San Fernando Valley region, supporting over 10,000 jobs.

As of June 2017, Van Nuys Airport is the only general aviation airport to hold Level 2 reduction in Airport Council International's Airport Carbon Accreditation program. VNY is working towards the highest standards to become greener, cleaner and more efficient.

HISTORY

Dedication plaque at Van Nuys Airport
Dedication plaque at Van Nuys Airport | Photo by Karen Young

Originally named Metropolitan Airport, VNY was built in 1928 by a group of businessmen amidst 80 acres of walnut and peach groves, and officially opened on December 17 of that year—the 25th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight. It was a place for dreamers and pioneering pilots to try out their new flying machines.

THE BEGINNING
At that time, Waldo Dean Waterman ran the airport. He was a test pilot, designer, and engineer for Bach Aircraft Co, a manufacturing company that was one of three to take up residence at the airport. He conducted non-stop races to Cleveland, Ohio from VNY, and set many endurance records, including a seven-day stay in the air via a plane called “The Question Mark” that was able to refuel mid-air, as well as the “men’s solo endurance record” set in 1929 by Herbert Fahey, who flew a Lockheed Vega and remained in the air, setting a record of 36 hours, 56 minutes and 36 seconds, beating Charles Lindbergh’s record of 33.5 hours.

PROHIBITION & BOOTLEGGERS
When the stock market crashed in 1929, many airplane owners and manufacturers went belly up. The airport remained open, but the business changed—money was made through bootlegged liquor from Mexico.

Florence Lowe "Pancho" Barnes
Florence Lowe "Pancho" Barnes | Photo courtesy of Van Nuys Airport, Facebook

FEMALE TRAILBLAZERS
In 1929, Bobbi Trout, one of the first female flyers, set an endurance record flying her Golden Eagle monoplane in circles over the airport for 12 hours, 11 minutes without refueling. Later that year, Amelia Earhart set a speed record of 184 mph. The following year, in October 1930, Florence Lowe "Pancho" Barnes beat Earhart’s record at 196.19 mph.

San Fernando Valley Airport in 1949
Photo courtesy of Van Nuys Airport, Facebook

WORLD WAR II & POST-WAR ERA
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 changed the course of the airport. The U.S. Army took over and invested in the airport for its own use, enhancing the land by paving and extending the runways. The P-80, America’s first fighter jet, had the first test flights at the airport.

After the war ended, the City of Los Angeles bought the airport in 1949 for $1 as war surplus and renamed it San Fernando Valley Airport. In 1957, the name changed for the last time to Van Nuys Airport and the Sherman Way underpass was built to extend the main runway (the famed "One Six Right") to 8,000 feet.

Norma Jeane Dougherty at the Radioplane factory in 1945
Norma Jeane Dougherty at the Radioplane factory, photographed by David Conover for "Yank" (June 1945) | Photo courtesy of Antonio Aguilar Martí, Facebook

NORMA JEANE DOUGHERTY: A STAR IS BORN
In June 1945, a curly-haired redhead named Norma Jeane Dougherty was working on a drone assembly line at the airport’s military factory when she was photographed for a story about war workers in Yank magazine. The story was assigned by commanding officer Ronald Reagan, who worked for U.S. Army Air Force's First Motion Picture Unit. As legend has it, Norma Jeane secured a screen test as a result of the photo, reinvented herself as Marilyn Monroe, and the rest is history.

THE LEARJET & JET-SETTERS
In 1964, Clay Lacy, a former United Airlines pilot and California National Guard at VNY, was the first to fly a Learjet across country from Wichita to VNY, where it became the first corporate jet based at airport. The following year, he and Jack Conroy, another prominent California National Guard, flew the Learjet on a record-setting transcontinental round-trip flight from Van Nuys to New York and back.

Frank Sinatra was the first to buy a Learjet and traveled to Las Vegas and Palm Springs along with his other Rat Pack buddies, Sammy Davis, Jr and Dean Martin. From then, the term “jet-setter” was coined for the wealthy people who traveled on them.

Lacy is a VNY legend and went on to revolutionize air-to-air cinematography with his invention of Astrovision—a rotating camera system attached to Learjet for flying scenes in film and television.

Today, Clay Lacy Aviation celebrates nearly 50 years as the world’s most experienced jet charter and management company. In addition to locations around the world, Van Nuys Airport is home to Clay Lacy’s $10 million, six-acre expansion and redevelopment at Van Nuys Airport, creating L.A.’s most secure and exclusive private aviation complex.

B-2 STEALTH BOMBER
This legendary plane made its first public appearance before nearly 350,000 people over Los Angeles skies at the 1996 Van Nuys Airport Aviation Expo.

FlyAway Bus Terminal

FlyAway bus from VNY to LAX
FlyAway bus to LAX | Photo courtesy of Van Nuys Airport, Facebook

The LAX FlyAway service operates from the FlyAway Bus Terminal at VNY. One way fare is $9.75. Parking is available at the FlyAway Terminal in the long-term parking lot and parking structure by entering on Woodley Avenue. (Parking can be limited during peak travel periods.) The daily rate is $4 per 24 hours and $1 per 2 hours thereafter, with a 30-day limit. Payment is accepted using cash and major credit cards.

HERE'S LOOKING AT YOU, VNY

"Casablanca" final scene
"Here's looking at you, kid." | Photo courtesy of "Casablanca," Facebook

VNY has been a popular location for filming since the 1930s as a way to bring income to the airport. Countless celebrities and political figures have flown in and out the airport with many also storing their own private planes.

The Hollywood connection was established by Dean Daily, a former cameraman, who ran the airport for his grandmother, Drusilla Daily Warner, who owned the property from 1933 to 1941. The first productions in the 1930s to use the facilities were Lost Horizon with Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt; Test Pilot with Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy; and Flying Deuces with Laurel and Hardy. Daily also grew banana squash around the airport to make money to make ends meet.

Several scenes of Casablanca were filmed at VNY (during the Metropolitan years) where the now defunct Art Deco watchtower was seen. In fact, at that time it was dubbed “the most romantic runway in the world.”

Other film productions include Foxfire, The Presidio, Midnight Run, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, The Bodyguard, Patriot Games, Last Action Hero, In the Line of Fire, Lethal Weapon, Crash, and Oceans 13. And in May 2017, Lady Gaga was seen exiting a plane for the 2018 remake of A Star is Born.

HBO’s Entourage featured significant scenes at VNY. In Season One, the final scene where Vincent Chase and friends take off for New York was filmed on the tarmac. In Season Four, Kanye West offers the friends a plane ride on the Marquis Jet to Cannes, while in Season Five Ari Gold and Vincent run into each other in a hangar as they are taking off to different locations. Finally, Season Six brought an awkward encounter when Vincent and his pals run into his brother on the way to Italy.

The 1980s TV series, Airwolf used the hangars for Santini Air, which was run by Ernest Borgnine’s character.

Other TV series include Dynasty, Candid Camera, Unsolved Mysteries, MacGyver, Santa Barbara, Quantum Leap, CSI, Glee, Scandal, Shark Tank, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Many music videos have also been filmed at VNY, including Britney Spears' “Stronger”; Metallica's “The Memory Remains”; Blink-182's “All the Small Things”; and Kiss' “God Gave Rock and Roll To You 2.”

THINGS TO DO AT VNY

ABC Air 7 news copter landing at Van Nuys Airport
ABC Air 7 news copter landing at Van Nuys Airport | Photo by Karen Young

There’s so much to do in and around Van Nuys Airport—and it’s FREE. Check it out!

PUBLIC OBSERVATION AREA
The perfect spot to view the airfield is free and open to the public from 8 a.m. to sunset every day. Hear live communication from the Air Traffic Control tower while watching incoming/departing aircraft behind a chain link fence. Learn fast facts at kiosks and children’s exhibits, and view the original dedication plaque from 1928. The entrance is located at the end of Waterman Drive next to Los Angeles Fire Dept. Station 90 (there's no actual address, but signs are visible at the corner of Waterman Drive and Woodley Avenue, which looks like an alley). As you drive towards the end, look to the right for Children’s Hospital planes and news and police copters.

AIRPORT TOUR PROGRAM
This free 90-minute bus tour makes its way along the airport perimeter road, highlighting airport operations, historic and current landmarks, businesses, and based aircraft. Learn about the airport’s community contributions and its rich and colorful history in Hollywood. The tour includes a stop at LAFD Station 114 and a view of the Condor Squadron aircraft. Tours are available year-round for children (first grade and up) and adults with advanced reservations. Call the VNY Public and Community Relations office for available dates and times at (818) 442-6526.

CONDOR SQUADRON
A bit of military history lives on courtesy of the Condor Squadron, a non-profit organization founded in 1963 by a group of WWII fighter pilots. It’s located on the west side of VNY and dedicated to honoring veterans with eight vintage propeller planes once flown by the Royal Air Force, U.S. Navy, and Army Air Forces. Parked side-by-side on the tarmac, the planes are a highlight of the VNY Airport Tour Program. The Condor Squadron AT-6 aircraft and facility are not open to the general public, except for an annual Easter Egg Hunt Fundraiser. The planes can also we viewed from the street — on Hayvenhurst heading north, turn right on Saticoy and keep following it until you see camouflage sheds next to vintage planes.

LAFD STATION 114
The Aviation Unit of the Los Angeles Fire Dept. station at VNY responds specifically to air-related emergencies with a fleet of ground vehicles and aircraft. Some aircraft, response vehicles, and living quarters can be viewed. Station 114 is included in the VNY Airport Tour, but the facility also gives general public tours as well. Contact the station directly for tour information: (818) 756-8635.

TAKE AN AERIAL TOUR
Whether you want to explore the skies over Los Angeles, Malibu, and Hollywood, or venture further to Catalina Island, Las Vegas, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Palm Springs, there is a tour company at VNY for you.

WHERE TO EAT AND STAY AT VNY

94th Aero Squadron Restaurant at Van Nuys Airport
94th Aero Squadron Restaurant at Van Nuys Airport | Photo by Karen Young

94th AERO SQUADRON RESTAURANT
Located on the northern edge of the VNY runway, the 94th Aero Squadron Restaurant is an homage to the World War I U.S. service unit of the same name. David Tallichet, a World War II Army Air Corps veteran, opened the now iconic restaurant in 1973 to share his love of the military.

Built as a French Normandy farmhouse, the ivy-covered building is whitewashed with patches of exposed brick. Part of the restaurant is designed to look like it was "hit" with enemy fire. As you drive up, note a grass front with a vintage biplane, cannons, jeeps, barrels of hay, and other wartime paraphernalia.

The kitschy interior is filled with memorabilia as a shrine to the World Wars and VNY history. VNY legend Clay Lacy recently had a room dedicated to him. Windows looks out to a brick patio with a view of the airport runaway. Select tables are provided with headsets that allow guests to listen in on live communications between the Air Traffic Control tower and pilots. The restaurant is known for its Sunday brunch, happy hour, and live music events. It’s also a popular event venue.

Lobby of Airtel Plaza Hotel
Photo courtesy of Airtel Plaza Hotel

AIRTEL PLAZA HOTEL
Built just before the 1984 Olympics, the aviation-themed Airtel Plaza Hotel is perfect for plane-spotting and ideal for business travelers. The hotel features 267 guest rooms and suites, as well as dining and drinking options that include Landings (with indoor-outdoor seating), the Clipper Café and the Clipper Lounge, an exact replica of the renowned Long Bar in at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.

The hotel lobby includes a model Pan Am jet overhead, while aviation design elements are found throughout the hotel. Airtel Plaza is one of only four hotels in California that offers a "parking lot" for aircraft.

EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES

Successful first solo flight with Group 3 Aviation at Van Nuys Airport
Successful first solo flight with Group 3 Aviation | Instagram by @group3aviation

LEARN TO FLY
Have you ever dreamed of soaring through the skies? Whether you're interested in a career, or your aspirations are simply amateur, your dreams can become reality with these seven flight schools located at Van Nuys Airport.

The Community Relations office at Van Nuys Airport offers a slew of educational programs for all ages. For more info, visit the VNY website.

NVOC AIRCRAFT MECHANIC PROGRAM
Study to become an aviation mechanic at the Aircraft Mechanic Program, offered by the North Valley Occupational Center (NVOC) at their Aviation Center located at VNY. The program consists of 45 subject areas presented in three separate classes: technical training, classroom work, and hands-on experience. The program takes approximately 2.5 years to complete and prepares students for the FAA licensing exam in General Airframe and Powerplant Mechanics.

AVIATION CAREERS EDUCATION (ACE) ACADEMY
This free, week-long summer program is open to all 7th- 12th grade students and designed to introduce them to career opportunities within the aviation/aeronautical industry, as well as general knowledge about Van Nuys Airport. The program includes visits to industry locations all over greater Los Angeles, including LAX, Long Beach Airport, Camarillo Airport, the Los Angeles Air Force Base, and more. Applications are being accepted for 2018. Call (818) 442-6526 or download the application from the LAWA website.