Fate of Pacoima’s Whiteman Airport Under Discussion

Community Advisory Committee Begins Review of Whether 75-year-old Airfield Should Continue Operating

Ever since a Civil Air Patrol single-engine plane crashed along the 10600 block of Sutter Avenue while trying to land at nearby Whiteman Airport on Nov. 12, 2020 — killing the pilot, burning two vehicles parked on the street and damaging the entrances to a couple of homes — residents, community organizations and even politicians have demanded the airfield be closed.

Discussions about the airfield’s continued operation took place on Monday, June 21, as the first in a series of online meetings was held about “Re-envisioning Whiteman Airport: A Community-driven Master Plan.”

The meeting brought together the Community Advisory Committee made up of local organizations’ representatives, as well as several members of County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s staff. Its task is to analyze and propose ideas for the future of the airport, including the potential shutdown of the county-owned facility.

Los Angeles City Councilmember Monica Rodriguez, who supports closing Whiteman, also attended the meeting.

Kuehl said in a video presentation that the plan calls for an air quality monitoring program, and discussions on the fate of the 75-year-old airport.

“Local residents have long raised concerns about pollution and safety around the airport,” Kuehl said in the video, adding that “every option is on the table, including possible closure, which would require federal input.”

Rodriguez said she welcomed a review of the airport and its impact on the surrounding community, particularly regarding the level of pollution in Pacoima — a community “dissected by freeways, the industrial operations in the area that have led to such poor air quality” leading to asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

“The voices for this community are finally being heard,” Rodriguez said.

History Of Airport

The airport was established in 1946 by Marvin E. Whiteman, Sr., and purchased by the County of Los Angeles in 1970. It houses more than 600 aircraft, including private airplanes as well as police, firefighting and media helicopters. It is used as a base of operations for response to wildfires.

Whiteman Airport is also home to Glendale Community College 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. It records 108,000 annual take offs and landings, about 300 per day.

Assistant Airport Director Jason Morgan said the site includes 21 businesses and employs 246 workers, generating some $19 million annually and $54.4 million in economic benefits to the surrounding community.

Those benefits were highly touted by several of the approximately 100 attendees at the online meeting.

Gregory Coleman, who has a plane there, said he pays taxes “that the city of Los Angeles benefits from.” He believes the real culprits of the environmental issues in Pacoima are created by the 405, 5 and 210 freeways.

Coleman went on to say the airport “keeps Pacoima safe in case of an emergency,” and provides economic and job development resources for youth.

Craig Morton, another airport tenant, cautioned against making rash conclusions after an accident where the only fatality was the pilot.

“One accident where the only person injured is the occupant doesn’t seem like it should be the basis for being reactionary,” Morton said.

“If you look at the history of accidents, miraculously there’s been no damage to the community. You have to look at the numbers and make rational decisions.”

A report released in 2011 by the county Department of Public Works indicated there were 80 accidents at Whiteman Airport since 1970, 26 of which occurred away from the airport.

Not Just About Accidents

However, Melissa Alvarez of the local environmental group Pacoima Beautiful, said that she’d never heard of the youth programs mentioned by officials and other airport members. She also said that it’s not just about the accidents, but the frequency of the flights and their impact on the surrounding homes.

“I can literally hear my windows shake” every time a plane lands or takes off, Alvarez said, adding that “saying that (80 accidents) it’s not a big number” is somewhat disingenuous.

“You have to think about the takeoffs and landings. They’re not taking into account the children and the impact it has on them,” she said of the constant flyovers.

Another opponent who only identified himself as “Corona” — and said he lives in front of the airport — complained he can’t even be outside his home because of the strong smell of fuel emitted by the airplanes, which stop for 5-10 minutes in front of the homes while accelerating before taking off.

Bobby Arias, president of the local organization Champions in Service and one of the members of the Community Advisory Committee, said one of the central questions regarding the airport is how many of its tenants live in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, and how many people from Pacoima work at the site.

He dismissed the assertions from pilots and tenants that the number of accidents is small and there’s been no fatalities involving residents.

“That doesn’t take into account the trauma that’s created in the local community whenever there’s a crash,” Arias said.

Further Discussion

Dave Hopkins, Glendale Community College flight instructor, questioned whether Pacoima Beautiful’s proposal to close the airport was being driven by real estate developers. And Jalon O’Connell, who’s kept a plane at the airport for 15 years, said even if they don’t live in the area “we utilize and shop in the businesses as we go in and out of the airport.”

O’Connell and other tenants agreed that the airport has done a poor job reaching out to the local community and letting them know about the youth, training and employment programs available there.

Veronica Padilla, executive director for Pacoima Beautiful, wondered how much prior knowledge the community had about the online meeting. Organizers said they had passed flyers around the airport and had sent mailers to the entire Pacoima community.

Padilla, who is also a committee member, said she welcomes the data that may be gathered for the project, as “we’ve always lacked information and transparency.”

But she did not mince words about being “disheartened” with some of the attacks against her organization by some of those who spoke in favor of the airport.

The committee will continue to meet into next year before presenting its findings and recommendations to the county Board of Supervisors, which will ultimately decide the airport’s future.

The next Community Advisory Committee meeting will July 29 and online. Meetings beginning September 23 will be held publicly at a location to be determined.

Associated Program: Shutdown Whiteman Airport