Pacoima’s Whiteman Airport would stay, but be improved to benefit neighbors, under new effort
A new plan is being drawn for Whiteman Airport, a northeast San Fernando Valley aviation hub in Pacoima, after a fatal plane crash last month in a residential neighborhood prompted calls for its closure by a councilwoman and a community group.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a motion Tuesday, Dec. 8, that calls for a “master plan” for the airport that would keep its current use, but also include goals to create local jobs, opportunities for open space and other community benefits.
“This motion will bring new consideration to how the Whiteman Airport could benefit the entire surrounding community,” said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who’s district includes the airport. The county, which purchased the airport in 1970, is responsible for it.
“Through the master plan requested by the motion, community stakeholders will have a chance to think about the airport more holistically, not simply as a transportation hub or even as an economic engine, but also as a site for broader community benefits,” she said.
Pacoima Beautiful, a group that focuses on environmental justice issues, called for the closure of the airport last month, saying that in addition to worries about safety in light of the plane crash, there are concerns about the airport being a source of pollution in a community where there are multiple sources of harmful emissions coming from nearby freeways and industrial sites.
The group had just begun pushing the county to address their environmental concerns about the airport when neighboring residents were rattled by a fatal plane crash on Nov. 12.
At least two young children were home at the time and experienced firsthand the aftermath of a single-engine Cessna 182 crashing in the street outside their homes, setting cars ablaze and downing power lines. The Civil Air Patrol pilot who operated the aircraft was reported to have died on impact.
Upon hearing the crash, one of the children ran out to pull his grandmother out from under their tree that had caught fire in their front yard. The other child, his neighbor, gathered up her siblings and ran out the back, before needing to ask a neighbor to carry them over a fence in order to escape the scene, she told a reporter. The grandmother later set out a memorial for the pilot who died.
Pacoima Beautiful highlighted the grandmother’s experiences during a recent news conference in which they demanded the airport’s closure. They said that in addition to their environmental concerns, they were worried that there was not enough attention being paid to nearby residents who are vulnerable to such tragic accidents.
The crash is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, a process that is likely to take 12 to 18 months to complete.
Under the motion approved Tuesday, the county, which owns the airport, will need to “engage” residents and businesses, as well as Pacoima Beautiful and Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez, who issued a statement soon after the plane crash calling for the airport’s “closure and redevelopment.”
The safety and potential environmental impacts from the airport was identified by Pacoima Beautiful “as the community’s top priority,” the motion said.
The motion also addressed the role the airport plays in the transportation system, saying that the county “strives to operate and maintain smart, active, safe and sustainable transportation infrastructure.”
“The county needs to work collaboratively with our local partners, residents, and stakeholders to ensure our infrastructure benefits the widest populations possible while not disproportionately burdening any individual community,” the motion said.
According to the motion, the contract for the operator of the airport, American Airports, is set to expire next March, at which point the public works department is set to “bring the operation and maintenance of the airport in-house.”
“This provides a unique opportunity to reinvest in the community and improve operations at Whiteman Airport in a manner that benefits Pacoima residents,” the motion read.
The motion also calls for environmental studies to be done on the airport’s risks, the formation of a panel of residents to give advice on airport operations, and the creation of “emergency response protocol for both on-airport and off-airport accidents that includes a streamlined approach for reimbursement for damages. The protocol shall include the support of mental health counseling when appropriate.”
The airport was built in 1946 and purchased by the county in 1970. It is one of five general aviation airports that the county operates, and is home to small planes, as well as law enforcement aircraft and news helicopters. Also operating out of the airport are flight and aviation mechanics schools, as well as a local chapter of a group that encourages interest in the aviation field and gives children free plane rides.