Tales from the runway

Published: February 1st, 2009

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Brackett Airport is the home of almost a century of flight in La Verne.

Piper Super Cub plane owner George Petterson has had numerous hangars at the airport since June of 1960. Since retiring, Petterson enjoys spending time at the airport, cleaning his plane and conversing with other pilots stationed at Brackett. / photo by Leah Heagy

Piper Super Cub plane owner George Petterson has had numerous hangars at the airport since June of 1960. Since retiring, Petterson enjoys spending time at the airport, cleaning his plane and conversing with other pilots stationed at Brackett. / photo by Leah Heagy

by Susan Acker
photography by Leah Heagy

Kent McCord remembers what it used to be like 50 years ago. Before the landing strip was paved, and when reflectors along the runway had to be lit by a car’s headlights at night so pilots could see to land.

“It was just a heck of a place to have been around,” he says, reflecting fondly on his days of pumping gas at Brackett Field when he was a teenager in the ‘50s.

McCord, an actor, and the former national vice president of the Screen Actor’s Guild, says he has not been back to the small airport for a while, but he thinks about old times every year when he and his wife drive out for the annual Los Angeles County Fair across the street from it.

Brackett Field, which sits on 276 acres of open land in the southeast corner of the city of La Verne, is one of five Los Angeles County-owned general aviation airports, and plays an integral role in the local community as well as with the county and state. Richard Smith, chief of the Aviation Division in the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, says Brackett Field plays an “enormous role” in many different ways. Brackett Field is used not only by general aviation pilots, but also by the Los Angeles County Fire Department, the Pomona Police Department, Mount San Antonio College and the Civil Air Patrol. The County Aviation Commission, a volunteer group of aviation-oriented individuals, who are appointed by the County Board of Supervisors, advises the Aviation Division on airport-related matters.

Brackett Field, named after Frank Parkhurst Brackett, one of the original professors at Pomona College who started working at the college in the late 1800s, has a long, celebrated history. In 1911, Calbraith Perry, “C.P.,” Rogers landed his Wright Flyer Biplane nicknamed the “Vin Fiz,” after the carbonated soda produced by the sponsor of the first across the United States flight, near what are now two parallel runways. Brackett Field originally consisted of a dirt strip cut out of a field in the late ‘30s. The original runway was 2,600 feet of dirt and there was a school for student pilots from Pomona College. Later, the Civil Air Patrol used Brackett Field during World War II, and in 1957 the county took over the airport and has owned it since that time.

Brackett Field, also known as POC—its airport identification code—has a control tower, two parallel east-west runways, and has 125,000 take-offs and landings, or operations, per year. It is the second-busiest airport owned by Los Angeles County, according to Patrick Di Leva, airport project coordinator for the county. Brackett is second in activity to county-owned Whiteman Airpark in Pacoima.

“Everything that happens in aviation typically starts at an airport like Brackett,” Smith says. “Students-in-training are the key to everything.”

McCord, who received payment for his work at Brackett in the form of flying time, has many fond memories of his time at Brackett Field. “We had a dog named Sylvester and he used to be the first passenger of everyone who got their license.”

Jared Fox-Tuck, the airport manager, has worked at Brackett for close to three years with American Airports, the company with whom the county contracts to provide day-to-day operations management at its airports. He says there is a strong sense of community, not only among pilots, but local community members who come out to support the airport and watch the airplanes.

“I’ll walk outside, and there’s always a kid,” Fox-Tuck says. “They really love to come out to the airport; it’s a great motivator.”

“It’s fun for the kids just to see the planes,” says Covina resident Sheri Colina, as she and her children watch the airplanes at the monthly airplane display and car show at Brackett. “It’s something different to do.” As an airplane taxies by, 6-year-old Ian watches and points. Anya, although only 2, seems to enjoy the shade of the tree in the park-like area on the east side of the terminal.

Fox-Tuck says that many local citizens come out every morning to watch the airplanes. Some of those enjoy their time at the airport’s restaurant, Norm’s Hangar, owned by Kathy Touche, a former University of La Verne student. Her father, Norm Nissen, started Norm’s in 1983.

“Some guys come in three or four times a day,” Touche says of her regular customers. She adds that they come for breakfast, lunch and back for pie. Outside on the patio, Touche says that one of the best things about Brackett is the location.

“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it everyone?” she asks her customers with her arms spread. There is a unanimous, emphatic “yes” from everyone on the patio. “La Verne deserves this,” she says.

Pilots like George Petterson and Hal Clark have been flying out of the small general aviation airport for years and cannot stop singing its praises. Petterson, a self-proclaimed “airport bum,” says, “I started when it was a dirt strip when I was going to Mt. SAC.”

Petterson, who lives in Covina, keeps a Piper Super Cub in a hangar on the north side of the field at Brackett. Clark, who worked in the aeronautical industry, keeps his planes in a hangar on the south side of the airport facing the mountains.

“I kind of live out here,” Clark says. “I hardly miss a day out here.”

Like others at the airport, Clark is warm and inviting, offering a seat to look at the mountains from his hangar. The clean, crisp air and clear view—unobstructed by smog that often plagues the surrounding area—is enticing. Such a magnificent view is available in an area that often may be overlooked because of its location between a golf course to the south, the Fairplex to the east, and an industrial park to the north.

But Brackett does not just boast a great view and friendly atmosphere. It also offers a central location to La Verne and surrounding cities.

“It’s an integral part of the state’s and county’s emergency preparedness plans,” Smith says. Tom Short, senior pilot with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, says La Verne benefits greatly by having a county helicopter in its city. “If La Verne had a major incident which required help, we would respond.” The Los Angeles County Fire Department came to Brackett in November of 2007. “It really is a perfect location,” says Anthony Marrone, chief of air operations for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Although the County Fire Department is there for parts of the East San Gabriel Valley that do not include the city of La Verne because of its city-operated fire department, citizens do benefit by having a County Fire Department close by.

Brackett Field is just one of several down-home, county-owned airports. El Monte Airport, Whiteman Airpark, Compton/Woodley Airport and General William J. Fox Airfield are the other county airports. But Brackett offers something special. With a history that started with one of the first airplanes, Brackett Field and the city of La Verne are still flying high into the 21st century.

“It was a great place to have been a part of,” McCord says.

Los Angeles resident Tim Flint, who flew in with three friends for the monthly airplane display, sums it up best. “There are a lot of airports around the L.A. area,” he says, “but this is just comfortable. It seems complete.”

An aerial shot of Brakett Field Airport from the mid-1960s shows the airport with just one runway and little development. George Petterson, who provided the photograph, owned Brackett Aircraft Service Inc. that built the first 40 tee hangars at the airport. / photograph courtesy of George Petterson

An aerial shot of Brakett Field Airport from the mid-1960s shows the airport with just one runway and little development. George Petterson, who provided the photograph, owned Brackett Aircraft Service Inc. that built the first 40 tee hangars at the airport. / photograph courtesy of George Petterson

Brackett Airport, located in La Verne, offers flight schools, hangars for planes, a restaurant with a view of the planes taking off and landing and a pilot supply shop. The airport had only one runway until the 1980s, when airport traffic increased. The airport is located on the border of San Dimas, next to Bonelli Park. / photo by Leah Heagy

Brackett Airport, located in La Verne, offers flight schools, hangars for planes, a restaurant with a view of the planes taking off and landing and a pilot supply shop. The airport had only one runway until the 1980s, when airport traffic increased. The airport is located on the border of San Dimas, next to Bonelli Park. / photo by Leah Heagy

Brackett Airport flight schools offers classes for students both young and old wanting to receive pilots licenses. / photo by Leah Heagy

Brackett Airport flight schools offers classes for students both young and old wanting to receive pilots licenses. / photo by Leah Heagy

Hal Clark spends most of his time in his home away from home, a hangar on the south side of Brackett Field. / photo by Leah Heagy

Hal Clark spends most of his time in his home away from home, a hangar on the south side of Brackett Field. / photo by Leah Heagy

George Petterson is one of many pilots who store planes at Brackett Airport. Petterson received his pilot license in 1953, and went on to receive several others, including his commercial license. / photo by Leah Heagy

George Petterson is one of many pilots who store planes at Brackett Airport. Petterson received his pilot license in 1953, and went on to receive several others, including his commercial license. / photo by Leah Heagy

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