Hawthorne Airport

Monday, December 27, 2004
Hawthorne’s civic airport will get a new lease on life
City and management company officials plan to pour millions in federal grants and private money into a makeover for the facility.
By Ian Gregor
The Torrance (CA) Daily Breeze

Hawthorne’s decaying airport is about to get a much-needed makeover from a real estate management company that will lease the facility from the city and turn over a share of the profits it earns. Under an agreement signed last week, Hawthorne Airport LLC will pay an annual rent of $407,000 for the 80-acre airport south of 120th Street between Prairie Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard. The company will manage most of the leasable space and pay all operating expenses.

David Wehrly, a Hawthorne Airport LLC partner and pilot with aircraft based at the airport, said his group will spend more than $750,000 in the coming months building a new maintenance hangar, re-roofing the existing Security Aviation business on the airfield’s north side, painting hangars and improving the east end terminal building.

At the same time, Hawthorne’s new airport manager, Shally Lin — who also is the city’s finance director — has applied for more than $3 million in federal grants for projects ranging from replacing crumbling tarmac asphalt to installing a better fire suppression system.

“It’s stuff like this that got us involved,” Wehrly said, pointing to the fuselage of an old white and red Beechcraft airplane that was deposited at the end of a dirty, World War II-era hangar with peeling beige paint.

“If it continued in the direction it was going it wasn’t going to be an airport some day.”

Wehrly said his group’s plan is to attract revenue-generating charter operations to Hawthorne Municipal Airport without creating additional noise impacts in surrounding residential neighborhoods — a goal supported by others trying to rejuvenate the 56-year-old facility founded by aerospace pioneer Jack Northrop.

“We’re encouraging more high-end business, we’re not trying to increase the traffic count for the sake of increasing the traffic count or to keep the (Federal Aviation Administration) happy,” said Pat Carey, a pilot and city planning commissioner who led a successful 2001 effort to keep the airport open. “We want to attract the customer that brings value to the airport.”

Hawthorne airport hosted as many as 165,000 takeoffs and landings in the 1980s, but flights have dropped to about 70,000 a year. Virtually no improvements have been made there in two decades, largely because city councils until recently did not allow the airport to apply for federal Airport Improvement Grants.

“The City Council for a long time neglected the airport and let it run down as a valuable asset,” said Councilman Gary Parsons, who is a pilot based at Northrop Field.

The gravest threat to the airport came three years ago when a developer proposed turning it into a commercial center. More than 70 percent of city voters rejected that idea, but no improvements occurred until Wehrly and his friend, Martin Howard, began asking why they couldn’t get a hangar for their eight-seat Beechcraft B350 airplane.

“The more we looked, the more opportunity we saw,” Wehrly said.

Wehrly and Howard formed Hawthorne Airport LLC along with Jeff Dritley, managing partner of Kearny Real Estate Co. of Century City, which is redeveloping the Los Angeles Air Force Base. Wehrly is vice president of Wedgewood Enterprise Corp., an El Segundo-based real estate company, and Howard is president of the Howard CDM development company of Signal Hill.

While still engaged in the yearlong lease negotiations with the city, the group paid for and installed a new sign at the airport’s east end and transformed an old garage south of 120th Street into “Jack’s,” an airy pilot and passenger lounge featuring black leather chairs, a stereo, television, bathroom and refrigerator.

It also bought Security Aviation’s flight school and aircraft rental business from its longtime owner, Chris Miller, who retained his aircraft maintenance operation.

Wehrly said he believes Hawthorne airport can be a thriving base for charter operations because it sells jet fuel and is close to freeways with carpool lanes leading to downtown Los Angeles. Carey believes it could be a perfect host for four-passenger light jets that are about to hit the market.

But, Wehrly pointed out, it’s hard to attract “high rollers” when all you can offer is decrepit, 40-year-old bathrooms. The airport’s problems don’t end there.

The tarmac in places has crumbled into pellets that get sucked up by propellers and are shot like BB’s into airplane fuselages, ruining new paint jobs. Hangars have leaking roofs, peeling paint and tin patches on their walls. Many planes parked outside have flat tires or windshields coated with grime. There’s nothing to prevent somebody from walking into the terminal building, through a broken 3-foot-high outdoor gate and onto the airfield.

There’s also a need for catering and transportation services, Wehrly said.

Soon, pilots will be getting notices that Hawthorne Airport LLC is enforcing a long-standing lease requirement that airplanes tied down outside be well-maintained, Wehrly said.

“We’re going to work with people, not be heavy-handed,” he said.

Other near-term improvements will include a new maintenance hangar for Miller just west of the Security Aviation building and a new roof for the existing structure; improving the ramp east of there to accommodate charter airplanes; painting the hangars and the terminal building at the airport’s east end; and installing a taller, more secure gate between the terminal and the airfield.

Work should begin within 45 days, Wehrly said.

Hawthorne Airport LLC also expects to spend $200,000 on environmental studies of new hangars that the company wants to build at the airport’s west and east ends, Wehrly said. Additionally, the company wants to install better perimeter fencing and canopies to shelter airplanes on the south side of the airfield.

The ultimate scope of the improvements depends on whether a separate company run by Dritley, Wehrly and Howard is able to buy the 92-acre Vought Aircraft property south of the airport. That company is a finalist for the purchase, which Vought expects to complete early next year.

Lin, the airport manager, thinks the focus on the facility will pay off.

“This is going to be a real economic engine that makes the city shine,” she said.

Editor’s Note: The author’s description of “Hawthorne’s decaying airport” in the beginning of this story might have been better termed as “Hawthorne’s mismanaged airport”, since the city stood in the way of improvement for so long.

“CORRECTION The Torrance (CA) Daily Breeze”
A story Monday about Hawthorne Municipal Airport stated that virtually no improvements have been made to the facility in two decades.

In fact, the city has spent millions of dollars in federal grants since 1985 to improve the runway, taxiways and ramp areas, according to Charles Herbertson, Hawthorne’s former public works director and airport manager.

Additionally, Hawthorne between 1992 and 1994 reroofed the terminal building, gutted the structure to remove asbestos and installed new flooring, ceilings, lighting fixtures, air conditioning ducts and paint.

Around 1996, the city improved the airport’s two, 1000 ft T-hangars with new roofs, paint and turbine vents, Herbertson said.”