By Vince Basehart
June 21 -- “Rudder?” “Check.”
“Yaw control?” “Check.” “Aileron?”
I imagine this conversation between the pilot and his co-pilot as I watch them
go through a pre-flight safety inspection of their Cessna idling on the tarmac
of the Santa Monica Airport. The smell of av-gas fumes pouring out the exhaust
is delicious (think warm sake).
This is the kind of place which Chuck Yeager would love, with flying-craft
aplenty and aviation history galore.
Rows of tiny propeller driven planes are parked along one side of the long
runway. Among them is an aerobatic plane which looks like an oversized toy,
with outsized wings and a bulbous shape, painted in circus colors.
Here is an experimental aircraft, shaped like a giant Y, with the propeller
in the rear designed to push, not pull, the plane through the air.
On the north side of the facility a cluster of sleek executive jets rests not
far from the looming control tower, tall and space-aged looking with its blue
It's hard to believe this is a real airport. A moment ago I parked a stone’s
throw from the terminal building, waltzed right up to the runway without showing
a boarding pass, and ran no risk of being stripped down to my boxers and wanded
by a federal agent. No wonder the wealthy fly this way.
It is ironic, however, that Santa Monica Airport has come to symbolize private
aeronautic exclusivity. According to Bob Trimborn, the airport's manager, the
modern airline industry was born here.
It all started with Douglas Aircraft which was headquartered here for much
of the company’s life.
“By the late ‘30s Douglas Aircraft had perfected the DC-3 in terms
of payload and fuel consumption,” Trimborn explains, thereby “creating
the first practical mass transit by air.” Until then, flying was a wildly
Mr. Trimborn is tall, lean, mustachioed, in his mid-‘50s. He is a walking
encyclopedia of aviation history, a keeper of the flame. For a flyboy like himself,
who first jumped into the cockpit at age 14, one couldn’t dream of a better
place to work.
“It was just a bare field originally, a naturally level area on a plateau
surrounded by farmland.
“Around 1917,” Trimborn explains, “barnstormers and Hollywood
stunt fliers started using it as a landing strip. After World War I, the US
Army Air Corps trained pilots here in their Jennies’,” referring
to the Curtis JN-4, the kind of flimsy bi-plane used to shoot King Kong off
of the Empire State Building.
Trimborn’s office overlooks the runway and is crowded with aerobilia.
There are black and white photos of old planes surrounded by open acreage, and
others showing the airport as it is today, a small airport surrounded by urban
sprawl. By some measure the little airport itself contributed to that sprawl.
“During World War II,” when the DC-3 and other aircraft were being
built in massive quantities here, “there were about 30,000 people working
day and night, seven days a week. This turned Santa Monica from a quiet little
beach town into a blue collar city.”
The world’s first airplane to circumnavigate the globe, a Douglas product,
launched from and landed here in 1924. Lear Jet was once based here. This is
where Howard Hughes flew from before he built his own field in Culver City.
“Some time during the dot.com era,” Trimborn explains, “people
started buying into proportional ownership of small business jets,” using
the same arrangement with which people buy into vacation timeshares.
As if on cue, outside his office we hear a little jet streak in.
The flexibility of being able to call up a continent-spanning jet like you
would a cab is worth the price to pressured executives and celebrities. The
hassles of post-9/11 air travel have just added to the allure of the private
I mention something about Santa Monica Airport “once being called Clover
Trimborn corrects me. “It’s actually still named that. A local
World War I flyboy was killed in aerial combat over Europe. His
mother petitioned to have this place named after him,” he
explains. “His name was Grubby Clover.”