text and photography by Christie Reed
Whiskey, gin, vodka and an exotic assortment of beers lined the shelves that once held paper gliders and model airplane kits. In less than a day, the quaint shop that the local pilots had grown to depend on through the years for that last minute quart of oil or chart had disappeared, only to be replaced with a makeshift bar and a bartender who stood ready to mix drinks.
Is Brackett Airport promoting drinking and flying? No, although the smell of alcohol may have fooled the pilots and flight students who passed by the building in their everyday ventures at the airport. The pilot store’s facelift was one of many temporary transformations that took place at Brackett during the filming of Primary Colors, a film starring John Travolta and Emma Thompson, set to open in late March.
Near penetrating rays of sunshine, more than six inches of snow covered the concrete outside the terminal on the warm August morning, creating a layer of steam that lifted above the ground.
“The terminal area became a New Hampshire and a Florida terminal overnight,” explains Craig Rethorn, who oversaw the filming as part of his job as manager of Brackett Airport.
Even so, it was business as usual for those who worked at Brackett Airport. Except for the glare of nearly 300 pairs of eyes that intensely watched the activities of Travolta through the fence, nothing much was disturbed during the filming.
And even though the quaint coffee shop that entertains many an early riser was decorated to reflect the 1940s, organizations still met, pilots still flew out of the airport and a hobbyist still replaced the bearings in his vintage WWII jet just a few feet away.
Just like the car shows and the annual pilot expo that are held on Brackett Field, it is not unusual that a special event, such as a movie filming, puts an ever-so-small crimp in the style of those who frequent Brackett. “We did a little shuffling of people around,” says Rethorn, recalling the hoopla surrounding the filming of Primary Colors. “But it didn’t affect too much.”
Just two months later, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau sought Brackett for a scene in a soon-to-be-released remake of the classic movie “The Odd Couple.”
“They shot a scene where they got out of a car, went through the terminal and got in a plane,” recalls Rethorn.
The airport manager cannot recall any television shows that have utilized the facilities recently. He suspects it is because the airport is outside the range of the shows, with several airports being closer to the studios.”It is strictly movies and commercials where they don’t have those travel requirements,” says Rethorn.
Aside from the occasional movie filming, the 270-acre Brackett Airport, located in the city of La Verne on its southern border, accommodates more than just pilots, hobbyist and actors.
According to Rethorn, there are two helicopter schools, two police agencies and more than 500 based aircraft that serve the surrounding communities on a regular basis. “People don’t realize what an asset it is to have an airport right next door,” he explains.
Among the typical Lears, Cessna Skyhawks, Falcons and Gulfstreams that find their homes in the hangars of Brackett, the Forest Service checks in with heavy lift helicopters during days of extreme fire danger.
“L. A. County brings in heavy lift helicopters during September and October,” says Rethorn, explaining that on a moment’s notice the vehicles can fuel up and fly out. “We have a full service fueling and maintenance system also.”
Aside from the occasional fires during the dead heat of summer and fall, the devastating earthquakes that rock Southern California also call for fast-acting emergency crews.
Rethorn explains that when the Northridge earthquake destroyed the 91 Freeway, traveling to the scene by car was no longer an option.
“During the Northridge earthquake, Brackett was the only way of getting supplies and pilots in and out. They were bringing firemen in by the busload and flying them over Valencia,” says Rethorn, adding that Brackett is one of the only local 24-hour, all-weather airports. “We are a real asset during emergencies.”
Aside from the assistance provided by Brackett during local or national disasters, the airport also caters to the needs of business people who own airplanes and possess travel heavy schedules. Business people are among the most common faces seen on the grounds, according to Rethorn. The airport is also centrally situated for those who live in exotic places and wish to commute to this area. “Places like Mammoth and Catalina aren’t within the normal transportation system,” says Rethorn. “We give them the opportunity to live in areas outside of the basin,” he says. One gentleman who frequents the airport has several vocational schools and often flies back and forth between them, explains Rethorn. “He and others can commute to business interests here and there,” he says. “While a businessman may spend three or four hours in the car traveling from Bakersfield, he will only spend one hour in an airplane.”
Walt Morrison, the inventor of the popular Frisbee, rented a hangar in the 1950s and ’60s when he lived in La Verne and owned a hardware store on Foothill Boulevard, recalls Don McGleen, a flight instructor at Brackett, who has been with the airport since the 1940s. “He was a familiar face around the air field,” says McGleen.
Nearby Fairplex also keeps Brackett busy and thriving. During popular events such as the drag races, overflow traffic finds its way to the field. Also, participants and visitors find flying into Brackett very convenient. “Several of the race car drivers fly in and out of here,” says Rethorn.
What attracts pilots, hobbyists and even movie producers to the small airport? “It is low key,” reminds McGeen, adding that Brackett is the location that relieves Ontario International Airport.
Although it is 47th or 48th in the country in terms of traffic, and on any day at 3 a.m. the penetrating lights of a Cessna descending onto the runway can be seen from miles away, Brackett never loses the rurality of the barren wheat field discovered in 1911 when Cal Rogers first spotted a place to land his Vin Fizz.