Speeding behind the NHRA dragstrip at Fairplex, the Metrolink is en route to its final destination, Montclair Station. The Fairplex Station is only used as a Metrolink stop during the Los Angeles County Fair in September. / photo by Ryan Sones

Speeding behind the NHRA dragstrip at Fairplex, the Metrolink is en route to its final destination, Montclair Station. The Fairplex Station is only used as a Metrolink stop during the Los Angeles County Fair in September. / photo by Ryan Sones

by Christie Reed
photography by Ryan Sones

The hawker spies his prey — among the monopoly-sized houses speckling the San Dimas hills, a series of bright blue lights signals a clear path. He prepares to attack. With black nose pointed toward the shadow-crossed concrete and his wings turned to the right, the hawker successfully lands at his final destination at 2:13 a.m. The pilot, all too familiar with Brackett’s runway at this wee hour, parks his Cessna Skyhawk and heads home for a few hours of sleep before his business meeting at 7 a.m.

The noise of the planes that fly into Brackett Airport at all hours of the day may ruffle a few American flags and awaken a watch dog from a peaceful slumber, but it creates little disturbance compared to the roar of the dragsters when they tear up the strip at Fairplex each winter during the popular Winternationals.

If there happens to be a lull in traffic overhead, the distinct buzz of jet skiers racing along the outskirts of Lake Puddingstone on a Saturday afternoon also can be heard. If a resident of southern La Verne listens hard enough, even the score of a University of La Verne baseball game in its last inning can be heard echoing from Ben Hines Field.

Although these southernmost La Verne landmarks are blocks apart, these self-sufficient organizations have more in common than they or surrounding residents may realize.

From Brackett’s annual pilot expo to the world’s largest county fair, which has been held at Fairplex for 75 years, Fairplex Drive is constantly congested with airplane lovers, tourists, business people, college students and couples trying to find the perfect classic car or computer. Although at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday night there may not be many jets fueling up at Brackett, and Fairplex at mid-week may seem silent, the plans for future expansions are still funneling through the minds of those on planning committees charged with ensuring that these organizations remain a vital part of Pomona and La Verne.

The scents of barbecued beef, cow patties and sugary cotton candy create that distinctive Los Angeles County Fair smell that wafts throughout the city of Pomona for three of the city’s busiest weeks each year. With 487 acres devoted to vendors, exhibits and competitions, the Fair draws millions of visitors from throughout the country, and weekend events from computer expos to rabbit shows also bring a flurry of local fans to Fairplex.

While it seems that there are always banners hung along E Street advertising an event at Fairplex, Sid Robinson, communications manager, assures that the current number of consumer shows and expos, numbering less than 10 each year, must increase in order to keep Fairplex in business. “Our intent is to make Fairplex a year-round entertainment destination, not just the home of the Fair or weekend events,” says Robinson.

Headlining the plans for a bigger, better Fairplex is an entertainment complex that will both complement the community and the region. “We want to create something that people can’t find in the area,” says Robinson, listing Universal City Walk, Irvine Spectrum and Old Town Pasadena as areas after which this new complex would be patterned. Among the possible attractions that would become permanent additions to Fairplex, is an arena for minor league sports, a dinner theater, a multi-screen cinema, and a number of retail stores and restaurants.

Although a number of plans are still being discussed, Robinson is confident that the local communities will embrace Fairplex development plans. “It truly is a gem and an opportunity,” says Robinson. “This development can put Pomona on the map in a positive way.”

With plans for such significant growth right around the corner, Fairplex will also create an increase in traffic in the neighboring Brackett Airport and the Metrolink station just north of the grounds. “We’ve used [Brackett’s] land for parking trucks,” says Robinson of the cooperative relationship Fairplex has with Brackett. According to Robinson, whenever there is an overflow of vehicles, Fairplex can turn to Brackett in a moment’s notice.

“We are No. 7 or 8 in traffic in the state, and there is no commercial traffic,” boasts Craig Rethorn, Brackett Airport manager. “Between 2,000 and 7,000 aircraft takeoff or land here each year.”

Aside from the smaller jets that travel to and from Brackett, special events, such as the Pilot’s Expo each May, keep Brackett’s business booming. From the barren wheat field of the early 1900s, Brackett has transformed itself into a major airport with no help from the federal government. “L.A. County airports are self-supporting,” says Rethorn. “We are fortunate that we can generate enough revenue to keep everything going.”

Along with Brackett, El Monte, Pacoima, Lancaster and Compton Airports receive no government funding and therefore rely on special events, hangar rentals and the businesses within the airport to sustain them. The three flight schools, two helicopter schools and numerous clubs and organizations that congregate at Brackett are only a few of the ways the airport keeps busy 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Metlife, Fuji, Budweiser and other companies seasonally store their promotional blimps on the grounds as well. “This is one of their favorite places to come when they are in L.A.,” says Rethorn.

Just recently, the city leased land just south of Brackett to put in a roller hockey rink, which will also help increase exposure. “It is due for construction in Spring 1998,” Rethorn says.

Brackett, unlike the larger Metropolitan airports crowded with travelers, has also been sought out for its “movie star appeal” by producers. Parts of the quaint 270-acre field were converted to a New Hampshire airport terminal, covered by more than six inches of snow, during the filming of Primary Colors, starring John Travolta and Emma Thompson. “They spent a couple of days here,” says Rethorn, recalling the eager fans trying to spy their favorite actor or actress. “He [Travolta] spent time signing autographs and taking pictures with fans trying to see through the fence,” he says.

Aside from drawing a curious crowd of onlookers who may have never taken the time to visit Brackett, movie filmings also increase traffic into and out of the airport. “Travolta came in and flew one of his Lear jets,” claims Rethorn, adding that the movie star is quite a fanatical pilot, owning close to 10 planes and jets.

Aside from the occasional movie filming, Brackett functions as any other major airport, minus the metal detectors, the long ticket lines and the restrictions that prevent an average citizen from truly appreciating the workings of an airport. It is the personal attention and the seemingly small “rural” atmosphere that attracts retired hobbyists such as Linn Swann, who spends three days out of the week in his ramshackle hangar, decorated with greasy rags and torn throw rugs. Amidst the chaotic cubby, is a plane which looks nothing like the Cessnas and Lear jets that are often spotted in the skies above Brackett. “It’s a glass goose,” explains Swann. “It’s an amphibian.” The plane, which he built from spare parts, has only been in flight for one hour. “It’s one of the experimental John Denver types,” he laughs, admitting that he was a fan of the amateur pilot and singer who had also narrated a film series on glass gooses. “As a sail plane person, I had special access to the videos. They weren’t released publicly.”

Along the back wall of his cluttered hanger, he points to a number of pin-ups of gliders-another hobby of his-noting that many of the engine-less planes can fly for 1,000 miles at up to 110 miles per hour. “They’re slick and fast,” he explains, seemingly fantasizing about soaring in one of the big birds.

Swann began flying in 1968 and has racked up 400 hours of flight to date in experimental planes. Besides his regular private pilot’s license, he holds a sea plane license that allows him to legally land a plane in water.

Dressed in grubby work clothes inclusive of a white and yellow striped shirt, now stained with grease, and a torn pair of denim cut-off shorts, Swann’s hope is to have his plane in tip-top shape before too long. “Someday it will be real pretty,” he says, enamored with the plane’s slick blue and white body. “There are none [amphibious planes] around Southern California that I know of — most of them are back East.”

And while Swann is wrapped up with his special project, just a few doors down, Bo Cerven, a native Czech, works on an engine of different proportions. Squatting down with the tiny engine in hand, Cerven fusses with the wiring. “It’s a helicopter engine — not for a real helicopter, but for an RC [remote control] helicopter. I couldn’t get it started so I had to pull the engine out,” he explains, inspecting the engine for any signs of malfunction. “I don’t know what the problem is.”

Much more like home, Cerven’s hangar is equipped with a refrigerator, couch and a television.”I’m here almost every day after work,” he admits. “And I’m here around four hours on Saturday and Sunday.”

Work for the Claremont resident is much like play with a few more regulations. “I work on tour transportation at Universal Studios,” he says, providing a quick explanation for the Universal Studios paraphernalia that decorates his home style hangar.

In addition to the miniscule models that Cerven creates, a life-size Cardinal 177 keeps him in touch with reality. “I couldn’t get very far [in my remote control planes,]” he laughs. “I thought I would get into a bigger one.” Cerven has been remodeling the plane for three years but has been working on remote control models for nearly 10 years. “I started flying models in Czechoslovakia,” he explains.” I kept doing it until I started flying the real thing.”

Cerven moved to America in 1981 with his wife and started a family. Now, he and his 2-year-old and 7-year-old sons spend weekends in La Verne. “We take our bikes around Puddingstone two to three times a week,” he says, explaining that many of the other hobbyists’ hangars are stocked with supplies for a day at the lake, inclusive of a family’s supply of bicycles. It is not unusual, according to Rethorn, to see cyclists unloading bicycles for a weekend trek around Lake Puddingstone.

Just east of the University of La Verne lies an oasis for those who enjoy jet skiing, boating, fishing or bird-watching. Owned by the County of Los Angeles and maintained by both the County Public Works and Parks and Recreation Departments, Bonelli Park, inclusive of the 245-acre Puddingstone Reservoir, spans 1,800 acres in the San Dimas hills.

Aside from the dedicated fisherman who ensures he catches the final intense moments of a pink and red sunset each evening, Puddingstone is void of most activity during the week. The quiet provides a sanctuary for midweek hikers, bird-watchers and the wildlife that live in the park. This wildlife, which is predominant in the wetland areas of the lush park, may be jeopardized by the potential expansion of Raging Waters.

With its fourth and final master plan still under review, the park hopes to take control of land which is home to the endangered gnatcatcher and other species of plant and wildlife. Aside from predicting detrimental ecological effects, surrounding neighbors shudder at the thought of the expansion, which will include a 1,000-seat amphitheater and increased parking and commerce in general. “Why for the life of you would you want to build an amphitheater one mile away from the end of a runway?” asks Rethorn, who attended a lengthy October hearing on the subject.

Dennis Bertone, San Dimas Mayor Pro Tem and co-chair of the Coalition to Preserve Bonelli Park, understands the Brackett manager’s concern. “The airport is very concerned and with good reason. Pretty soon they can expect Raging Waters to ask them to curtail flights between certain hours,” he says. “That could be the downfall of the airport.”

In the meantime, city planners who have been assigned to review Raging Water’s four-volume master plan are busy analyzing the plan’s economic, environmental and political consequences in preparation for the decision that will be announced in a closed hearing in early 1998.

While the whistles of birds in the trees of Bonelli Park are audible to neighbors in the early morning hours, the Metrolink station in Pomona is bustling also with activity as early as 5 a.m. each morning as loyal passengers grab that cup of coffee and prepare for their scenic trip to their worksite. “Eighty seven percent of the passengers ride the Metrolink everyday,” boasts Peter Hidalgo, head of the media department. “The average Metrolink rider travels to the downtown business area. He can afford to live in a suburban area, but he travels to an urban area to work.”

According to Hidalgo, most weekday passengers make Union Station in downtown Los Angeles their final destination. Residents of La Verne and surrounding communities can choose one of 24 trains that run along the San Bernardino line, which parallels the 10 Freeway all the way to Los Angeles. “We carry more passengers on that route than any other,” says Hidalgo.

Aside from making life easier for business people who once had to sit through hours of stop-and-go rush hour traffic, the Metrolink, since its inauguration in 1992, has significantly reduced traffic. “We literally take cars off the road,” claims Hidalgo, adding that close to 50,000 people take the Metrolink each day, with 26,000 as daily passengers. The Metrolink travels six routes daily and makes stops in all six Southern California counties, reaching as far north as Ventura and as far south as Oceanside.

To keep the community involved and the commuters content, Metrolink has just sponsored a contest in celebration of its fifth anniversary. “We asked Metrolink commuters to submit essays of 100 words or less on ‘How the Metrolink changed my life,'” he explains. The contest received 350 responses, and the winner received a year’s supply of monthly passes.

Although Fabiola Ochoa, sophomore International Studies major at the University of La Verne, didn’t enter the contest, she prefers the Metrolink over other forms of transportation. “I take the Metrolink round trip at least once a week,” she claims. “Sometimes I take it twice a week.”

Most often she boards the Metrolink in Pomona and travels to her hometown of Compton. She also takes the link to visit friends at Loyola Marymount, UCLA or USC. “I don’t have a car, and besides you need that extra time by yourself; it is so quiet,” she says in response to why she prefers the Metrolink to traveling by car. “While it take only 35 to 40 minutes on the Metrolink, it takes almost an hour on the freeway.”

In terms of affordability, students can get by riding the Metrolink for only a few dollars. “I take the red line to the blue line, and the blue line all the way home,” she says, adding that the train itself is $2.75, while the red line is free, and the blue line costs only $1.35. If she travels round trip, both lines are free, and the Metrolink costs only $5 round trip.

“I took a taxi once, and it cost $84 and some cents,” she laughs. “The trains are quiet, clean, and the people are courteous.”

With such a hub of activity in southern La Verne, opportunities are endless, reminds Brackett’s Rethorn. “We’re the little industrial area of La Verne. The events [at Brackett] bring jobs into the communities and cause companies to locate in the [La Verne] areas,” he says. “Where else can you find small jets, hotel facilities and area for displays, exhibits and conventions all in the same block? With the 210 extension, the rail transport, freeways and the airport, you can get anywhere you want in a short time.

It [the industry of southern La Verne] truly is an asset.”