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When They First Took to the Sky: Learning to Fly at the El Monte Airport

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As a kid, the El Monte Airport was north of my apartment complex on Mildred Street. When we went to the El Monte Drive-In on Lower Azusa, the planes flying into the airport looked close enough to crash into the giant concrete screen which embraced images of Mexican actors in ranchera movies against a backdrop of stars. It never dawned on me that the airport, despite its name, was also part of my hometown. The El Monte Airport, recently renamed the San Gabriel Valley Airport, always seemed off limits to kids like me, something very close, yet very far from reach.

Recently, I took a walk through the main entrance of the airport, breaking through the wall of mystery that was once the El Monte Airport. What I found there was a unique history and a desire to highlight both its long history and purpose as an airport.

The San Gabriel Valley Airport conserves its history of when it was first founded by aviation visionary Nicholas Lentine | Photo courtesy of Apolonio Morales
The San Gabriel Valley Airport conserves its history of when it was first founded by aviation visionary Nicholas Lentine | Photo courtesy of Apolonio Morales

Gabe Lopez, at 55 with a friendly smile and optimistic outlook on all things related to aviation, sat across from me at a table at Annia's Restaurant, a small diner located at the airport. Mr. Lopez has as much a passion for flying as he does for preserving the history of the airport. He begins by telling me about the airport's recent name change. "It actually took place in 2013, but the ribbon cutting ceremony happened November of 2014." He acknowledges that while the renaming was celebrated as an opportunity to reach a wider audience, not everyone was happy to take El Monte out of its name. "There were folks who didn't like it, but they have come around."

Gabe and other supporters of the name change, expect that it will make the airport more inclusive of the San Gabriel Valley. Aside from its re-naming, the airport has survived its share of changes over the course of its 79 year history as it becomes evident through the stories that begin to unfold.

Gabe Lopez, son of a WWII pilot and aviation enthusiast, hopes the renamed airport will reach a wider audience. | Photo by Apolonio Morales.
Gabe Lopez, son of a WWII pilot and aviation enthusiast, hopes the renamed airport will reach a wider audience. | Photo by Apolonio Morales.

Nicholas "Nick" Lentine

Nick Lentine transformed a cow grazing patch into a runway to the sky. Photo by Apolonio Morales.
Nick Lentine transformed a cow grazing patch into a runway to the sky. Photo by Apolonio Morales.

You cannot talk about the El Monte Airport without the story of its first visionary owner Nicholas 'Nick' Lentine. Where others saw grass fields and dirt, Nick saw a runway to the skies. Nick was born on Halloween in 1907 and as a child saw planes delivering mail fly in and out of the Newark, New Jersey airport. He decided he wanted to learn to fly and headed West where steady clear skies and warm weather made it possible to fulfill his dream.

In 1927, Lentine moved to Pasadena and learned to fly at the age of 19. As the story goes, on a foggy night Lentine picked up a passenger and flew his plane up into the air. The fog was so bad he began to run out of fuel, trying to find somewhere to land. By chance, the street lights from the city of Montrose near Pasadena were kept on deep into the late hours. The young pilot could hardly see the lights through the dense fog, but he found himself with no other option but to land wherever he could. For better or worse, he became a national sensation as the first pilot to land on a public street.

Lentine continued his passion for flying and even had his own flying school. With his expertise he was able to help a young Miss Jerry Brintnall learn to fly. She later became one of the first female licensed pilots in the nation. Miss Brintnall went on to teach others to fly as an instructor.

By 1936, Lentine had taken a patch of land in El Monte, where cows once grazed, and converted it into one of a handful of airports in the San Gabriel Valley. In its first years, the airport had a dirt runway used by pilots learning to fly. As World War II began the need for pilots increased, and so did the interest in aviation. Once the war was over, male and female pilots came back to fly out of the newly expanded El Monte Airport. Some of these pilots have since retired, but the pattern repeated itself through the Korean conflict and on through Vietnam. Some of these pilots still fly out of El Monte to this very day.

Building the first hangar at the former El Monte Airport. | Photo by Apolonio Morales.
Building the first hangar at the former El Monte Airport. | Photo by Apolonio Morales.

Lentine went on to own the El Monte Airport for many years before it switched hands. Later, he changed careers to become a proud owner of a chicken farm out in Porterville in California's Central Valley. Despite Lentine's dramatic transition from running an airport to chicken-farming, Lentine continued flying until late in life. Nick Lentine passed at the ripe old age of 101.

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In Case of Emergency

In 1969, the El Monte Airport was bought by the County of Los Angeles under the condition that it remain self-sustaining. For the El Monte Airport, this has been a distinguishing factor among other airports in the San Gabriel Valley. Over the years, airports in Alhambra, Arcadia, Monrovia, Pasadena, and San Gabriel were developed into housing, retail, and at least in one case, a golf course. In 2012, Mayor Andre Quintero told the Los Angeles Times that he'd be interested in finding other uses for the airport's land property. "It's a huge piece of property right in the heart of our city and it would be so nice if we could do something different with it like entertainment or retail." There are no plans for such developments in the near future.

What set aside the El Monte Airport from facing a fate similar to that of other airports? The first factor is that Federal and State grants have held it together for many years. Each time it gets an update, such as repaving the landing strip, the Federal government stipulates it must remain an airport for the next 20 years. It is expected that $6 million worth of projects will come to aid the aging airport. Mostly, these projects will serve to upgrade the asphalt on the runways. The El Monte Airport survived numerous weathered beatings and proposed ideas to convert it to something else without so much of a loss of its former glory.

The second factor is that as the last remaining airport in the San Gabriel Valley among its many cities, it is a perfect spot for an emergency staging area in case of fire in the San Gabriel Mountains, or the long dreaded earthquake, which area residents refer to as the "Big One." There are other uses such as organ transportation, "angel flights" for cancer patients into the City of Hope, and horse owners enjoying a flight in to spend time at the Santa Anita Race Track.

Lastly, the airport rents out its grounds as storage space and aviation related businesses. Currently, there are hundreds of aircraft. It is likely that the airport will continue to be part of El Monte's back yard for many years to come, thanks to a steady flow of income.

El Monte Airport, 1971 | Photo: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection
El Monte Airport, 1971 | Photo: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Annia's Restaurant

The 15 year old building that is home to El Monte Airport's memorabilia and lore also contains a 9 year-old restaurant owned by the Burgarin Family from Zacatecas, Mexico. Flavio and Mario Burgarin bought the restaurant after taking over the short lived Mallard Restaurant. On its first day, Annia's announced it was open for business through the radio tower. The place was quickly packed with pilots. In the coming days they had so much clientele that they hired on as many family members and people as possible to help out to keep up with the demand.

The menu has not changed very much since the day it opened. Maribel Burgarin, who works as a waitress, jokes that the only thing that has changed are the prices. Annia's caters to an older crowd for breakfast, local politicians and city officials for lunch, with a more diverse evening crowd for dinner. Not to mention it is the place to eat for the monthly Display Day where old timer pilots bring out their planes for the public to see every fourth Sunday of the month.

 

Hopes for the Future

Gabe Lopez, like Nick Lentine, has a vision for the airport. As the person who gathered letters of support from over 30 cities that make up the San Gabriel Valley for the name change, Lopez also wishes to preserve its history and ability to inspire others to take to the skies. Lopez, an Arcadia resident, has established the San Gabriel Valley Museum of Aviation as a non-profit organization which has just received its 501c3 status from the IRS. Lopez does not have to look far to start collecting artifacts, press clippings and vintage planes -- he already owns a fully functioning 1940 vintage Stearman bi-plane for display.

Lopez's interest in aviation came from his father who was a former Hellhawk during World War II. He wishes to inspire the love for aviation in others and encourage them to go on to become pilots. "Once we have the museum established we will be running the Young Eagles program designed to offer free rides to the youth in the San Gabriel Valley to catch the flying bug."

I think back to the planes flying above the Drive-In theater when I was a kid, as Lopez exclaims, "There are kids right around the corner that don't even know we're here. For thousands of years millions of people stared up to the sky at the birds wishing they could do that; in this day and age, why wouldn't you want to learn to fly?

Photo by Apolonio Morales
Photo by Apolonio Morales, by klxadm

 

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