Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Cars Below, Copters Above: That's Carmageddon

Winding up a research trip to LA and pulling up at LAX, Los Angeles International Airport, I saw a sign for the heliport, designated P4. It occupies the top of a concrete parking garage. If you happen to have the money to own or rent a helicopter, access to LAX doesn't get much easier, particularly this coming weekend, when Carmageddon does LA. 

First, to Carmageddon, then the remarkably obscure heliport at LAX.

Los Angelenos live and die by their car-borne freedom, so the upcoming 53-hour closure of ten miles of the Four-Oh-Five (aka Interstate 405, or the San Diego Freeway) has sent an earthquake-like shudder through the driving population. 

Why? The 405 is one of the busiest highways in the country ... a critical link in a no-slack grid. It's the shortest path for travelers from coastal communities up north to get across the basin to San Diego. For people living in the San Fernando Valley the 405 is the shortest way to West LA or LAX airport. 

Within the first four minutes of getting into my rental car on Thursday, I heard five references to Carmageddon: from the rental attendant, and on two different radio stations. And that was more than a week ahead of C-Hour late Friday night, when crews will start closing the interstate until Monday morning.

There will be 24/7 work to add a new high-occupancy-vehicle lane, demolition of bridge sections, seismic refits, and other odds and ends. Is it worth the money and hassle? Skeptics like the LA Weekly predict that in a short time the 405 will be back to its sluggardly pace, as drivers who formerly had avoided the freeway begin using the HOV lane.

Traffic-watchers suggest that drivers flee the city before C-Hour or leave the car in the garage. One reason is Sepulveda Pass, where drivers will be shunted onto side streets like Sepulveda Boulevard, the Pacific Coast Highway (routinely crowded each summer weekend, even at the best of times), or steep, winding, two-lane canyon roads, where drivers can participate in traffic jams that could rival those that ring Beijing. Once stuck a mile or two down a canyon road, there will be no way to change one's mind, No Exit.

While outsiders may think all of Greater LA as one big smoggy basin, many commuters live to the northwest, in the San Fernando Valley. The problem is a set of ridges and low mountains that separate the San Fernando area with the LA Basin, and choke down the traffic routes.

In any case the most visible aspect of work during Carmageddon will be 53-hour demolition of the south portion of the historic Mulholland Bridge. The north part will come down a year from now. Here's a bridge photo:
Construction of the replacement bridge will be much slower. While it's possible to pre-build a new highway overpass nearby, and then use wheeled, heavy-transport platforms to roll the sections into place, that's not the plan here. (Here's a link to a video showing a rapid-build bridge project in Massachusetts.)

Thus, thinking of the car-chaos to come, I was interested to see the sign to the LAX P4 Heliport.

In 2006 I rode into this heliport with chopper news-reporter pilot Larry Welk (technically, Lawrence Welk III, grandson of Lawrence Welk). I was researching my copter book, The God Machine

Larry wanted to make the point to me that helicopters can blaze their own path. It was surprising to me that with just a few radio calls to the tower, and a few tweaks to the cyclic and collective, Larry was able to breeze his AStar onto the heliport, which is smack in the middle of the airport complex. Also aboard was ace camera operator Gil Leyvas. 

Larry showed me a few tips, then took off and headed out over the coast to resume the prowl for news. 

Despite the high hopes of helicopter enthusiasts of the early 1960s, who expected heliports to be common feature of major buildings in all major cities, LAX's P4 heliport is one of the very few public heliports in the LA Basin. It survived a 2001 attempt to close it and convert the space to car-parking.

While no other helicopters were parked when I dropped in with Larry and Gil, helicopter parking spots at LAX may see a spike in usage in the next few days, given that street access into and out of the airport will be problematic. Affluent flyers can buy rides direct to LAX from locations like the new Maguire Heliport atop a parking garage in downtown LA, or from the Van Nuys Airport. 

Los Angeles heli-history note: President John F. Kennedy flew into the Beverly Hilton's helipad during his 1963 visit to LA, and the Beatles used a pad at the Millennium Hilton in 1964. Disneyland in Anaheim once had its own ground-level heliport, which Los Angeles Airways used for a commuting service that ran until 1971.

Here's a link to locating the Disneyland heliport, on the Abandoned and Little Known Airports site. 


  1. Unfortunately that heliport was closed long before Carmageddon. There was a big fight to keep it open by Robinson Helicopters, and they won. After it was announced that it would remain open, they shut it down for construction (indefinitely).

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