By Fred “Crash” Blechman
Before he officially retired on July 1, at age 70, Phil Aune had been an air traffic controller at Van Nuys Airport for an unprecedented 47 years. Aune was the honored guest at a retirement party and flyover held at the Airtel Plaza Hotel and Conference Center on July 29. More than 300 guests attended the party, which began early in the afternoon and continued until 7 p.m.
Aune was such a fixture at VNY that pilots would call “Papa Alpha” instead of “Van Nuys Tower” when they heard him on the tower radio. He was the longest serving air traffic controller in the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Organization, and the oldest recipient of a waiver.
The career that guided countless takeoffs and landings had its roots in a love of flying Aune traces back to his origins in western Minnesota’s Fergus Falls. He grew up in a region buzzing with crop dusters, and went up for the first time in a neighbor’s single-engine plane when he was “around 5 or 6.”
Less than 20-20 vision prevented Aune from following in the footsteps of his older brother, who flew F-86 fighter jets during the Korean War. So he channeled his passion into the next best thing, enlisting in the Navy to become an air traffic controller. After a four-year stint that included guiding target-towing planes out to waiting ships for gunnery practice off the San Diego coast, Aune embarked on his FAA career the day after his discharge from the Navy.
“I already had a family to support,” he recalls.
At VNY in 1959, air traffic control was nothing like today.
“Only two or three radio frequencies were available—one for talking and another for listening,” Aune remembered. “And there was no way for the planes to talk to each other, so we had to do that for them.”
There was also no radar at VNY. Aune said the most challenging times in the tower came during the annual air shows.
“That’s when you had both civilian and military aircraft all arriving and departing, all at different speeds,” he said.
The esteem with which the VNY flying community holds Aune is evident in “One Six Right,” a 2005 documentary film about the airport.
“I can’t remember a time when Phil wasn’t in the tower,” recalls one pilot, calling Aune “the most relaxed guy there can be.” In another recollection, a business jet captain says, “Coming back from Europe, when you’ve been up 14 to 16 hours, there’s nothing like hearing Phil say, ‘Welcome back to Van Nuys.'”
Airtel Plaza Hotel owner Jim Dunn has known Aune for many years.
“I’ve known him since he started to fly here 20 years ago,” he said. “I was in high school when Phil started here. I think he’s irreplaceable!”
That’s the reason Dunn decided to host the gathering at his 266-room hotel. The Airtel, which opened in 1984, is perhaps as well known as Aune is.
“The main attraction is that we’re on the airport, not near it,” said Dunn, who is both a fixed-wing and rotary-wing pilot. “Planes can taxi right to our back gate, and a bellman will come out and pick up your luggage.”
Those who attended the first-class retirement party entered the lobby of the Airtel Plaza Hotel to find themselves under a recently-installed one-tenth scale model of a Pan American Boeing 747, suspended from the ceiling. Grant McCune, who earned an Oscar for “Star Wars” models, made this huge, one-of-a-kind, detailed model. The 900-pound model, 25 feet long and with a wingspan of 22 feet, was made for the 1996 movie, “Executive Decision,” which starred Kurt Russell.
Moving on through the lobby, beyond the China Clipper café on the left, guests moved into the three-level Landing’s Restaurant, which was completely devoted to the party. Attendees visited on all levels, including the patio level, with a picturesque view of the airport. On the second level, J.R. Wright, the “Keyboard Kowboy,” played and sang country-western songs; songbird Kim McAbee also sang several. Throughout the afternoon, as guests milled around greeting each other, black-suited, white-gloved servers circulated, offering hors d’oeuvres while bartenders served drinks.
At a little after 2 p.m., the word was passed that flyovers were about to take place. Everyone walked out to the back fence of the hotel, overlooking the entire airport, to watch various aircraft make numerous passes over the group. This was further testament to the impact Aune has had, since these types of flyovers are normally reserved for memorial services.
Air Boss Dan DuPre organized the flights, which consisted of four formation flights and eight single planes. Four Condor Squadron AT-6/SNJ WWII trainers were led by Blue Thrailkill, three Pitts aerobatic biplanes by Jeff Kurtes and six single and multi-engine planes by DuPre in an Aero Commander Shrike. Mike Pupich’s North American B-25J Mitchell, piloted by George Hulett, flew with a Douglas A-26 Invader piloted by Matt Jackson and a North American P-51D flown by Kevin LaRosa.
Among the many distinguished guests who attended were Jess Fernandez, president of the Asociacion de Pilotos Latino Americano (www.aplaus.org); Barbara Cesar, owner of Syncro Aviation; and radio host Leon “Motorman” Kaplan. Most of the flyover pilots joined the group after the flyovers.
Of course, Aune was the center of attention throughout the afternoon, with many people writing comments and signing a large poster that pictured “Papa Alpha.” Four large, framed montages of his years at Van Nuys Airport were placed on the main floor, as well as photos of the other tower air controllers he worked with. This was a finely planned and executed retirement party for a man that has become an icon for Van Nuys Airport.
Aune plans to spend his newfound free time dancing at a nearby country music club, riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and going on skiing trips with his doctor and district attorney buddies.
“That way I’m covered no matter what happens,” he said.