September 2014- Aviation-themed restaurants are fairly common—the 94th Aero Squadron chain comes to mind—but in Los Angeles you'll find one that's in a class by itself: The Proud Bird, located across the street from the approach end of Runway 25L at Los Angeles International Airport (KLAX). On a typical visit, you'll see jets flying past every couple of minutes.
A small but interesting collection
While not exactly a fly-in destination, it's worth visiting if you're in the Los Angeles area, because the Proud Bird is an excellent restaurant that houses a small but interesting collection of aviation memorabilia. (And as the photos show, it's quite a spot for taking pictures.) As I discovered on my second visit this year, some Angelinos even use the location as a backdrop for wedding photos.
Fair warning: most (though not all) of the outdoor exhibits aren't real airplanes; they're cleverly painted replicas, mainly warbirds. As you walk toward the back of the property, however, you'll see a fence—and behind it are real airplanes, including an A-4 Skyhawk in Blue Angels livery, a DC-3 from Western Airlines, a Beechcraft C-45 Expeditor and a MiG-15.
Hung on the walls inside the restaurant you'll find photos and framed newspaper articles highlighting aviation history in the L.A. area, and in the hallway between dining rooms are several display cases with more photos, models and unique artifacts. (This is the only place where I've ever seen World War I-era recruiting posters for the U.S. Air Service.) And the food is excellent—I can personally recommend the ahi tuna tower appetizer and prime rib entrée.
The Proud Bird is open for lunch (11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.) Mondays through Saturdays, and for dinner (4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.) Thursdays through Saturdays. A champagne brunch is available on Sundays (9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.).
The outdoor exhibits are open to the public during daylight hours most days, but I recommend you call ahead to make sure you won't find yourself competing with a wedding party.
The California Science Center
Another site well worth visiting on a trip to Los Angeles is the California Science Center at Exposition Park. It's about half an hour's drive northeast of KLAX, and there you'll discover several interesting air and space exhibits, beginning with one of the rarest airplanes I've ever seen: the one and only Titanium Goose. You'll pass by this rare A-12 as you walk in from the parking lot.
At first glance you might mistake it for an SR-71, but take a closer look—the second seat has a raised canopy. That was for a flight instructor (the Goose was a two-seat trainer), and despite Air Force markings, it was built for and operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Walking through the front door of the Science Center you'll find yourself looking at the only surviving Northrop F-20 Tigershark hanging from the roof beside a very similar T-38 Talon. You may find yourself in a crowd here, too—the center is a popular location for school field trips.
Upstairs you'll find a variety of aerospace exhibits, including a Monocoupe and a replica Wright Glider with flight simulator. But the prize exhibit is housed in a temporary hangar adjacent to the main building: Space Shuttle Orbiter OV-105, Endeavour.
Endeavour and related artifacts
Endeavour was the last Space Shuttle orbiter and was built to replace Challenger after it was destroyed in the 1986 mission 51-L launch tragedy. Endeavor flew a total of 25 missions, and spent 299 days in space flying space radar laboratory missions while the crew participated in the construction of the International Space Station.
Perhaps its most famous flight was STS-61, the first servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993. Over some 11 days, astronauts F. Story Musgrave, Kathryn C. Thornton, Jeffrey A. Hoffman and Tom Akers spent more than 35 hours on space walks to repair and upgrade the telescope, which was built and launched with a defective mirror.
Aside from its historical significance, Endeavour is an awe-inspiring object in its own right, and is as big as a short-haul airliner. In its current location, you can walk under it, with the heat resistant tiles just out of reach above you.
The center plans to display the orbiter in a launch configuration with reproductions of the solid rocket motors and external tank that put it into orbit—but that awaits construction of a large new building.
In addition to Endeavour itself, the center has a number of related artifacts, including displays from Rocketdyne's Operations Support Center which monitored all shuttle flights from a Southern California location, the tires from Endeavour's last mission which show a surprising amount of wear from a single landing, artifacts belonging to astronaut Garrett Reisman, who spent three months aboard the International Space Station, and a collection of photos documenting Endeavour's route from KLAX to the Science Center.
A particularly effective exhibit called "Grand Finale" simultaneously shows high-definition video displays of all 135 space shuttle launches on one large screen with each launch fading out as the shuttle reached orbit... except, of course, for mission 51-L.
The center also has a wide range of non-aerospace exhibits covering topics including earthquakes, ecology and invention. I recommend allowing at least half a day to get through them all.
For me, the most unique exhibit was upstairs among the center's collection of rockets and space probes (some original, others represented by models). The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. and the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio have examples of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft that put U.S. astronauts in earth's orbit and eventually returned a few of them from the moon—but when I looked at the Mercury capsule in Los Angeles, I was nonplussed. As a child, I was fascinated by those flights, and have never forgotten that each of the seven Mercury astronauts had custom-designed couches molded to fit their back.
The capsule on display at the California Science Center doesn't have a couch—it has a large box with a window. That's because it didn't fly with a human astronaut. Instead, it was crewed by Ham, a chimpanzee. By coincidence, my wife (who hadn't seen Ham's capsule yet) bought a space-suited chimp doll in the center's gift shop for one of her brothers, who is a Curious George fan. He's going to get a copy of the photo along with the doll for Christmas.
Neither the Proud Bird nor the California Science Center is located directly on airport property, so you'll need a rental car to reach them. While the Proud Bird is only a few hundred yards from KLAX, unless you can afford several hundred dollars in ramp fees and are comfortable operating with heavies, that's not really an option.
The closest General Aviation reliever is Jack Northrop Field/Hawthorne Municipal (KHHR), just four nm southeast of KLAX. IFR pilots should expect the Localizer 25 approach—and don't even think about filing GPS direct. You will be given a clearance using airways (and probably vectored early).
VFR pilots can reach KHHR using the Los Angeles VFR corridor, or one of the ATC-cleared routes documented on back of the Los Terminal Angeles Area Chart (or its electronic equivalent).
If you're not comfortable flying in the extremely busy Los Angeles Class B airspace, you can fly into several airports just outside it. One of the most convenient is Van Nuys (KVNY), 17 nm northwest of KLAX. It's also a good alternate for instrument pilots, as it's usually one of the last airports in the L.A. area to go below basic VFR minimums. There are lots of other alternatives; really, too many to list.
Make sure you have and thoroughly study current charts before getting anywhere near the Los Angeles basin. It's some of the busiest airspace in the world, and not a place where you want to find yourself lost and confused. But with a little advance planning, it's really not all that difficult to get in to, or out of.
The local weather pattern often includes a morning marine layer of low stratus over coastal airports. It's not a problem for instrument pilots, but VFR pilots may find themselves waiting for it to clear.
Once you have the flying part figured out, my guess is you'll be eager to return to the Proud Bird and the Science Center. I've been there twice myself, and look forward to going back.
Proud Bird Restaurant
California Science Center
Jack Northrop Field/Hawthorne Municipal Airport
VFR Raster Charts (FAA)
Air Traffic Services Brief
LAX Class B VFR Transition Routes (AOPA)