Manuel Lucero, Owner of E&M Aircraft Painting at Rialto Airport peers out of a window with a mural painted on the wall of his business that he has owned since 1969, on Thursday September 20, 2007.
RIALTO - Perhaps the silence is the most telling, and the most sad.

On a typical weekday, the happy purr of an airplane engine only occasionally drifts across the wide expanse of Rialto Municipal Airport.

Small airports are often like small towns. Everybody knows everybody. Folks help each other out, work together, party together.

"We're all like a big family," said 61-year-old Manuel "Manny" Lucero, who's been painting airplanes at the airport since 1969.

"You see a hangar door open, it's like a welcome sign," airport Director Rich Scanlan said.

That's all changed since an act of Congress put the venerable Rialto airfield on the path to closure to make way for a sprawling new development dubbed Renaissance Rialto, designed to bolster the working-class city's image and economy.

"The airport is dead now - has been ever since it sold," Lucero lamented, sitting in his plain office next to the hangar where he's made his living for nearly four decades.

Gone are the weekend barbecues, the impromptu get-togethers, the joyful camaraderie. The airport caf , a central gathering place, closed some years ago and is a poignant reminder of better days.

"It's just like somebody pulling my heart out," said.

News of the impending closure spread through the aviation community nationally and has nearly killed his business, even though it's unclear when the airport will actually close.

A Piper Cherokee Lance sits outside, ready for paint, the first job he's had since November.

Lucero's reputation was such that he once painted a DC-7 for Howard Hughes, employed 17 people and comfortably put his two kids through college.

"The guy said if I do a good job (on the Piper) I'll have 100 airplanes, until the bulldozers pull up in front of my shop," he said.

The Rialto field is going the way of many general aviation airports, done in by skyrocketing land values and officials with dollar signs in their eyes looking to kick-start their community's economy.

All that flat, open acreage is worth far more with offices, shops and homes than it is with any number of Cessnas and Pipers.

"Rialto is a perfect example of competing interests," said Bill Dunn, vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. "It was a tremendous asset that was underutilized until a developer came along. Unfortunately, officials look at dollars instead of long-term transportation needs. This is driven by greed."

Rialto's airport is in line to follow other local airfields into oblivion.

Morrow Field in Colton, just north of Valley Boulevard between Pepper and Riverside avenues, and Tri-City Airport, roughly along today's Hospitality Lane in San Bernardino, closed ages ago.

Airports available for public use dropped from 6,437 in 1975 to 5,008 in 2001, according to data compiled by the pilots association.

The Rialto airport was born in 1945 when Sam Miro was passing through town and bought 80 acres of scrub land for $18,000, according to historian John Anthony Adams.

Lucero Miro and his five sons spent a year clearing brush and moving rocks to create a usable runway. He lived on a little house at the airport until his death in the 1970s.

Ironically, the project that sounded the death knell for the airfield - the extension of the 210 Freeway through Rialto - years ago triggered a battle between Rialto and Fontana over the airport, which back then was in an unincorporated county area.

People for decades thought the Foothill Freeway, as today's new 210 has long been called, was coming through any time, bringing with it a gold rush of development and growth.

"The thought was that with aviation really hitting its stride in the '60s, an airport adjacent to the freeway would induce corporations to locate here to have access to both the airport and the freeway," said Scanlan.

Fontana made a run at annexing the airport, the airport director said, but Rialto got it in 1966.

It's still home to the impressive air force operated by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, which patrols the largest county in the Lower 48, and Mercy Air, the helicopter ambulance service.

Its most famous tenant was Art Scholl, one of the greatest stunt pilots in aviation history who crashed in the Pacific Ocean in 1985 while working on the film "Top Gun." Art Scholl Aviation continues to operate under the direction of his wife.

As recently as the early 1990s, the airport was still seen as a potential economic boon, if it could capture some of the overflow business from Ontario International Airport.

But then Norton Air Force Base shut down in 1994 and the focus turned to transforming a regional economic body blow back into an economic engine, a process that is just now building a good head of steam after more than a decade of effort.

"I don't think anyone had a crystal ball that in a couple of years (after 1992) this massive Air Force base would be transformed," Scanlan said. "The likelihood of Rialto competing with Norton wasn't very good."

Now the Rialto airport's remaining tenants are awaiting word from the developers on whether they'll be moving to the former air base, now San Bernardino International Airport, or maybe Redlands or Upland or Riverside.

Westpac Restorations Inc., which restores classic aircraft, is already packing up for Colorado.

The housing market crash now has the timeline more uncertain than ever, as the city and developers wrestle to decide what Renaissance Rialto will ultimately look like.

Since 1969, Bill Gerth, 73, has had a hangar at the Rialto airport where he parks his award-winning 1956 Piper Apache Geronimo. He estimates he's logged at least a half-million miles in the plane, flying all over the country with his wife and kids.

"We used to have hangar parties, barbecues, tell our stories, have our kids here," he said.

Stacks of photos in one of the drawers in his cluttered hangar show smiling friends clustered in chairs or standing with drinks near the barbecue and the airplanes.

When he learned of the closure, Gerth's reaction was "gross depression."

The social scene is gone. Friends have passed. The kids have grown. But the memories will endure.

"We have all lived very well," Gerth said.