I guess if you are an aviation fan, you have all been there. Visiting family out of town, you have a day on your own and your start digging around to see what you can find. I was spending Thanksgiving week with in San Diego and the ladies were all on their way to the Black Friday Sales, so I figured I was a free agent. I had been to the Balboa Air and Space Museum several times, but knew they had some kind of warehouse space outside of town. A few web searches and I found Gillespe Field located about 18 miles north east of downtown in El Cajon. Like most aviation “outback” locations, I found an empty parking lot, an open gate and started walking around with my dog. As always I had no particular expectation, just wandering around to see what I might stumble upon. Small recreational planes taking off in the backround gave the visit an authentic backdrop as I picked my way through the parked jets and boneyard pieces in the yard. I ran into a silly “Spirit of St Louis” spoof plane, an old Viet Nam era Piasecki H-21 Helicopter rotting away and a strange wooden geared structure that must have been some kind of broken down display.
I tend towards planes with props as a first choice, walk past modern era jet fighters without looking up, but the early jet era draws me and seeing this F-86 and a Mig15 side by side made me stop and take pause. These two Korean war veterens sat on the tarmack side by side, like two old timers sitting at the bar trading stories. I wish I could hear what they had to say!
While I was photographing them a 1960’s era faded red volkswagen bug came rattling into the parking lot. A guy jumped out in a camo jacket and walked over to enter the single small door in the side of the warehouse. Ah, so that is where the entrance is! I headed over and when I walked past the bug I noticed the back seat was packed with a dozen or so 5 gallon plastic containers of aviation fuel ( I hope he keeps the windows rolled down!!). Things could only get more interesting from here. Once inside, the facility was really a treat of nooks and crannies and informal displays. No admission, no gift shop, just an old warehouse with maybe half a dozen volunteers working on projects and more than happy to spend a few minutes chatting with you about what they are doing. They work on many of the displays for the main museum in town and also are the storage place for things coming in and out of the museum. The end result is a mixed bag of planes and parts from the early 1900’s to the current era. Models, paintings, planes, engines, planes in mid restoration. A landing place for old projects, new projects and old men. In this photo I marked the four places I spent my time, the back warehouse, the gallery, the mezzanine and the model shop.
The “back warehouse” was dark, filled with metal racks, plane parts and shop equipment, some regularly used, some old and covered with tarps. Projects sat in various stages of completion and sat stacked up waiting for more to be done. Lots of dust and gray primer. Always on the look out for WW1 era birds, this one jumped out at me. I had to crawl under a few things to get close enough to photograph it, but the1915 era Curtiss Jenny two seater was all prepped and ready for painting. Like a vintage era stripper at a night club, enough exposed to peak my interest, but mostly covered up, leaving a lot to my imagination.
Walking back into the hall, “the gallery” of paintings along one wall caught my eye. This was not work destined for a downtown gallery or the Smithsonian. A bit like Jack Hunter’s work, lovingly produced, emotional, the work of an individual who loves planes and WW1 aviation. I forgot to write down the name of the artist, at least deserved a web search to see who he was. Someone made the effort to preserve the work and carefully mount them on wall, on display to anyone who manages to find the warehouse.
On “the mezzanine” two volunteers where working on restoring a 1925 era FB-9 bi-plane. As the docent commented downstairs…”She is a darn ugly plane, but they are working hard on putting her together”. The wing framing was close to complete and you could see all the pulleys and brackets for the control surfaces. Two gentlemen ( I will refer to one as Old, and the other as Older) were applying solvent (dope, glue?) and ironing the canvas strips over the seams on frame pieces. Tedious work, lots of time for conversation. Hard not to easedrop. ” Well my mother use to say her iron went missing all the time when the boys were working on a plane…”…”uh huh”…”…ya know I used to be a docent at the museum years ago..”…”uh-huh”…”…but this one old boy really pissed me off and I told him….”…”uh huh”. I really should have stuck around to see where this story went, but I headed back downstairs.
The “small shop” downstairs was dedicated to radio control and display model planes. This tiny room had a low ceiling packed with planes of all eras. Half completed projects hung on the walls or were out on the tables. Small hand sketches of WWII planes had been mounted on another wall. Supplies, shop materials and airplane plans where packed into all the corners. I met a kindly old gent who walked me around to tell the stories behind each of the planes. A B-24 Liberator was an active build going on at that time ( first pic on the left). A Wellington Bomber and a Focke Wulfe fighter hung on the wall partially complete (pic on the right). These two were donated to the Museum by someone who could no longer work on it himself, waiting for someone to take it over. He took me to the table and showed me the B-24’s wing in progress, all balsa wood, so light and fragile in your hand and showed me how the wing had routes for control wiring for the ailerons.
His project was the silver Waco, a flyable hand built plane and past award winner. A friend started the project and he carefully walked me thru the binder to show me its history. The binder had original photos of the plane it was based on. It had front and side views drawings of the original plane. It had brochures from Waco on the standard colors that were available to show that the final color selected was authentic. It had the certificate from the original builder confirming that he built it himself. This award winning plane was crashed and badly damaged. The builder himself became ill and was never able to repair the plane. Volunteers took over his project and are well on their way to completing it. Hard to imagine how many hours of labor had been clocked in this small room. I broke off the conversation and thanked him for his time, had other plans for the day and needed to head out
As I got in my car, I began asking myself..”Why do I come to these places?”. It’s all about the planes right? My first nature is to want to be left alone, let me wander about, take pictures, pursue my fascination silently and alone among the wood frames, canvas, and old engines…feed this geeky fascination with military history and aviation. But as I pulled out of the parking lot I regretted not getting the name of the artist or of the three old men that I talked to. I regretted not asking more about their stories and how they came to find avaition as there passion. I’m about ten years away from retirement myself, and these old guys won’t be around by the time I retire. And aviation without the stories, the flesh and blood who touched them, built them and flew them is just a silent complicated assembly of struts and bolts, like the wrapped up Jenny gathering dust in the warehouse or the F-86 and the Mig 15, sitting silently on the tarmak, their stories untold.
I guess the old men get it. That’s why they spend the hours restoring and preserving this history. But the real history is with them not with the balsa wood and the glue. I guess in the end this is a Thanksgiving post. Keep in mind that the people are more important than the planes, give thanks for what they do to perserve the history, but more importantly take the time to hear their stories while they are still here to tell them.