The last weekend in August, I was invited to a party in an airplane hangar, which is funny because the word one associates with parties is “hangover,” not “hangar.” James, a local doctor with a pilot’s license, throws this annual bash. I received the invite via fax, and it read that the party would be from “1400 to 1800 hours.” I turned into the guys in Spinal Tap and counted out the hours on my fingers to figure it out. “I’ve read that you smoke cigars,” the fax continued, “but you can’t smoke here. There are things that can blow up.”
As I drove to Montgomery Field in Kearny Mesa, I recalled the last time someone told me to meet them there. I was doing a morning radio show with him, and he took me out in his Piper Seminole. We hit a lot of turbulence, and the only thing going through my mind was that this was probably the size plane that Buddy Holly, members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Ozzy guitarist Randy Rhoads died in. Two small-time deejays wouldn’t even be a blip on the radar.
I convinced myself to decline if James offered me a flight. He never offered one, but he did offer lots of food. He had a hangar emptied out and then filled with grub from a catering company.
He moved a couple of his planes out of another hangar, where he had the Bobby Gordon band playing. I laughed when the 70-year-old (I’m guessing) clarinet player stood looking bored as the drummer was playing his solo. I think we can all relate as far as drum solos go.
When I heard two dogs growling, I said to my girlfriend, “Hey, a dog fight...that’s not in the sky.” Looking around, we noticed that there were several dogs, but most of them were getting along. I asked James what the deal was with all the canines. “I invite the dogs but tell them they can bring their owners.” He told me that he loves dogs but gets too sad when they die, so now he just enjoys other people’s pets.
He handed me a T-shirt that read “Hangar Party XVIII” and then told me to go get some food. A teenager who was pointing at an older guy said to his friend, “Hey, look, it’s a Wright Brother.”
When I walked outside to the end of the food line, I noticed that James provided appetizers for the dogs. One guy was laughing as he told his friend, “I almost ate one of those. I thought it was beef jerky.”
I figured between the band and all the food and drink, James probably spent several thousand bucks putting on this event. There were so many varieties of soft drinks and alcohol. Someone told me, “There’s so much beer left over... I remember 15 years ago, they’d run out of beer. But the older everyone gets, it seems they drink less. Now it’s the bottled water that disappears first.”
As I was standing out in the sun eating my burger, I saw a strange-looking plane in the hangar next door. I walked over and said something that I thought was funny about how it looked, but the guy working on it mumbled back something I didn’t understand.
Someone walked over and told me it was a VariEze (pronounced “very easy”), an experimental plane like the one that John Denver crashed in — another musician’s death in small aircraft.
This plane was tiny, and it had something that looked like the spoiler you’d see on the back of a race car. I was told, “You can buy these things reasonably priced; some are around ten grand. They go 170 knots.” I didn’t want to sound dumb, so I didn’t ask him what that is in miles per hour. Instead, I asked him how much fuel they use. “About 4.5 gallons an hour,” he said.
A few people were talking with a guy named Bill Gibbs. I was told he founded this airport in the ‘30s and knows a lot about aviation history. I was going to interview him when I caught him alone, but there always seemed to be folks gathered around him.
A couple was napping in the shade of the wing of a yellow Cessna. People were trying to snap photos of another airplane, but a dog kept walking into the shots.
I listened in when people talked about the various airplanes. There was some technical talk, and I heard a guy declare, “I haven’t flown one of those since 1982.” But not all of the people there that day were pilots; the crowd was mostly friends and family of the people who fly.
I saw something that looked like a skateboard-sled hybrid on the wall and asked James about it. He told me about a hill in La Jolla by Windansea. He has a friend who takes it out nights and lies on the board with a flashlight and rides it down the hill. James added, “I’m not originally from La Jolla, but it’s a La Jolla tradition going way back.”
I went back inside to listen to the band and noticed a punching bag hanging from the ceiling. It was pulled up high so that people had more room, and I joked with a guy next to me, “You’d have to be a tall boxer to work out on that thing.” He smiled and said, “Does anyone box anymore, or is it just cage fighting?”
I noticed the band had a young woman singing. Someone said that she was the granddaughter of one of the pilots at the party. As she sang “My Funny Valentine,” I was eavesdropping on a couple sitting at a table nearby. They couldn’t decide between going to Zanzibar or one of the smaller islands off Africa to celebrate his 50th birthday. A guy asked him, “Will you fly there yourself?” He smiled and shook his head no.
There was a black dog that looked like Toto that kept coming over to us. We’d pet it for a few minutes, and then the owner would call out to it to stop bugging us. It walked back to her but would show up again 15 minutes later. We were happy to pet it.
One guy told a woman that he had a standard poodle; “I’m the one that recommended that dog to your husband.” She said, “Oh, they’re such great dogs, especially if you’re in New York City. They’re great guard dogs that can stay indoors.” He added, “And best of all, they don’t shed.”
I overheard the teenager I saw earlier say, “Man, these guys are either talking dogs or planes.”