“We call them spam cans,” said Larry Beckett, pointing to a parking lot full of shiny, commercially manufactured small airplanes. “But there isn’t any rivalry between people who own those, and guys like us that have home-builts. We’re all one big community.”
This ‘Media Day’ preview of what’s in store for visitors to the Wings Over Camarillo festival and air show on Aug. 22 and 23 offered a taste of a down-home, old-time flavor of Americana that is only getting harder to find. However, even more interesting is the tight-knit, all-volunteer group of middle-aged men wearing white T-shirts, jeans and thick glasses that keep the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) alive. As we drove in a golf cart past rows of somber-looking hangars and garages, the men slowly opened the door to a subculture that they each devote several days of their time to each week.
“It’s going to be a great weekend for families. Admission is $6, we’ll have a pancake breakfast each day, and flyovers while a local 12-year-old girl sings the national anthem,” Beckett said. “We’re bringing in a busload of wounded Iraq vets from Long Beach as our guests of honor, and there will be four aces attending to tell their stories. An ace is someone who shot down at least five enemy planes in World War II. We’ll also have P-38 Lightning planes — there are only five flyable ones left in the world, and two of them will be here.”
Beckett stopped the golf cart in front of a nondescript door, got out and shoved it open. “This is my home away from home,” he said, as we stepped into a studio-like workshop filled with airplane parts, power tools, model planes hanging from the ceiling, and partially assembled wings attached to work benches. The smell of machine grease lingered in the air. One couch with several blankets piled on top of it resembled a bed, and a refrigerator was fully stocked with sodas and Gatorade. “Have whatever you want,” Beckett said. “We’ve got a lot to show you.”
The level of airplane expertise that these men have can be intimidating in conversation, but reassuring when one is climbing into the cockpit of one of their small planes for a ride. One of our pilots, Norm Hall of Camarillo, a former FBI pilot, has accumulated nearly 10,000 hours of flight experience. “The air is like the ocean; it has currents that you learn to follow and adapt to,” he said. “But I won’t deny that this is a dangerous hobby. There’s no curb to pull over to, and the ground just doesn’t give that much, ya know?”
We were next treated to rare sightings of some old, powerful vintage war aircraft. “That’s a Mitchell bomber; it was used by the Allies in World War II, and I think later on for some Israeli operations as well,” Beckett said, pointing to a black-and-gray airplane adorned with stars. “And that’s a Super Marine Spitfire. Those have some serious horsepower; they go like mad.”
Each pilot performed a slow, methodical pre-flight inspection before our ride, and one plane, belonging to Art Phillips of Conejo Valley, was put out of commission due to a problem with its brakes. Watching this doesn’t do much to settle stomach butterflies if you’re afraid of heights, but it does solidify respect and admiration for these men as pilots and engineers.
Giving back to the community and encouraging interest in their hobby is an important part of what EAA does. “We run a Young Eagles pilot training program, for kids ages 8 through 17,” Beckett explained. “There are also scholarships available for young trained pilots, including one especially for women pilots. Since that started, we’ve given out something like $35,000 worth of scholarships. So not only is flying fun, it’s a way of working on your future.”
Flying from Camarillo Airport to Ojai and back in a plane that looks about half the size of the average SUV can only be described as exhilarating. Passengers wear old-fashioned walkie-talkie headsets, which cancel out engine noise and allow you to hear communication between pilots and the ground control tower. Don Miller of Thousand Oaks, a former commercial airline pilot, took the opportunity to crack a joke: “If anything happens, remember to save the pilot first!”
Looking out of the window, the Channel Islands are clearly visible to the west. Familiar towns blur into an endless checkerboard-like pattern of farm fields, houses and freeways, all neatly carved and arranged to suit human needs and fuel commerce. Burned-out areas of forest fire damage suddenly look enormous, and your thoughts tend to move beyond yourself, shifting from “What’s for dinner?” to “What are they all doing down there? Is everyone else having as good a day as I am?”
As soon as the plane’s wheels hit asphalt, we all breathed an audible sigh of relief. Norm and Don both laughed. “You are now free to move about the cabin,” Don said, opening the aircraft doors. It’s hard not to be impressed by the patience and distinctively American ingenuity that drives these men to spend 20 years building a single small airplane from the ground up. However, most impressive of all is how much being just a few thousand feet further above the ground can change your ideas about how you fit into your community, this county and our whole country.