Let’s just get this out of the way. I didn’t grow up in a conventional place. I grew up in Berkeley, California, in the ‘60s. My neighborhood was originally known as Northbrae, but subsequently earned the nickname “The Gourmet Ghetto” in the mid-70s with the eruption of California Cuisine at Chez Panisse restaurant and numerous other gourmet establishments several blocks from my family home built by my great grandfather in 1906. Northbrae was a quiet neighborhood of large, single family homes, roughly a mile northwest of downtown Berkeley and the University of California campus.
Life as a kid in Berkeley could be idyllic, and at times tumultuous. It pretty much depended where you were. My neighborhood was filled with endless diversions for a young boy: creeks to explore, parks and playgrounds galore, and the maze of paths throughout the Berkeley Hills to wander around. The skateboarding was epic. My mom would drive me up to the top of the Berkeley Hills and I would beat her home, every time.
During the height of the Vietnam War in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the area near the University of California campus and downtown Berkeley was likely to erupt in a confrontation between the police and the protesters on any given day. Given that my high school was downtown and my place of part time employment was a record shop on Telegraph Ave, the epicenter of Berkeley’s counterculture, it was commonplace that I was often swept up in these civil insurrections. Being picked up by the cops for very dubious reasons was not at all uncommon if one happened to be a scruffy teenager (weren’t we all?) at the wrong place and wrong time. It became very annoying to have to consider the possibility of arrest doing something as mundane as going to a dentist appointment. Against that backdrop, I came of age.
Obsession with airplanes and aviation has been the continuous phase in the matrix of my life. Berkeley happens to be located beneath a major departure and arrival corridor for both the Oakland and San Francisco airports. I can recall as a toddler hearing the enormous four engine piston airliners breaking the stillness of the early morning as they climbed out overhead. I must have had a hundred model airplanes strewn around my room as a pre-teen boy. I pored over books about airplanes and heroic pilots for countless hours. My dad made me a VHF receiver that picked up the local Air Traffic Control frequencies.
A perfect Saturday morning was breakfast at Ole’s Waffle Shop in Alameda with my dad, then heading over to the Oakland Airport to watch the airliners land and take off from Oakland’s runway 27R, long before the South Terminal and runway 29 was a gleam in the Port of Oakland’s eye. The boarding gates were exactly that: a gate in a three-foot high chain-link fence under an awning covering a long walkway. The airliners would taxi right up to the gate, the wing tip nearly touching the awning. For a young kid, that was extremely impressive!
Just shy of my 15th birthday, I decided to do something about this flying thing. I set out on the bus from Berkeley and eventually made it down to the Oakland Airport. I started knocking on doors, and by that afternoon I found a flight school that was looking for a weekend line boy. I was actually offered the job by the full-time line boy, who was sick of working six days a week, and knew a sucker when he saw one. Bob Haberman, now a physicist, became my big brother in aviation. He was a couple years older than I was, and had a Commercial certificate. We’re still in touch to this day.
Thus, I began my flight training. The flight school was called Flightways. It was located in the old terminal building, which also housed the Flight Service Station, a pilot shop, and a pilot examiner’s office. I really had unwittingly stumbled onto a golden nugget, since Flightways was also the Citabria dealership, and in addition to all the usual pilot curricula, Flightways was the aerobatics school, or as others at the airport put it, the “Freak School.”
Flightways had been founded years earlier by Bob Short, who was already a legend at the airport. Bob was a former alcoholic jazz trumpeter who had gotten sober, and rather than finding religion, had found flying. He expressed himself with aerobatics the way he had as a jazz musician. Bob had been an instructor for many years and everyone at the airport knew him and respected him. He flew airshows in a stock 115-hp Citabria 7ECA that he pulled off the flight line. If it had a tailwheel on it, Bob was all for it. He spoke of tricycle gear Cessnas, Pipers, Beechcraft and the like with utter disdain.
Bob was an old school flight instructor. He sat behind me in the Citabria, and if I didn’t fly well, he would cuff me upside the head and growl at me to “Sit up straight and fly right!” But did he teach me to fly! One of the rites of passage to qualify in his book was for the student to land across taxiway A, short of the 27R threshold, and taxi off at the taxiway B centerline, just past the threshold—a distance of about 250 feet. Doable, but you had to be right on airspeed, and you needed about 20 kts of headwind. Another of Bob’s rites of passage was to fly beneath the roadway of the Golden Gate Bridge, but of course, I would never admit to doing that.
Though he had sold the business to a rather buttoned-down fellow named Jug Shoaf, Bob still ruled the roost as the Instructor Emeritus and Chief Bull Goose Loony at Flightways. Naturally, he attracted instructors, students, and pilots of like mind, and the characters who floated through Flightways was a “Who’s Who” of Bay Area freakiness. The connection between aerobatic flight and being a generally free-spirited individual was quite strong.
I got to know some very well. The late Doug Tompkins, a mountaineering wild-man who founded The North Face and then went on to found the Esprit line of apparel (and making a gazillion dollars in the process), was a constant presence at Flightways. He frequently trained at aerobatics in the Citabria, and he also owned a Cessna 185 Super Skywagon. Doug, his wife Susie, and daughter Summer did an absolutely incredible trip from Oakland all the way down to Patagonia and back in about 1971. After their return, Flightways hosted a barbecue and slide show of their trip that was an absolute mind-blower. Doug took thousands of amazing photos of the high Andes, landing on dry lake beds and dirt roads. It was the first time I’d ever seen pictures of the Nazca Lines in Peru. They landed on beaches, cow pastures, rainforest strips, and international airports. It was one of the most inspirational presentations I’ve ever witnessed in my life.
Doug introduced me to many of his friends, such as Yvon Chouinard, Galen Rowell, Bob Swanson, and others. I had absolutely no clue at the time who these people were, or the superstar status they enjoyed in the mountaineering milieu. They were just Doug’s mountaineering friends. Doug and I flew together many times in the 185, and he delighted in putting the plane down in tiny little cow pastures out in West Marin to keep his short field technique well-honed. After these flights out to West Marin, we’d taxi straight to the wash rack to hose off all the cow s**t.
For many years, Doug was a legendary at the Oakland Airport. As skilled a pilot as he was, he was a bit of a loose cannon when it came to aeronautical decision making, and there was always a tinge of fear that we would lose him to an aviation-related accident. He eventually was drawn to Chile, and spent his later years there until his death. Though accidental, it was not aviation related—he drowned in a kayaking accident. Doug’s proclivity for sketchy decisions and crazy adventure in airplanes is well documented in Barbara Rowell’s book, Flying South, published by Ten Speed Press.
The instructors in particular were some real characters. Most were part-timers who had other gigs going, legit or otherwise. One instructor had a PhD in physics, another was an architect. My first instructor, Dave Devlin, was a computer scientist before that was even a thing, at a time when a computer filled up an entire room.
Another instructor, who shall remain nameless even though I’m pretty sure he has flown west (nobody really knows…), was a full-on, no-holds-barred Cocaine Cowboy. He would fly all night down across the border at tree-top altitude in a King Air. He would then repeat the process northbound, drop his load somewhere in the Central Valley, snort a few lines, and be ready for his first student of the day at 9am. One day, he tossed me the keys to his clapped-out Karmann Ghia and asked me to make a burger run. He told me that he would buy if I would fly. He said that there should be some cash in a paper bag on the floor in front of the passenger seat. He wasn’t kidding.
The bag, soaked in grease from its previous load of french fries, was stuffed with cash. I grabbed the smallest bill I could find, which I think was a 50, and paid for the burgers. There must have been north of $15,000 in that bag. When I delivered the burgers and tried to give him the $40 change, he told me to just keep it as a tip. What a guy! Before he disappeared from the scene, he did try to recruit me into his clandestine operation. Even as a snot-nosed kid, I could recognize a losing proposition when I saw one, and respectfully declined his offer.
One of my early instructors, Ron Werner, was an ex-cop who also flew freight at night. He taught transcendental meditation and along with his partners, the Hiersioux brothers, Glen and Arne, bought a small cargo airline called Arabesco Air. Ron and the Hiersioux brothers renamed the operation Zoom Zoom Air. One of Zoom Zoom’s contracts was to fly freshly-baked Larraburru French Bread from SFO to LAX every night except for Sunday. In me, Ron saw free labor to help load and unload the plane, as well as a dutiful copilot so he could catch a nap while I pointed the D18 at LA. I was under strict orders not to wake him up until we were over Malibu. I’ll never forget the smell of freshly baked sourdough bread mixed with the funky, oily, gassy smell of an ancient Beechcraft D18.
It was through Ron that I got my first and only stick time in a DC-3, when Zoom-Zoom added one to the fleet. It was actually an RD-4, since the plane was ex-Navy. It was on those all-nighters that I got to experience the beauty of flying into LAX at night, floating above the endless carpet of city lights as we flew over Santa Monica and Beverly Hills on a wide downwind to runway 25R, and marveling at the conga line of landing lights that extended out to the east as far as the eye could see, even at 3am.
Time passed, and I progressed through my training. I was handed off to several other instructors. This was mainly out of convenience rather than dissatisfaction with any particular instructor. I flew with everyone on staff at some point. I flew with John Taylor, our chief instructor, who possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of all things aviation, and gave me some of the best ground sessions I’ve ever received eavesdropping on his ground sessions with other students. A bit of a prickly personality on the ground, I really enjoyed how he totally chilled out in the plane, and was a pleasure to fly with. John T. did all my phase checks. After I got my Private, I worked with John on fun stuff like formation flying and rear-seat landings, a skill I still use to this day.
John Diefenbach, who was an architect, handled most of the latter phase of my training. He did all my dual cross-country training and solo sign-offs. His signature is the most beautiful signature in my logbook. It’s a testament to his artistic nature as an architect.
Charlie King, extremely tall and laconic, was a realtor who worked with me on polishing my airwork and some aerobatics. I could never figure out how he managed to fit his 6’ 7” frame in the back of a Citabria.
Since I had nearly a year to kill between my first solo flight (just after my 16th birthday) and my checkride (which required that I be at least 17), the better part of that year was devoted to aerobatics. By the time I was ready for my Private checkride, I had perfected a ten-element aerobatic routine.
I was ultimately signed off by Steve Stecher, a diminutive, soft spoken young guy from Queens who had the thickest “Noo Yawk” accent I’ve ever heard. He was a brand new CFI, and I was his first sign-off. I seem to recall that he was also a graduate student in botany at Cal while he was going for his CFI. Shortly after my checkride I believe he moved to Maui. What he did there with a PhD in botany, I’ll leave to conjecture.
My Private checkride was a very unconventional affair. It was conducted by DPE Tommy Thompson, a WWII-era pilot and retired airline captain whose office was next door to the flight school. Since Tommy was a daily fixture at Flightways, he and I were well acquainted with one another. He followed my progress closely through whatever instructor I happened to be working with at that point, and he and I spent many hours talking flying. Tommy was like my flying grandpa, so to speak.
On the day of the checkride, he announced he was satisfied with my knowledge level, based on the many discussions we’d had over the last couple of years, thus we could dispense with the oral portion of the exam. The flying portion began with some hood work, out over San Francisco Bay smack in the middle of what is now SFO Surface Class B airspace. Tommy cleverly timed it so that when I removed the hood, there was a large jet coming right at us. I took immediate evasive action (I think I did a split S). Tommy chuckled and said that that was quite satisfactory! He said that that was exactly what it looks like when a plane comes out of a cloud, pointed right at you: you have no time to think, you just react.
At that point, we started off on the cross-country portion of the checkride and headed back easterly towards Stockton, ostensibly on our way to Columbia. When we reached the area of the Tracy aerobatics box, he dispensed with the cross-country stuff and asked me to show him my aerobatic routine. I complied, and after a few elements, it was checkride satisfactorily completed. Later that afternoon, I took my best friend, Eric, up as my first passenger.
A couple months after I got my Private, my dad sported the aircraft rental for a trip from Oakland to Prescott, AZ, and back to visit my oh-so-mysterious Uncle Don, who was a reclusive figure in my life. It was one of the few times my dad went flying with me, let alone paying for the aircraft rental. My dad’s health was not so great, and my relationship with him at the time was a bit strained, but he really did enjoy himself on that trip. He got a kick out of watching me sweat gnarly weather situations, desert flying, mountains, funky dirt strips, snow, and the like. It turned out to be a fun trip, and so much the better that my dad sported nearly 20 hours in a 150-hp Citabria 7KCAB.
My senior year of high school was a blur of activity, aviation-related and otherwise. Being the only kid at Berkeley High School with a pilot certificate, I was constantly taking friends up for a hop. I also enjoyed a bit of cachet with the ladies. It was always my practice to obtain parental permission before taking a young lady up to experience the thrills that only a small aerobatic airplane with a competent pilot at the controls can provide. This led to some interesting encounters with the ‘rents. I was used to trepidation and unease about the situation on the part of the parents I spoke to regarding taking their daughters up flying. That was only natural, and I was usually able to elicit their consent quickly once they met me.
I met with the parents of one young lady in particular whose family had emigrated to Berkeley from Germany. I had been briefed by the young lady that dad could be a bit of a pill, but don’t let him scare you. Dad was also a big shot doctor with the California Department of Public Health, and was very used to being the alpha dog. While I waited in the living room of their home (I had not met either of the parents yet), I could hear some raised voices coming from the kitchen, two rooms away. After a few minutes of this, dad came busting out of the kitchen and without so much as a cursory introduction, confronted me rather aggressively and condescendingly.
One thing that my lady friend had not briefed on was that this guy was HUGE! He was easily 6′ 7″, weighing in at at least 350 lbs. He was square-jawed with closely cropped gray hair and beard. He did not look happy. Though I’m 6’ 1″, at the time I was half his weight. He kind of invaded my personal space, getting right up in my face and peered down at me with contempt. In a thick German accent, he spat out, “Vell, young man, Victoria tells me zat you are a… pilot?”
I reached into my shirt pocket, pulled out my pilot and medical certificates, and handed them to him. Without backing up an inch, I looked squarely back at him and said, “Well doctor, the federal government says I am.” With that he backed away, looked over my certificates, and calmly handed them back to me. As he retreated back into the kitchen, I could hear him muttering to his wife, “Ja Claudia, he really is a pilot.” Victoria came out of the kitchen and gave me the thumbs up. They invited me to stay for dinner, and were quite pleasant. They were also impressed that I spoke a bit of German.
One of the perks of employment at Flightways was that one was placed on the rotation to ferry a new airplane back to OAK from the Champion factory in Wisconsin. Two weeks after my Private checkride, my turn came up. The boss, however, decided that since I was still a little wet behind the ears, my colleague Bob Haberman should accompany me, since he was a 19-year old Commercial pilot. Two teenagers flying across the country in a little dinky plane… what could possibly go wrong? You can read the story of that trip in a previous article. Suffice it to say, it was the adventure of a lifetime and (spoiler alert!) we made it home in one piece.
- Freak School: learning to fly at OAK in the 1970s - January 30, 2023
- Two teenagers, a 60-hp Champ, and a 2100-mile journey - December 12, 2022
- “No complaints” – how I stumbled into a thunderstorm - January 9, 2019