Proficient Pilot: Home is where the heart is

April 1, 2008

Barry Schiff has logged more than 27,000 flight hours in 300 types of aircraft.

I was a 13-year-old kid when I first stepped onto Clover Field, now known as Santa Monica Airport (SMO). It was an amazing place where little airplanes levitated into the sky and arrived like falling autumn leaves. The tube-and-fabric trainers had me mesmerized and the larger, more powerful aircraft caused me to dream enviously of faraway and exotic (air) ports of call. The dancing windsock, the smell of avgas, and the whirling wooden propellers were indelibly impressive and infectious. There was no doubt in my mind that I would learn to fly and join this adventurous, romantic fraternity.

SMO is one of the most historically significant airports in the country. It was where the Douglas World Cruisers began their trailblazing, globe-girdling flight in 1924. Clover Field was the home of the Douglas Aircraft Company and is where the majority of Douglas’ DC aircraft were built. During the halcyon days of the 1970s, SMO was the busiest single-runway airport in the world.

SMO also became my home for 55 years. It was more the center of my life than any apartment or house in which I resided. It was at SMO where I met all of my lifelong friends, grew into manhood, developed professionally, and, alas, now find myself moving inexorably into “maturity.”

It is where I learned to fly and taught many others to do the same. With the exception of when I was ill or out of town, I rode a bicycle, hitchhiked, or drove to my home-away-from-home every day of my adult life. It has been the center of my professional and social life.

The airport has always represented to the pilots based there an oasis surrounded by urban sprawl and its inherent problems. It is a sanctuary where crime has never found a foothold. It is where race, religion, nationality, or social status is not a factor in the activities that occur there. The only requirement to become involved in life at SMO is a love of flight.

During the early 1980s, the airport was threatened with closure because the city fathers had what they considered a better and more profitable use for these 217 acres of prime real estate. Fortunately, a group of activist pilots (of which I was one) banded together to fight city hall. We were eventually successful although the long-term future of the embattled airport is still in doubt. The agreement between the FAA and the “People’s Republic of Santa Monica” to keep the airport open expires in 2015, and then the fight, I fear, will begin anew.

In the meantime, the city makes ill-cloaked attempts to curtail operations at the airport in the unassailable name of safety. It fights a war of attrition designed to reduce the need for this important reliever airport. The city council hopes that the airport will not be as important in 2015 as it is now, and that the FAA and other interested parties might not resist closure or curtailment with the kind of tenacious determination displayed in the past.

Unfortunately, I will not be at SMO to assist in extending the life of this vital airport.

Living in the Los Angeles Basin is not what it used to be. There are a variety of reasons that my wife, Dorie, and I made the decision to leave. We decided that it was time to pull up roots and transplant ourselves to a more relaxed and peaceful environment. An obvious requirement for wherever we were to move was that there is an active GA airport nearby, hopefully a place where the city fathers are more appreciative of its airport and what it contributes to the community. I believe that we found such a place and recently moved to Camarillo, California, which is only 33 nm west-northwest of SMO but far enough from the big city to live in more tranquil, spacious, and natural surroundings.

Camarillo Airport (CMA) used to be Oxnard Air Force Base but was converted into a strictly civilian airport in 1969 when the Department of Defense abandoned the airport. It was then purchased for GA use by the County of Ventura. Today it is a bustling, vibrant facility with more airplanes based there (560) than at SMO. There is also a wing of the Commemorative Air Force at CMA, and I hope to become involved in some of its warbird activities.

Somehow, though, abandoning my home airport at a time when it appears to once again be in need of activist support seems unfaithful. Others soldiers, I am sure, will step forward to accept the challenge. Besides, I am only an hour away on the freeway (except during rush hour), and will be making a flying pilgrimage to SMO at least twice a week.

In the meantime, there is something exciting about getting to know a new airport. Although I am a stranger at CMA, it will not take long for me to become a ramp rat there and familiarize myself with the various fixed-base operators. Right now I do not even know where to rent an airplane. In the meantime, I will be having lunch at CMA’s popular ramp-side eatery, the Waypoint Café. So if any of you locals (or fly-in visitors) should see me there, do not hesitate to stop and say hello. I look forward to the new friends I will make and the flights we will enjoy together.