Bill Gibbs learned to fly back in the day when, if you managed to get aloft, all that was certain was coming back to Earth — sometimes much faster than you preferred.
Gibbs was an early enthusiast of San Diego aviation. He was of the same generation and the same streets as Ted Williams and, like the baseball great, lifted himself out of the commonplace. The patched-pants kid from Logan Heights grew from flying bi-wing putt-putts to operating a fleet of more than 50 planes in the ’70s.
The old-time pilots with their goggles, leather helmets and fluttering white scarves of movie depiction are gone now, most to old age, a few to failed carburetors. But Bill Gibbs remains, and he says he’s not leaving anytime soon.
Gibbs is 104 years old and is planning to outlive you and me, provided we’re not under 30.
He has no specific plans for the next few years except to sit in his sprawling, ranch-style home atop La Jolla and admire the view. His house is way up there, about 500 feet. From his bay windows, you can see far out to sea and into Tijuana. Downtown San Diego is an architect’s table model.
This is where Rockefeller would have lived if he could drive a car.
Bill says he bought the property in the ’50s for — are you seated? — $37,600. Today? As they say, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.
Gibbs lost his wife, Barbara, in 1994, “after 52 years, two months and seven days.” Of their three sons, David, 65, and Buzz, 71, remain. He has a live-in assistant, Noriko Yamaguchi, 62, a native of Japan. She is friendly and quiet in that gentle manner — always close by without looming.
“Noriko used to come in and help take care of Barbara, and she wouldn’t take a dime. When my wife died, she just stayed on. When other people learn what I pay her, they quit trying to hire her. She’s worth every penny and more,” Gibbs boasts of his helper.
He was father of another son, Robert, who committed suicide a long time ago at age 16. As he tells it, the pain on the old man’s face is fresh.
Sitting in his wheelchair atop his heavenly hill, the ancient pilot’s memory operates like a weak radio station. If the atmosphere is clear and the brain is pointed in the right direction, the signal comes through weak but clear. But then, interference comes out of nowhere, and the transmission fades out. Experiences and people are vivid in the telling, but dates have a tendency to skitter across the decades. His family members are good fact-checkers.
Before we start tsk-tsking, let me point out that I know people many years younger who misplace their glasses and can’t find car keys … ahem!
In 1930, Gibbs was not long out of San Diego High, a cocky young guy who didn’t turn many heads. He showed up at a gas station at 14th and Main streets owned by Carly Madson, a bounce-around guy who had arrived in San Diego with an ability to fly and not a lot more.
Gibbs went to work for Madson, and soon was taught to fly, which reduced Gibbs’ paycheck but helped keep the perpetually strapped Madson solvent.
Flying was a dangerous business in which the quest for wealth could just as easily lead to a wreath. But it was exhilarating. Most small planes of that period were powered by World War I surplus engines that were not much more than beefed-up lawn mowers with added cylinders. They provided 90 horsepower and 1,400 RPMs, Gibbs says. In midair they might start coughing and sneezing, like an asthmatic cutting hay. Their disadvantage was they were slow; their advantage was they were slow. If trouble occurred, you could put them down in an empty field or on a city street.
Gibbs was a prudent flier. Were he not, you wouldn’t be reading this story. He never had a real crash, if you don’t include emergency landings without number.
Back in the mid-’30s at the Valley Airport in National City, a pilot friend of Gibbs who flew a small American Eagle biplane wanted to show a cousin the sights. When they landed and deplaned, somehow, the engine was left running and the plane was pointed toward parts unknown, eager to get going.
The pilot grabbed a wing strut to hold the plane back and force it to run in a tight circle. Quickly, a crowd gathered to watch these pilots trying to control and stop the little plane that could.
The pilot was holding the strut like the bridle of a wild horse, but a horse runs out of gas before a plane. And this one had a full tank.
As the pilot shouted above the engine roar for him to do something, Gibbs thought about borrowing the pistol of John Doherty, a fellow pilot and deputy sheriff, to shoot the carburetor. Common sense quickly killed that idea, but no bystanders.
Finally, grabbing bricks from a nearby pile, Gibbs started throwing them at the radiator as it whirled by and finally succeeded in puncturing it. That brought the plane to a steaming halt and allowed the exhausted pilot to collapse against the wing.
Extending the horse metaphor, Gibbs loved what he was doing, but didn’t want to eventually become just another arthritic cowboy. With so many surplus planes available cheaply from World War I, and the public’s growing fascination with flying, he saw a business opportunity.
He was also motivated by a tiff with Carly Madson. Gibbs had taught a girlfriend to fly and wanted her to solo. Madson, though, wouldn’t allow a woman to solo in one of his planes. That gave Gibbs an added impetus to go it alone.
In ’34 and ’35, he started buying acreage in the empty spaces of what is now Kearny Mesa. One tract was bought for $10 an acre and paid off with $50 down and $25 every three months. He started carving an airfield out of the rock-strewn scrub land, mainly by hand labor. He supported himself as a night janitor at the old Aztec Brewery.
San Diego was dotted by impromptu airfields at the time. Some were even close to downtown. However, Gibbs Field became one of the most popular, and it grew accordingly after he opened it as an airport in 1937.
He started Gibbs Flying Service in 1938 and offered a full range of services. The business became big time, in a local sense, when he secured a contract from Bank of America to fly checks between banks up and down the state.
At the peak of the nationwide small plane business in the late ’70s, Gibbs says that overall, he had 52 planes and employed 30 pilots.
Gibbs Flying Service still exists at Montgomery Field and is operated by Gibbs’ son, Buzz.
Gibbs Field was shut down along with other civil airfields during the war with Japan. In 1940, Gibbs leased the airport to the Ryan School of Aeronautics to train Army Air Corps cadets. He sought to enlist, but the military asked him to instead serve as a civilian pilot instructor.
In 1941, Gibbs was approached by the manager of the Del Mar Fair, who had in tow a guy named Capt. F.F. Frakes. The captain’s schtick was to tour local county fairs and construct a flimsy structure on the grounds. He would then fly a plane through the building while also setting it afire, a feat Frakes had apparently done many times before. The two wanted to buy an old airplane from Gibbs, who found one for $500 and delivered it to Del Mar.
Well, Frakes did the stunt, but the plane didn’t make it all the way through, so the captain was sitting in the cockpit terrified that the fire would start with him in it, which would have made it a more memorable story.
The San Diego Union capped the saga by reporting, “Frakes, crouching in the cockpit at the impact, crawled out of the wreckage somewhat shaken up but unhurt.”
The good captain apparently wanted a unique business with no competition. He was successful. Knievel foreshadowed. Grab the box office receipts and on to the next county fair.
In 1947, the city bought Gibbs Field through eminent domain. The idea was floated to use it to replace Lindbergh Field. Gibbs was paid fairly at the time, and recouped handsomely on his investment, but had he been able to keep the property and develop it in bustling Kearny Mesa, it would require two banks to hold his wealth.
(Any idea the city had for a large airport at the site was derailed by the Navy, which wouldn’t allow one so close to its Miramar airfield.)
The city of San Diego did something in 1950 that Gibbs did not fight, but which stung, nevertheless: It changed the name of Gibbs Field to Montgomery Field.
One reason given for the change was that Gibbs Flying Service would benefit competitively to operate in an airport of the same name. Thus, Gibbs Field became Montgomery Field Airport. It honored John J. Montgomery, who at Otay Mesa in 1883 made the first glider flight in the U.S. Some of the historical details of that feat are apparently vague, but I’m not going to jump into that thicket.
They kept the “field” but took out the Gibbs.
Personally, I would think a name change to Montgomery-Gibbs Field Airport would achieve a fairer historical balance, but that’s just me.
He had his name removed from the airport he dug out of a pasture one shovelful at a time, but he has been honored as an inductee of the San Diego Air & Space Museum Hall of Fame. Of equal importance to him are honors from the Salvation Army for decades of service.
Every day, as the sun burns the mist out of the ocean air, Gibbs sits in a wheelchair behind his wide window and looks down on the bay and downtown in the distance. He reminisces about doing daring things in the air with audacious men to help build an industry that has unified the world.
But then, after a full lunch prepared by Noriko, Bill Gibbs will nap in his chair. As he closes his eyes, he sees a small, bi-wing American Eagle slowly making its way over the glinting new skyscrapers toward a dirt strip called Gibbs Field.
I believe I can see it, too.
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