San Diego's historic places: Montgomery Field as recalled by aviation pioneer Bill Gibbs
By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO—Bill Gibbs has been watching the calendar as closely as he used to monitor the instrument panels of his airplanes. Come October 6, the San Diego aviation pioneer will turn 100 years old, and Gibbs is counting the days. He had big celebrations with his aviation buddies on his 80th and 90th birthdays and figures to do the same for his centennial.
Before Gibbs purchased 25 acres in 1937 for $10 per acre, the Kearny Mesa area, then just outside the San Diego city limits, was “nothing but jackrabbits, coyotes and rattle snakes,” Gibbs recently recalled. He paid $50 down and $25 every three months.
The reason he picked that particular stretch of land, he said, was because it was on a mesa, and therefore less likely to be flooded than areas lying at lower elevations. Water at least two feet high had previously flooded his hangar at the now defunct National City Airport after the Sweetwater River overflowed its banks.
Among the numerous jobs Gibbs had filled in his early life was working at a service station operated by Carlysle Madson at 14th and National Avenue. Madson’s real love was teaching flying, and when he would give a lesson, he would leave Gibbs to watch the station, paying the boy 25 cents per hour. Gibbs didn’t take the aggregated pay in money, he took it in flying lessons. Eventually, Gibbs became so good piloting Madson’s single engine tandem two-seater plane, that he became a co-owner with Madson of one airplane.
During the 1935 California-Pacific Exposition, Gibbs flew passengers around Balboa Park in a three-seater bi-plane. Flights could be either for seven or 15 minutes.
Although Gibbs thought he’d start his new landing strip with a partner, his excursion into the real estate business ended being a solo affair. He borrowed $250 from the Bank of Italy—today known as the Bank of America– to purchase $500 Taylor Cub, the rest which he paid off with the proceeds from flying lessons. By hand, he hacked brush from a pathway that he turned into an 1,100-foot landing strip. After smacking himself with an axe, he decided that he should get help from professionals, and contracted with George Daley of Daley Construction to carve out two 2,900-foot runways, and one 1,200 feet. All of them were 100-feet wide. In what can be appreciated as an act of charity, Daley charged Gibbs only $675 for the job, and allowed him to pay it off at the rate of $25 per month.
To pay his debts, Gibbs offered seven minute rides for 75 cent and half-hour sightseeing tours of San Diego for $2. Another income stream was teaching would-be pilots how to fly. Among his first students were Charlie Faust, who later in life would be the naturalist and architect who designed portions of San Diego’s famous Wild Animal Park, and James Dalby, who after serving as a flight instructor during World War II, then flying DC3′s for China National Airways and other airlines and owning a retail sales business, would go on to become president and general manager of Gibbs Aircraft Service Center.
Like his mentor Madson, Gibbs had another job to support his flying habit. He worked since 1933 as a janitor for the Aztec Brewery Company in the wee hours of the morning, cleaning floors and greasing machinery. Afterwards, he would go to his landing strip to wait for customers, catching up on sleep in those hours when none came.
Not long after Daley’s crews had done their work on the field, Gibbs was approached by a chief pilot for T. Claude Ryan of Ryan School of Aeronautics. A small auxiliary airport near Mission Bay had flooded, and Ryan needed an auxiliary landing field for a class of 75 Army Air Corps cadets to learn how to fly Ryan-built planes.
The pilot wanted to know what Gibbs would charge. “Tell you what,” Gibbs said he replied. “I’ll fix it up so you can drag it – send out a truck with two guys and as you go along, pick up all this brush and stone, and drag the place down, and you can use it for nothing.”
By 1940, Ryan had decided to use both Gibbs Field and the Mission Bay auxiliary field. He asked to rent the facility on a more formal basis. The company also offered Gibbs a position teaching the cadets how to fly, enabling him to quit the brewery and to devote full time to his aviation career.
That was not the only connection to Ryan Aerospace, Gibbs said. He met his wife, Barbara, who worked as a secretary for Ryan School of Aeronautics. Barbara’s father, Eddie Molloy, also worked for Ryan. “He was the plant manager for Ryan. Her father went to work for Ryan in 1940, a self-made aeronautical engineer. He finally became vice president of Ryan.”
By the time World War II started, with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, “I think had seven or eight planes,” Gibbs recalled. Most of them were Luscombes, which “were all-metal airplanes except for the fabric on the wings. They seated two, side by side.”
Gibbs said Luscombes required most pilots to adjust the way they were used to flying. In tandem two seaters—with the passenger sitting in a rear seat directly behind the pilot—the nose of the airplane was positioned directly in front of the pilot. But when the pilot and passenger sat beside each other, it was located between them. That required some re-orienting as pilots executed turns in the sky.
Once the war began, civilian flights were forbidden within a certain distance of the coast. So Ryan, Gibbs and the entire operation moved to an airfield in Tucson, Arizona, for the duration of the war.
Gibbs returned to his field in 1945, and soon was providing flying lessons to returning veterans seeking new careers in aviation. As post World War II San Diego expanded, the city decided it wanted to take over Gibbs Field, paying the aviator $100,000 for the land and another $12,000 for the improvements. The City also gave Gibbs a 20-year-lease with two 10-year-renewal periods. That guaranteed Gibbs Flying Service would have a home for at least 40 years.
Not all the “$10 land” that Gibbs purchased originally was included in the deal. He combined a portion of that land with more expensive land he had purchased subsequently, and sold 209 acres east of then Highway 395 to the City of San Diego for its airport. “I got $60,000 for the land and $48,000 for the improvements.”
Gibbs sold another swath of land to the State of California for Highway 163, but retained approximately 55 acres in the vicinity of present day Convoy Street between Aero Drive and Kearny Mesa Road, some of which is rented today by a variety of businesses. What once cost $10 per acre, Gibbs estimated, today is worth approximately $1.5 million for the same acre.
Gibbs recalled that the name “Montgomery Field” was urged by then future Congressman Bob Wilson, who was a heavy hitter in the local Republican party. Wilson was impressed that John J. Montgomery, the man reputed to have made the first controlled flight had done so in San Diego, way back in 1883.
The business continued to grow, with Gibbs eventually not only operating a flying school, but also providing 180 tie-downs spots on the apron and 80 “T” hangars for private planes. The hangars are described by the alphabet letter because two shallow side compartments are built for the airplane’s wings, while the main part of the hangar houses the fuselage. Contructing metal hangars in this fashion, Gibbs explained, enables the nesting of airplanes, with the fuselage of one backing up to the wing of another. Gibbs also provided fueling, maintenance and repairs for private airplanes that landed at Montgomery Field.
It was not unusual for former students to drop in on Gibbs years later, and to tell him their stories. One fellow, who had been piloting a B-24 Liberator during World War II, told of his plane being shot up pretty bad, with some crew members wounded and various other problems creating panic. The man told him that he remembered advice that Gibbs had given him about what to do in an emergency: “Just fly the plane,” and that’s what he concentrated on, despite the pandemonium all around him. Keeping calm in that situation may well have saved the lives of everyone aboard, he said. “Stay focused” was Gibbs’ maxim.
Gibbs and his pilots flew a daily service for the Bank of America, picking up checks and inter-brsnch mail at bank branches in more than 20 cities and bringing them to central West Coast computer centers for processing. He used 16 twin-engines airplanes in the operation.
At this point in the interview, Gibbs withdrew a Bank of America credit card from his wallet and pointed to where it identified him as a customer since …. 1933. He laughed, saying that when Bank of America employees meet someone who has been a customer for 67 years, they often express astonishment. That’s one of the perks of being just a few months shy of a century old.
Gibbs Flying Service also developed an expertise in flying to Baja California and the West Coast of mainland Mexico flying tourists, prospectors and geologists to their chosen destinations, and sometimes delivering supplies and conducting mercy flights.
Gibbs recalled that a company called National Bulk Carriers chartered one of his planes for what was intended to be a three-day visit to examine salt flats near Guerrero Negro and staying nights at Bahia de Los Angeles. A chabasco—a tropical storm that came inland from the Pacific Ocean—formed two thunder clouds around the plane, and the downdraft from those thunder clouds pushed it down to the ground. The plane hit the ground, spun around 135 degrees, moved backwards 35 feet from the force ofthe wind, and then started to burn. Pilot Pete Larson and three passengrs might have survived if the airplane had ot caught fire, Gibbs speculated. It took an aerial search party, which at times consisted of 27 airplanes, twelve days to find the wreckage and what remained of the four men’s bodies.
Flying up to Long Beach, where National Bulk Carriers’ president was visiting a ship’s chandler, Gibbs reported what had happened. The owner said that a friend in the oil industry had a heart attack, and that he had purchased his airplane among other assets of the business. The airplane was stored in a hangar in Texas. Gibbs followed up, obtained the aircraft, and an ongoing relationship with National Bulk Carriers was established.
As the company’s crews continued to survey the salt flats in Baja California, they occasionally needed to purchase such supplies as a 15-foot boat in the United States. Because National Bulk Carriers was not known in San Diego, local vendors declined to sell the boat unless cash was paid at the time of purchase. Gibbs asked if they would be willing to send an invoice to the company if Gibbs, himself, guaranteed the payment. Yes, the vendors said, because they had been doing business with Gibbs for a long time.
When the invoice reached National Bulk Carriers, it created quite a commotion. Who was this fellow out on the West Coast guaranteeing invoices for them? Didn’t the people in San Diego have any idea that the man who owned National Bulk Carriers paid his own way? The owner’s name was D.K. Ludwig. He owned a fleet of ships, a large Japanese shipyard, and other businesses. At the time, he was one of the wealthiest men in the world. When Ludwig’s comptroller called Gibbs to inquire about the strange turn of affairs in which the small business owner was guaranteeing the credit of a multi-millionaire industrialist, Gibbs apologetically explained that the San Diego vendors meant no disrespect, they just hadn’t heard of Ludwig’s company.
Although Ludwig’s pride may have been wounded, he ultimately took it in good grace, sending bigger and bigger cash advances to Gibbs to act as his agent. Eventually, Gibbs said, it was not uncommon for Ludwig to send him $50,000 cash advances from which to draw expenses.
Years later, Gibbs got out of the aircraft operations business, selling all 51 airplanes, preferring instead to rent space to airplanes that needed homes on the ground. His son, Buzz Gibbs, who now heads the business, related that the 1960s through the 1980s were a golden time for the general aviation business. “There were three major manufacturers; Cessna, Beech and Piper,” the son recalled. “Cessna was the biggest: in 1978, they made $10,000 airplanes. In 1985, they quit making piston airplanes. That was like General Motors not making cars, and so it has been in a general decline since then. So the small airplane business is decreasing. The corporate jet business started in the early 70’s with the Cessna Citation, the Beachcraft King Air … and so the business is flip-flopping going from lots of individual airplanes with individual owners to now, when the majority of the aviation business is in the corporate market. And they’ve gone from making 18,000 airplanes in 1977 or 1978, and I think last year they made 700.”
Palomar Airport has become the center for corporate jet aircraft in the county, Gibbs said, although new generations of corporate jets, able to land on shorter runways have since been developed.
Two horrible occurrences shall always remained burned in the corporate memory of Gibbs Flying Service. The first was the midair collision over San Diego of one of its small planes with a Pacific Southwest Airlines jet that overtook it on the approach to Lindbergh Field, resulting in the worst air accident in the United States up to that time. The second was Montgomery Field’s brief connection to two of the 9/11 terrorists.
The senior Gibbs said that in the case of the midair collision, on September 25, 1978, the student (David Boswell) in a Cessna “was a commercial pilot, getting his instrument rating. And the instructor (a Gibbs employee, Martin Kazy) was rated to instruct on the instruments.”
Gibbs said that the PSA crew “made what was called a ‘cowboy approach,’ where you come in and put the wheels down and the flaps down in a real steep descending turn, and then come down in a very short approach to the runway….” The plane leveled out in airspace in which the much slower private plane was in front of it, but not easily seen. “They were warned about it, from the radar control, and they said ‘no, we think we just passed him’ and there was a conflict alert that went off, and then about 17 seconds before they hit.”
Gibbs said one of the two was thrown from the private plane, hitting a building on the east side of Interstate 805, and the small airplane came down (with the other passenger) along the freeway. The commercial plane took out a row of homes, killing their occupants, as well as the 135 persons aboard. In total there were 144 persons killed in what to that date was the worst disaster in U.S. aviation history.
The NTSB report focused on mistakes made both by the PSA crew and air traffic controllers. Gibbs said he had $5 million in insurance, which his insurance company wanted to contribute toward a settlement fund. Because his people had not been at fault, Gibbs said he first refused. After two weeks, the insurance company came back and said Pacific Southwest Airlines’ insurance company was willing to indemnify Gibbs if he would contribute $3 million to the settlement package. He continued to resist, but the insurance company said defending against a class action suit likely would prove more expensive than $3 million, so they were better to be indemnified and out of it. Gibbs said he agreed only after the insurance company promised not to raise his rates.
The two terrorists included in the 9/11 plot who had done some of their pilot training at Montgomery Field were subsequently identified as Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, two Saudi Arabians who were among the five hijackers aboard American Airlines Flight 77 which was crashed into the Pentagon.
Gibbs said although the two men had been trained by one of the flying clubs at Montgomery Field, and not by Gibbs Flying Service, he had encountered the two usually taciturn men on several occasions, but never had a conversation of any length with them. He said their cover story was that they were learning to fly so that they could become pilots for members of the Saudi royal family. He said he recalls they went to Florida after leaving San Diego.
Several years ago, with Gibbs Flying Service’s latest extension on his lease coming to an end, a manager in the city’s airport division seemed intent on finding new tenants, prompting quite a bit of protest from Gibbs’ many friends in the aviation industry. Numerous letters were written to the City Council in the company’s support, with the result that Gibbs Flying Service is still there. The company’s 75th anniversary operating on that field comes in 2012. However, Gibbs Flying Service is on a month-to-month lease, and said Gibbs, if for any reason, the lease is terminated, he expects the family would close the business down.
General aviation is not what it used to be, and, besides, the family has done quite well on its real estate investments, Gibbs said.
Gibbs had retired from flying about 20 years ago, explaining that he felt it was neither fair to his passengers nor to people on the ground if something should happen to him while he was piloting an airplane. He continued to come into the office from time to time, but gradually he did so less and less, leaving the business completely to his son Buzz.
Gibbs said that he misses flying and confided that being around the airport for too long makes him feel withdrawal pains.
“Bill is part of the legacy of aviation in our San Diego region,” James Kidrick, president and CEO of the San Diego Air & Space Museum said. He noted that Gibbs has been a consistent supporter of the museum’s scholarship preogram, which encourages excellence in science, technology and mathematics.
Among others, Gibbs has devoted his philanthropy to such organizations as the Salvation Army, including its Joan Kroc Center, and the San Diego Zoo.
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World
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