If you live near Fallbrook, the avocado town at the back door of Camp Pendleton, and it’s lunchtime and you need a meter-reader or phone-installer, the elusive cable-man or anyone who works out of a truck, go to the Fallbrook Community Airpark.
That’s airpark, not airport. It seems more people park here than fly. The access road to the airpark comes up from Highway 76, southwest of town. To the left is a strawberry stand, some tennis courts, the Italian Club (social dinners on Friday nights), strawberry fields and a nursery; to the right a young avocado grove and a parking lot on a gentle rise over the blacktop runway. Every noontime in fair weather and foul, it seems someone is having an undisturbed lunch in his parked truck, which makes a nice front porch.
The clang of a hammer in a machine shop 200 yards away echoes across the flat ridgetop. When a Cessna 152 two-seater touches down on the runway, you hear the propeller flutter and the landing gear creak.
To San Diegans, a quiet airport might seem a contradiction in terms, like transportation planning or controlled growth; but this is Fallbrook, hilly and smothered in leaves and so proud of its country values that the signs announcing the city limits give top billing to a high school student who put the community on the map: Jan Eberly, president of Future Farmers of America. A genuine country town.
Such a town needed an airport. A few local businessmen — among them Stu Marshall, an insurance broker; Jim Wayman, a realtor; William G. Thurber, fire chief — grew tired of having to fly into Oceanside or Carlsbad and drive a half-hour back home or having to taxi clients in and out of airports with no cars for rent. From their own pockets, they lobbied dozens of legislative and administrative bodies, civil and military officers, yessir-and-noway peons in government. And by 1964. a consensus deal was struck: San Diego County buys 294 acres from the Navy for a buck, subleases same for 50 years to the airpark’s tax-exempt corporation, conditional that 152 acres be set aside for nonaeronautical uses, and the lease proceeds return to meet the corporation’s expenses. The local businessmen borrowed $30,000 from the Bank of Fallbrook (now Southwest Bank) to grade and fence the property and provide the rudiments of an airfield.
Result: by 1967, an airport that pays its own way, is well maintained, and is set in a park, not an industrial zone.
The Federal Aviation Administration has established three classes of airports: public-use, private, and personal. Like Lindbergh Field, Fallbrook Airpark is a public-use airport, but because it handles fewer than 250,000 take-offs and landings a year, it needs no control tower and no air traffic controller. Private and personal airports, as the names state, are not for public use, except for emergencies. A private airport may serve a specific group of people, and a personal airport is for the sole use of its owner.
A good day for flying. A late ram; some turbulence over Palomar Mountain and the Cuyamacas. but otherwise smooth air; good definition from the slanting afternoon light.
Flying over North County, in the vicinity of Fallbrook Airpark, you can spot about 30 private and personal airstrips. One every few miles or so. Most are no more than a bulldozer’s wake of cleared brush with a huge X scored at either end. the owner’s message of “Closed” or “Keep Out.” Others are smooth and inviting. Of flawless blacktop, they serve the country clubs and the spiderlike hilltop homes of the gentry.
There is the Pauma Valley Country Club, with its Indian glyph on the runway. It is private but not restricted, as indicated on our map. We could have landed in an emergency or with permission from the manager.
And another house. A horse-training estate maybe five miles south of Fallbrook in the floodplain of the San Luis Rey River. It looks like San Simeon, the castle that media built, with its fan palms and Grecian pool. In front is a racetrack and in back a pad of asphalt and a 300-yard slope of stubbled grass — a landing strip. A pilot would touch down on the asphalt and coast uphill to a stop. The design economizes on a full-length asphalt strip. Ah — the cheese-paring rich. We won’t land there “Til show you one of my favorite places,” says our pilot. He takes us east of Interstate 15 and south of Escondido to a mountain like a billiard table steep on all sides with a green, flat top. One minute we are flying over pasture as brilliant as Ireland, and in a second the ground falls away as we carefully shed air speed.
‘‘Pitts over there” he says. Northwest was the dragonfly-silhouette of a Pitts Special, the powerful biplane most popular with Americans for aerobatic flying. We kept well out of its way.
Nearby Ramona Airport, of the public-use type is the San Diego air-jocks’ strip, home to a wing of state firefighting aircraft and to several Pitts Specials. At 1393 feet, compared to Fallbrook’s 708. the elevation keeps Ramona clear of coastal fogs; the cattle land round about allows for aerobatics. To save weight, some pilots take the starters off their engines and so need an airport quite handy in case of engine failure.
French Valley Airport, near Rancho California, in southwest Riverside County, has a commercial feel to it, a big corporate turboprop Gulfstream parked at one end. The county built wide taxiways and a 4600-foot runway and up-to-date lighting but has yet to pave the access road or bring in water. Since the population of the area has more than tripled in the last ten years, the airport figures prominently in the county’s hope of attracting business and jobs.
"Request wind speed and direction,” the pilot calls as we approach Fallbrook Air-park, heading down-wind for runway one-eight. Below, at the radio, is Yvonne Aberle, 66, the FBO (fixed-base operator) sanctioned by the airpark to provide fuel, training, repairs, and other services for general aviation, private rather than commercial planes.
Authoritative to the bone, Aberle is still not empowered to control traffic nor obligated to give information. “Twelve miles an hour southwest,” she replies as a courtesy.
With her husband, Harry Aberle who died in an airplane crash in 1982, she has been the only FBO at the airpark since it opened. Her office is in a two-story wooden bungalow by the Texaco pump and has a commanding view of the runway. Aberle’s German shepherd, a very retired show dog, is on its back outside the sliding glass door and keeps an upside-down eye on what little there is to command.
A brief tour of her desk: two calculators, a straight row of pencils and pens, business cards for Fallbrook Air Service, an open flight log, fresh lilac branches from her mother-in-law, family photos, and an old rotary telephone — avocado green.
Aberle was an aquarium-keeper before getting into aviation. She and Harry raised fish in their garage in Pico Rivera and expanded into servicing aquariums in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Harry was taking flying lessons. His father, a mechanic in Nebraska, loved airplanes; Aberle has kept an old photograph of him crouching on the wing of a Lincoln Standard, a long, clunky aircraft, slow but stable, the Ford Galaxy of its day. He is wearing a leather aviator’s cap with its ear flaps pulled down against the cold. “Harry used to say that if he had to he would get into aviation by just hanging around airports looking hungry,” Aberle said.
After obtaining his commercial pilot’s license, Harry became a navigator with Seven Seas Airlines, a charter flying DC-4s and 6s out of Luxembourg. Then he became an FBO at the Los Angeles County airport in Compton but so disliked working with government that he jumped at the chance to move his operation to Fallbrook. After the IRS inspection and the difficulties of obtaining approval for their airpark, the corporation board shared Aberle’s dislike of government. Yvonne who learned to fly but rarely does, played the stalwart’s role. She drove to L.A. twice a week to continue servicing the aquariums until their operation prospered, and she gradually assumed her present position as airport mom.
Yvonne has collected three volumes of snapshots, most of them taken at the airpark since 1968. She has them bound in hand-tooled leather.
There is Yvonne grilling hamburgers outside one of the hangars (apron says: "I’m The Brains Of This Outfit!”); a shot taken in Luxembourg of a Seven Seas Airlines DC-3 on a wet tarmac; son Tom Aberle an airframe and power plant mechanic, with the home-built plane that he piloted for an air race trophy in Reno.
One album alone is dedicated to the project of Harry Aberle's life, the construction of a Pitts Special from a kit. Here’s Harry sitting in the cockpit when it was no more than boards and aluminum tubing; Tom in the cockpit after the skin has been applied and the engine block mounted; rolling the nearly completed airplane out of the shop; and Harry holding a stained-glass rendering of the airplane, done by a friend (it hangs now in El Jardin restaurant in town); and finally, Tom piloting the Pitts on its maiden flight, May 2, 1981.
In that shot, Tom is flying a machine that he largely built himself. Does he look like someone who suddenly wishes he hadn’t put a few things off to the last minute? The photo shows him flying parallel to the runway. maybe 50 feet up. His jaw is clenched, but he looks assured, cowboy lean and sporting long, pointy sideburns. He trusted the aircraft enough to let go of the stick during the flight, he said afterward. He said everything turned out as he’d expected. There were cheers, a party for 50 at the hangar, a reporter from the Fallbrook Review.
Harry was jubilant — it was a dream come true, his plane, ten years in the making, no longer just talked about but finished and flying. Here’s a picture of him in full glory over La Jolla, cruising at 1000 feet over blue sky and blue-black water. This is a plane that airplane people noticed.
The Pitts was nimble and steady. Harry said he felt as if there were no limits to the maneuvers he could perform in it. Here’s a photo of him flying the plane upside down. He told the Review reporter that he’d wanted to own a Pitts from the first day he’d flown one in the 1960s.
That Pitts was probably Bob Herendeen’s. Photos of it fill two pages in Yvonne’s fattest album. A former national aerobatics champion, Herendeen is 62 and still flies a Pitts out of Ramona. He and his wife Jacque have an aerobatics act they take to air shows, he in his Pitts and she in her modified Christen Eagle II. A gifted pilot, Herendeen did loops and spins on his solo flight at 16. He flew attack aircraft in Korea and all types of commercial aircraft during 30 years with TWA and in mid-career went back to aerobatics, placing in world competitions almost overnight. He says the Pitts, with its short wingspan, does quick, tight rolls, costs only about $30,000 compared to $100,000-plus for the German and Russian types that predominate at world meets, and is very strong. He says the only case he knows of a Pitts breaking up involved a pilot who had bragged about stressing it to 11 Gs. Herendeen says his maximum is 9 Gs. as when a 180-pound body feels more like 1620.
Herendeen’s signature is the precise snap roll, when he clicks the aircraft from one position to the next, but he also does tumbling rolls where he seems to lose control. The only maneuver he won’t do is one that puts so many positive Gs on his body that the blood leaves his head and he blacks out. (You feel a positive G on the bottom of a roller coaster, negative at the top.) The most difficult maneuver, he has said, is one he does with his wife. Jacque flies parallel to the runway while he does a corkscrew roll around her. She is locked on her altimeter. If she goes up or down a foot, she's well into their margin for error.
Though Bob has been flying since he was five, Jacque learned to fly relatively late in life — like Harry Aberle in that respect. She credits her considerable success as a pilot to her fear of stalling. She learned to fly 12 years ago in San Mateo from a succession of young instructors. She was 40, divorced with two teen-aged daughters. She was drawn to flying out of ennui and by the memory of her sister's marriage to a Navy pilot in his snappy dress whites. "I was 8,” she says. “I think most people go back to the things that really made an impression on them when they were little.”
She says instructors always stress the importance of avoiding the stall, when the plane has lost air speed, no wind is rushing over the wings to provide lift, and the controls go dead in your hand. Though each instructor taught her a slightly different way to avoid stalling, she didn't feel safe until she'd learned to handle it. She took her pilot’s license and went up to Lake Tahoe for some special training on the up-and downdrafts of the Sierras.
Then she took lessons from an aerobatics instructor. She came to like aerobatics and was performing in her own right when she wed Herendeen. Jacque leads their double act, calling signals over the radio while Bob flies on her wing. "I think everyone should really follow through on the dreams they have, no matter when they want to start,” she says. “I really believe that.”
Harry Aberle died in the Pitts Special that he and his son made. He crashed after takeoff while Yvonne watched from in front of the hangar. "The only other witness said he was doing an aerobatic maneuver, but I know he wasn't.” she says at her desk, straightening an already straight row of pencils and pens. It could have been a malfunction of the aircraft or pilot error; no one knows. He just climbed in his hotrod airplane, and on takeoff, it veered right and crashed.
Through her grief, Yvonne never considered leaving aviation. "I live right here on the edge of the property, and leaving aviation, I would have had to leave my home. You just can’t walk away from something you’ve started/’
Going on: Jerry Aberle. Tom's 26-year-old son, took his flight training at Fallbrook, soloed while still in his teens, is in the Navy now. and will probably go into general aviation mechanics when he gets out. With help from Barbara Thurber, daughter of one of the founders of the airpark, Aberle continues as FBO. Tom, 46, remains as mechanic and authorized inspector. An airpark lessee is adding two rows of new hangars, bringing the total to 38. And the airpark board recently turned down a request to lease more of their land for a youth sports park.
This isn’t a blistering confrontation — nothing on the order of the current debate between North County residents and the county over the proposed garbage dump smack in the middle of everyone’s rhetorical back yard. In Fallbrook, dissent with the community airpark board has been firm but cordial. All in the family. That’s airpark, not airport.