Ghosts of the Apollo Field

I wrote this a couple of years ago and it’s been on the Short Stories Website. I thought I’d share it here.

This story is under construction still. I have many pictures from my years at the field to go with this story to add still. This is a true story. One near and dear to my heart. Although many will see this as a story about toy airplanes they are hardly that and true aviators realize the importance of model aviation as being the gateway to our future in aerospace. The first plane ever to fly was a model. Neil Armstrong started with model airplanes at age 3. It is an important hobby and one that all of us involved have a great passion for. To fly!

Ghosts of the Apollo Field

It wasn’t a day like any other. Today was a day that I would visit and experience my past in the present. 34 years ago I discovered the radio controlled model airplane. Although I had been aware of them since the 60’s I had always just admired them from afar, hoping one day I would get a chance to indulge in the hobby.

It was 1985 on a Christmas day and my late wife; Gilly had several mysterious presents under the tree for me. When I opened them to my utter delight she had given me my first Carl Goldberg Eaglet trainer RC model airplane kit. As I opened the other gifts one had an engine, another was a radio control system with servos and everything I needed to build this plane. I was ecstatic. I knew I had a great adventure before me and I was filled with wonder.

Over the course of a couple of weeks, I built the plane and took many trips to my local hobby shop for advice. The hobby shop was called Robin’s Hobby. The kind owner there and I became friends. He would teach me to fly.

Robin and I with my P40

Robin had served in WW2 on B-17’s as a gunner. He also worked on the Apollo Program machine parts for a spacecraft that took us all to the moon.

Later on, he took me to the field for lessons. It is called the Apollo Field in the Sepulveda Basin in Southern California. It was a beautiful place with green lawns, paved taxiways and a long paved runway. Apollo Field had bleachers and a paved pit area. It was, in fact, a miniature airport.

Robin introduced me to one of his friends, George Lane, who would keep an eye on me as I progressed in my training. I’ll never forget the day I was on my knees working on my plane when I heard a voice ask me if I was Steve. I looked up and saw this tall thin guy who wore a western belt buckle with a big “G”.

George was another WW2 Vet and was a pilot in the war. This man could build a model airplane from plans so clean and beautiful the ARF’s of today could not compare. He was a great pilot too.

There was Kit Ken, as they all called him, who was another WW2 vet who loaded ammo into the magazines of the great P-51 Mustang. He built kits, built and flew radio controlled gliders and taught people at the field how to fly. His actual name was Ken Boucher and he taught me to fly a glider which helped me to become a better pilot. I still fly gliders to this day.

We with my Royal P-51 and my 1/5th scale P-51

There was Tony Naccarato, who was brilliant modeler and contributed so much to the hobby that he was honored with awards from the community and the AMA. He and his mother Addie owned a once famous hobby shop called “Tony and Addie’s Hobby Lobby”. I spent long afternoons there in the old hobby shop that smelled of balsa and dope. His mother was an avid builder of model airplanes in the stick and tissue style. Whenever I went in there she’d be building something amazing, while holding court with a bunch of older gentleman, many of the WW2 fighter pilot vets. I was in awe to be in the company of these amazing people. They became a wealth of friends I could never have imagined.

For years we built planes and jets and flew together. I scratch built planes I loved but no one else modeled. One of my favorites was the Bell X-1. It was the Rocket plane with which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947. I scratch built that plane. I made my own plans and built it from balsa wood and powered it with a K&B 60 gas motor in the nose with a small prop. To my amazement it flew very well. This was a gateway project for me.

Over the years I made more scratch built airplanes. It was about 2004 when I decided to make the ME P. 1101, a German jet that was built but never flown by the time WW2 ended and the Americans caught the jet. You’ve all heard of the ME 262 but this was a single engine jet fighter ahead of its time.

I made the masters, made hard epoxy glass molds, composite kits, an epoxy glass fuselage, foam wings sheeted with balsa and fins and tails from balsa. It was powered by an electric ducted fan or EDF, as they are called today. In 2004 EDF jets were in their infancy. This was a plane way ahead of its time and the first flight at the Apollo field was amazing.

This led to my building the F-104, and the WW2 German TA-183 kits. And there was more and everyone of them were test flown with my friends at the Apollo Field.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Another great friend I met there was a crazy talented Polish man born and raised in Poland. Chris fought against our enemies, the Russians. He was in the resistance but escaped to America to save his life.

Chris and I both loved the German planes. His favorite was the BF-109 G and made many a model of the great plane. His last build was composite, super scale and one of the best I had ever seen. He passed early in his life falling off his bicycle. A freak accident and a terrible lost. I always think of him and he was loved by the community.

I could go on and on about the people I have known and flown with there. Most of them have left us.

I was the youngest in the group. Everyone else, with the exception of Chris, was much older than me and served in WW2 or Korea. Some were pilots and flew amazing planes. Some were engineers and worked for NASA, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

These men and woman told me so many amazing stories. They shared with me their life and great moments in their lives I felt like I was there with them.

One day, when I was in a parking lot of the Marriott at LAX in 1992, I was at a convention being held at the hotel. Little did I know there was an Edwards Air force Base reunion happening at the same time.

I was in the parking lot to get a few things from my car when I saw a man walking towards me. He had this walk that seemed to suggest he owned the world and had both feet firmly planted on the ground. As he got closer, I could not believe my eyes it was Chuck Yeager himself. In a split second so many thoughts ran through my mind. Because I worked in Hollywood it wasn’t my policy to gush over famous celebrities or bother them for autographs. I decided this was different from any actor or film director; this is Chuck Yeager, the man that broke the sound barrier and so much more. I had to stop him and shake his hand. So I mustered up my strength and said, “General Yeager, sir.” He stopped and looked at me, “Who do you say you want son?” He stooped down and acted like some old man hard of hearing. “You’re General Chuck Yeager”. He says “Who?” I said” Chuck, I don’t do this shit but I have to make an exception with you.” He sort of stared at me and reared up standing up tall, “I’m a wing nut. I eat sleep and dream airplanes”, I said.

At that moment ole Eagle Eye Yeager looked me straight in the eye and he said,”OK son, you got me. What do you want to talk about, I have time”.

We leaned against his car and talked for a good hour or more. He asked me if I had an interest in WW2 and I told him I did. He told me about some of the amazing things he did during the war. He was very proud of his service.  His talking about the X-1 seemed less interesting to him. He told me it was just his job and what the army paid him to do.

I told him about my RC planes and the X-1 that I built and flew. We talked for awhile longer and shook hands.

Later on that day I was in the parking lot again and he saw me and came over. He asked what I was doing here. I told him I was selling alien busts I made of the famous grey aliens at the UFO convention. He chuckled about it and asked if they sold well. I told them they did. We talked more and he asked me what I did and I told him about my film career and the effects work I do. We shook hands again and as he walked away he stopped, turned slowly looking back at me and said, “Oh and son…I never saw anything I couldn’t identify”, and with that, he gave me a wink and walked off.

Later that year I wrote to him, donated money to his young pilots program and he wrote back remembering me. He sent me an autographed picture signed to me wishing me the best of luck. I cherish that photo today.

There are so many more stories to tell about the field and the friends I have and had there. I could fill a full book with them, so much history, some many amazing people now mostly gone.

So here I am. It’s December 7th 2019 and I’m at Apollo Field for the Valley Flyers’ Toys for Tots event. Attendance is low, it’s raining and we have cloudy skies. It is kind of lonely and sobering day. As I stand on the runway alone in the light rain, the wind stops and I push the throttle forward on my J-3 Cub and take off down the runway. There is a calm, a feeling and a presence. As the plane climbs into the air, all these thoughts come into my mind. All my experiences at this magical field are moving through me and I can see the faces and the smiles of the people I once knew. I see all the good times and experiences flash by me. They are still with me, flying with me. It is an eerie and yet wonderful moment.

After a beautiful flight, I made a nice landing and taxied back to the pits. I stopped and look at the field that I have spent so many years. I was a young man when I first came here but from this vantage point I could be back in 1985.

This moment is a frozen in time, like something that would happen in the Twilight Zone. They are all there with me and always have been. Every time I fly, every time I build a plane I feel their presence in my heart.

I taxied back to the pits and parked. I talk to new younger friends that I have met. Now I am the older gentleman that is known and was trained by the great names and pilots they have only heard about as legends. I feel truly blessed.

Now I’m the one to have the pleasure of passing on the stories of the Ghosts of the Apollo Field.

One thought on “Ghosts of the Apollo Field

  1. thank you, steve for posting this!! god it makes me think back to my mentor, wah chang in 1978 at projects unlimited with gene warren, they thought me so much, how to build from scratch,and over the years i still think of them, and the friends i made at ilm, disney paramount 20th century fox, universal columbia etc etc, thank you for sharing your story,i will never forget it, all my thanks. felix rodrigues your no 1 laserblast fan!!!!!!!!

    Like

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