The Airplane Man of Slab City

Slab City near Niland, CA

by Tim McCrerey

Very little out of the ordinary happens here at Slab City, in southern California’s Sonoran Desert, because the “out of the ordinary” happens all the time.  A wintertime community of some 3000 unconventional snowbirds and other restless souls, Slab City blossoms in the winter among the building slabs of the U. S. Navy’s long-abandoned Camp Dunlap.  It is located about four miles east of Niland, eight miles east of Salton Sea, immediately west of Coachella Canal and a tree, south of Sidewinder Cove and north of Outback Country and a tree.  On a clear day – and most of them are clear – you can see Salvation Mountain with its monumental religious art.  In the distance, to the northeast, you can see the Chocolate Mountains.  While there are no RV services at Slab City, you don’t have to pay anything to park there. 


View of Slab City area.

A few years ago, I did think that something out of the ordinary might be happening right here in Slab City.  An airplane came in, well above a girl on a bicycle, and landed on the road right in front of me and rolled to a stop at one of the campsites.  That’s at least a little bizarre, even for Slab City.  Most people come in here by RV or car or truck.  This was no ultralight, like you sometimes see over the desert.  This was a real airplane, small, red, but, still, a real airplane. 

Parked, but ready to go.

By the time I walked down to the plane, a distance of about 200 yards, a small crowd had gathered to say hello to the pilot, who had just landed at his own Slab City campsite and RV.  He seemed to see nothing unusual about that.  He was a straight and trim gentleman in a floppy hat.  He appeared to be in his late sixties or early seventies.  He looked uncomfortable with all of the attention, but he patiently answered the rush of questions.  Being a pilot myself, I was eager to chat with him about his airplane, and flying in general. 

I got my chance the next morning.  From my campsite, I saw the pilot out with a shovel filling in potholes on the road, his nominal runway.  I picked up my coffee cup and walked down to where he was working.  We said good morning and introduced ourselves.  His name was Jack White.  I asked Jack if he was going to “aviate” today.

Jack White manicures the runway.“Hope so,” he said in a soft drawl.  “It’s pretty calm now.  If I can even up some of these low places, landing won’t be so rough.  I sat her down pretty hard yesterday.”

“Looked good to me,” I said.  “I fly, and I’d be real happy to put one down like that, especially out here!”

“Well, I wasn’t sure what that girl on the bicycle was gonna do, so I came in a little high, then powered back all the way.  Dropped like a rock.  Pot holes made it worse, I guess.”

For the next half hour we talked about airplanes.  Although Jack declined my offer to help manicure the runway, he did offer to take me up.

As he conducted the pre-flight safety check and walk-around, two plain-clothes sheriff’s deputies walked up. 

“Good morning,” said one of the deputies.  “What does this thing run on?”

“Uh oh, we’re about to be grounded,” I thought. 

“91 pump gas” replied Jack, perhaps a little apprehensively.

“Wow, we could use something like this!” Said the other.  “We could sure cover a lot more ground.  You planning on taking her up?”

“Yep.  Thought we’d go for a little ride.  Either of you want to go up?”

“No thanks.  We’ve got some work to do.  Thanks for the offer, though.  This thing is just too cool!  Look at those all terrain tires!”  They were all smiles and wonderment as they got back in their truck. 

That wasn’t what I expected.  I sighed with relief.  We were going to fly after all!

The cramped cabin and the rake of the little tail dragger made me think of the Gemini astronauts in their tightly squeezed spacecraft on the launch pad back in the 1960s.  Jack yelled, “Clear prop!”  We taxied out onto the road.  Full power and a hundred yards later, we were airborne.  At 20 feet altitude, Niland and the Salton Sea came into view.  To the right the Chocolate Mountains loomed 3-D and clean.  To the left spread the RV’s and the, well, “less-definite” structures of Slab City.

At 1200 feet we leveled out.  Jack gave me the stick and directed me to make a 30-degree left turn.  “She’s really sensitive, it’s easy to over-steer.  You gotta use rudder all the time to keep her square.” I had never flown a stick or a craft with flaperons, or spoilers, before, so it took all of my concentration to roll out and maintain level flight. 

“I’d like to take some pictures” I said after a few minutes.  “Thanks for the stick!”

“OK.  My airplane.  Do you know about the old Chinese cemetery east of here?  We’ll go out there.  You’ll be able to see where people have been digging up the graves.  Makes me sick to think of it.” 

We made a couple of passes over the cemetery, and it was apparent that the site had been vandalized.  “Why would anyone do that?” I wondered out loud.

“Hard to tell out here” Jack replied.  Lots of strange goings on.  Take that fellow at Salvation Mountain.  He’s been working on that thing for 20 years.  Seems like even he’s not sure why.  We’ll go back and drop down so you can get a good shot of it.”

“Talk about ‘strange goings on!’” I thought.  “Here we are zipping around in a bright red little airplane that took off from a camp site!” 

We went into a steep descending right turn just south of the mountain.  “You don’t have to take her down low on my account,” I offered.  “I’ve got quite a few shots of the mountain already.”

“It’s ok.  If you’re gonna fly low, fly low.  It’s easier to see poles than it is to see wires.”

“Guess you’re right.  You watch for poles then, and I’ll snap a few pictures.”

As we climbed back out Jack pointed off to the northeast, in the general direction of the Chocolate Mountains, and laughed.  “There’s supposed to be a nudist camp out there somewhere, but I’ve never been able to find it.”

“Slab City is what’s left of old Camp Dunlap,” he continued.  “They say Patton trained out here during the war.  Nothing left of it but some foundations and a few guardhouses.

“Only hippies and snowbirds out here now.  They still do bombing and gunnery exercises in that restricted area out there between the canal and the Chocolates.  Sometimes at night you can see flares and tracers.  When they bomb, the ground shakes.  Scared my wife to death the first time.  Speaking of Rita, I told her I’d be right back.  I’ve got 3500 hours, and she still worries about me.”

“Does she like to fly?”

“She tolerates it, but she’s not too crazy about it.  She won’t let me roll or spin or anything when she’s along.”

We made a left turn to base, another to short final, then dropped right over my RV and smoothly onto the road.  When we taxied into camp, Rita and a small group of friends waved to us.  After we secured the plane, I thanked Jack.  We agreed to get together the next day.

It was cold and windy when I returned.  He invited me inside his Class A motor home, which was warm and immaculate.  We sat at the kitchen table.  Rita watched a soap opera up front while Jack and I talked.  He had logbooks, photos and newspaper articles laid out neatly on the table.

“How long have you been flying?” I asked.

“Since 1952.  I got to go up while I was still in school.  Been hooked ever since.”

“Don’t you think it’s a little weird to haul an airplane around and fly it from your camp?”

“Not really.  I’ve been around crop dusters all my life.  First thing I did after I got my license was land in an alfalfa field.  I wanted to get away from airports.  Makes me feel free to able to land and takeoff wherever I want.”

“Well, I guess that free spirit idea makes you fit right in here at Slab City.”

“I don’t know about that.  This place had no real attraction for me until I got the plane.  It’s not a real good handling plane, but I can fly it here.  Rita, how long have we been coming here?”

“Twelve years” came a voice from the front.  “We hit the road every winter.  Before Jack got the plane, six weeks was about all he could take.  Now we stay out three months or more.  That thing used to be a thorn in my side, but now it’s a rose!” 

“How long have you been married?” I asked.

“Thirty nine years,” came the voice from the front.  Jack had the expression of someone trying to do an equation without all of the variables.  “Tell that young man that we have children, too!  I’ll bet you don’t have a single picture of them on that table!”

“Sure I do!” Jack quickly countered.  “Here’s one with them standing next to the Cherokee,” he said to me.  “Now that was a good little plane!” he winked.

“Tell me about the airplane outside.”

“Well, it’s ‘Experimental,’” said Jack.  “That means you have to put it together.  It still has to meet all FAA requirements, and so does the pilot.  It’s powered by a 65-horsepower snow-mobile engine.”

“Snowmobile?”

“Yep.  It’s a Bombardier Rotax 582.  Two-cylinder, dual-carb, water-cooled.  They put out a disclaimer saying it’s not designed for aircraft.  You have to watch it, buts it’s a pretty good little plant.  The whole works is marketed by the Kitfox Company up in Idaho.   Like I say, it’s not a great handling plane, but it’s portable.  It folds up on the trailer real nice.”

The Bombardier Rotax 582 fits on Jack's homemade trailer.

 “Did the trailer come with it?”

“No,” said Jack.  “I had to build that.  I can have the thing off the trailer, folded out, and ready to fly in 15 minutes.  Makes it pretty handy.  We’ll move on to Quartzite after this.  There’s some good flying over there.  ‘Course the way I’m set up now, I can fly just about anywhere.”

As we talked, I thumbed through some of the things Jack had put on the table.  A clipping from the Sacramento Bee of June 2, 1974, described how Jack had landed his airplane on Highway 50.  “Engine trouble,” he said as I held up the article.

In the May 1975 edition of Sport Aviation magazine there was an article about a speed competition at Oshkosh.  Jack had won 2nd place.  His Midget Mustang had been clocked at 199.03 mph. 

 “Is it still fun after all these years?” I asked him.

“I still love it.  It’s been a fun time.”

“Does flying up above everything take the magic out of it for you?”

“No.  There’s always another hill or valley.”

“What do you think about when you’re up there?”

“With this plane, you have to concentrate on what you’re doing, but it’s sort of like driving.  I look at everything going by, and how pretty it is.  Sometimes I think about how fun it would be just to barnstorm around the country.”

Two days later, as I drove home, I thought about everything going by, and how pretty it was.  I thought about Jack, and I wondered what he was doing.  About 10 miles out I pulled over.  My old Dodge was making a noise I hadn’t heard before.  I popped the hood, but I didn’t hear anything unusual.  Then I heard it again.  This time it was behind me…and above.  I turned just in time to see a little red airplane dip its wings before disappearing over the top of the RV.  

 

Tim McCrerey is Aerospace Education Officer
for Civil Air Patrol Squadron 57, San Diego, California.

 

You might also be interested in Day Trippin’ Along Highway 111 - Bombay Beach at the Salton Sea, Bashford’s Hot Mineral Spa, and the town of Niland, CA, home of Salvation Mountain and Slab City.

Video on Salvation Mountain, near Niland and The Late Leonard Knight

 

 

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