Recently I had the opportunity to travel to Southern California to do some follow up investigative work. I do not often have such a chance to travel and was looking forward to a 'working vacation'. After all, if it is good enough for President Obama, a working vacation is good enough for me. I would have enjoyed my wife's company, but her work schedule precluded that. So I set about preparing for the trip.
I considered trying to catch a military flight from Travis. One of the benefits of military retirement is that you can fly on a space available basis on some missions. Surprisingly, they did have a C-17 Globemaster returning to March Air Reserve Base that I could have taken. After giving it some thought, I decided not to take that option. There was no guarantee I would be able to find a return military hop, and I'd need to rent a car. I had already eliminated the choice of flying commercially - I did not want the risk of running into Alec Baldwin or some other numbskull on a civilian flight - so I decided that driving was the best option.
Quite a while had passed since I drove south from Modesto on Hwy99. One nice thing about driving yourself is that you can go at your own pace. My schedule was fairly open, and I had time to sightsee along the way. I was pleasantly surprised to find that a couple of old friends were still around just south of Tulare. A B-17 bomber from WWII and an F-4 Phantom in Vietnam era camouflage were still parked on public display along the freeway. I felt compelled to stop and visit. I had seen them before, many years ago. The silver B-17 glistened in the sunlight while the Phantom's paint had become weathered and faded. I remembered what sitting in the back seat of the Phantom felt like. I wished I could do it again.
It has also been a while since I had visited the Southern California area, specifically around San Bernadino and Riverside. It was still the overcrowded, dingy environment I remembered. After conducting some interviews and scheduling a couple of depositions, I decided to spend the weekend in San Diego.
As I drove down the freeway Saturday I saw the exit for MCAS Miramar, and pulled off. Rolling up to the gate, I was greeted by a sharply dressed Marine MP. After checking my retired ID, he snapped a sharp salute and waived me on. Miramar used to belong to the Navy and was the home of the 'Top Gun' training program. Some of the iconic Tom Cruise movie was filmed on base. I had also flown a C-5 cargo mission into Miramar years ago, so I was a little familiar with the installation. I stopped at the old terracotta terminal building and grabbed a sandwich from the snack bar. Looking across the aircraft parking ramp instead of the rows of fast fighter jets I remembered there were a number of helicopters, a few fighters, and several C-130 cargo planes. It looked sadly empty.
I drove to the east side of the ramp and parked near the entry gate to take a closer look at the C-130s. After a few minutes a Marine Gunnery Sergeant walked by. He stopped to ask if I was waiting for someone. I explained why I was there and he asked for my ID. Then he asked me to come with him over to the Squadron Operations building. Wondering if I had violated some unknown protocol, I followed. Once inside, the 'Gunny' introduced me to a lanky 1st Lieutenant wearing a flight suit. I read the nametag he was wearing, Jack 'Spike' Goldman. After exchanging pleasantries, he invited me to walk out to one of the aircraft for a closer look. He didn't have to ask twice. I climbed inside through the crew door and into the cockpit. Lt. Goldman offered me the pilot's seat and I settled my large frame onto the cushions. It felt really good. I looked around and found it was quite similar to the C-5 cockpit I was familiar with, but with better visibility. Lt. Goldman explained that I was in a KC-130J, the newest model of the Hercules that had been in use for more than fifty years. We sat talking about our experiences as pilots are known to do. Before I realized it, almost two hours had passed. Lt. Goldman walked me through and around the aircraft, then we headed back to the Ops building. It was a most enjoyable three and a half hours. I told both the 'Gunny' and Lt. Goldman how much I appreciated their time and courtesy. As I was ready to leave, Lt. Goldman asked if I'd like a ride in the Hercules. He explained that the aircraft I had toured was scheduled for a checkout flight, a local one hour flight, on Monday. Unfortunately, I had to decline due to my work schedule.
I left MCAS Miramar and headed into San Diego. I was looking for a German restaurant I'd eaten at the last time I was in town. I discovered that it was still in business, but at a different location. After a short detour, I parked outside of the Kaiserhof Restaurant and Biergarten.
Once inside, I felt I'd been transported back in time. The sounds and smells were just as I remembered from my time at Hahn AB. I guess age makes one more appreciative of the simple things in life. I sat at a small table and ordered a Bitburger Pils on draft. Then came the difficult part, deciding which German delicacy I would order. I actually finished my beer before I made up my mind to have a cucumber salad, Jaegerschnizel, spatzle, red cabbage, and potato pancakes with applesauce. The meal was delicious, more than I had expected, and so filling. I finished my second beer (my limit) and after a pleasant couple of hours, headed for motel row and a good night's sleep.
Sunday was a typically beautiful San Diego day. I drove down to the USS Midway Museum since I'd never been. It was a fantastic experience I can recommend to anyone. All my service time was in the Air Force. I had seen films and documentaries about Navy carrier aviation, but to actually tour an aircraft carrier puts it all into perspective. A carrier is a huge ship, but still confined when you consider a crew and air wing of thousands of people. The Midway has a number of aircraft on display, mostly on the flight deck. There are more aircraft in the hangar deck along with simulators and historic displays. I was able to climb into a couple of the aircraft's cockpits, the F-14 Tomcat was similar to the F-4 Phantom's. One simulator allows you to fly a fighter against someone else in another simulator. I was matched against a kid who looked about sixteen, and he promptly proceeded to shoot my plane full of simulated holes. Maybe it's a good thing I don't fly anymore LOL.
I ended up spending the whole day aboard the Midway, it is easy to do. The volunteers offer tours of the various sections. Many of the docents are former crew members. One of the volunteers was an F-4 radar intercept officer, we had a lot to talk together about. He gave me a tour of the pilot's quarters, ready room, and walked me through what an F-4 crew did to prepare for a mission. I learned an awful lot from him, and was appreciative of the difference between services. The Midway really is a floating city, it offers all the services of any small town. It had its own fire department, police, jail, hospital, theater, dining facility, and sleeping quarters. It was a truly awesome and amazing experience.
After another night in San Diego, I returned to San Bernadino to complete getting the depositions I needed, do additional interviews, and some more fact finding. I had hoped to finish by the weekend, but unfortunately I had to spend an additional week in order to finish my work. It provided me the opportunity for another wonderful meal at the Kaiserhof, though.
I made sure I had completed everything I needed to do, then headed for the freeway and home. I decided to spend the night at the top of the Grapevine, high in the hills above the Los Angeles basin. It was crisp and cold, another reminder of the European environment. I also chose to stay on I-5 on the way home to see some different scenery. Despite the big rigs and inconsiderate drivers I encountered, the trip home was uneventful and enjoyable. After three weeks, I was anxious to return to Modesto and my sweetheart.
I didn't have Air Force One or a bevy of Secret Service agents along, but it was just as much a working vacation as any that Barack Obama has taken. It was just not in quite as an exotic locale as some of his have been.
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