Love of flying
Getting high with members of the Chico Air Geeks
On a clear Monday morning, 65-year-old Gary Thompson is stitching fabric onto the wing of a 1940s-era airplane in his office at the tiny Ranchaero Airport in west Chico. Rod Stewart is blasting out of the stereo.
Thompson works in a well-worn gray sweatshirt and faded blue jeans, meticulously stitching the polyester fabric around the wooden structure of the wing, stopping often to push his glasses back up on his nose. He says the fabric will give the plane strength without adding a great deal of weight.
Thompson is a gentle man. He sits on a stool, the wing laid out in front of him like a piece of art. His rough hands work carefully, using two needles in what is called a football stitch, making any alteration to the fabric invisible. Every inch of the plane will be covered with the fabric, hand stitched, painted and sanded six times. Thompson will spend between three and six months restoring the plane, and then it will be ready to fly.
“I think of it as an art,” Thompson said.
Thompson is a member of the Chico Air Geeks, a group of aviation fanatics whose unofficial home is this small airport tucked away among almond trees and farm houses on Chico’s near west side, off W. Fifth Street.
The group is comprised of about 50 men and women whose love of flying is such that they spend much of their time traveling the country, attending air shows, competing in various events, and repairing and restoring planes. Many of them use their aviation skills to make a living; for others, it’s a hobby.
Thompson is an antiques specialist and has been repairing and restoring planes at the privately owned airport for over 25 years, working for collectors, investors and museums.
His studio inside the hangar is filled with memorabilia, including a piece of a plane that he flew as a stunt man for the early MGM television series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Photos of him and friends at air shows cover a bulletin board. Sitting on a table is an old jukebox; below is a vintage wagon filled with worn toy planes.
Off to the side is Thompson’s office, a simulacrum of a 1940s-era library. Thousands of books line the shelves. Hundreds of model planes are placed among the books. Somehow Thompson knows where everything is. “You want to know about women in aviation?” he asks, pulling out a book from among the clutter. “Here you go.”
Much like the painstaking detail he puts into each plane he restores, Thompson does the same for his office. He researches the era and replicates it to perfection.
He calls it “years and years of airplane shit.”
Thompson’s love of aviation came from his father’s love of planes, which would also be passed down to Gary’s younger brother, Rick. The elder Thompson owned a plane and often took the boys flying.
In 1980, their father, who never smoked a cigarette in his life, died of lung cancer.
His father’s ironic death left Thompson angry. He came to the realization that life was too short to spend doing something he didn’t love. Saying “goodbye to the working world,” he hung up his suit, and got into his plane.
He traveled around the country for nine years sleeping under his plane at night. To support himself, he gave rides to anyone who could pay and whenever possible participated in air shows. He was determined to make flying his livelihood.
Today Gary and his younger brother, who’s 47, work virtually side by side. Rick Thompson works out of the hangar as an FAA-authorized inspector, repairing single-engine planes and performing required annual safety inspections for clients.
At the end of his work day, he sits on a stool at the counter in the hanger drinking a beer and watching Comedy Central on TV. The counters in front of him are covered with old maps. Vintage air show fliers, flight school advertisements, plane posters, newspaper clippings and magazines dating back to the early 1900s cover the walls. A musty smell of oil and metal fills the air.
On this particular day five classic single-engine planes from different eras are displayed throughout the building.
Dirt under Rick Thompson’s fingernails and grease on his hands are the remnants of a long day of working on planes. His eyes peer out from underneath his worn baseball cap as he explains his fascination with flying.
Performing in an air show had always been a life-long dream, he says. To realize his dream, he and a friend attached themselves to a well-known air show pilot whom they had always admired, repairing his plane and dressing up in ridiculous costumes. On the side, he studied the business, waiting for his chance to perform on his own. In 1995, his dream was realized when he and his friend were given the opportunity to fly in the Chico Air Show. They billed themselves “Air Geek One” and “Air Geek Two.”
Gary Thompson says the term “air geek” originally came about because he and Rick would hang around at air shows trying to meet the famous flyers, gawking at the planes they could only dream about flying. One day someone called them “geeks” and it stuck.
The Chico Air Geeks were unofficially founded when a group of local pilots threw Rick Thompson a going-away party. He was preparing to leave town for an outside job, traveling in a rickety old plane that desperately needed a new paint job. Upon his departure, Thompson discovered that his friends had covered the plane in spray-painted messages, wishing him luck. In huge letters they had written “Air Geek” across the side of the plane.
Rounding out the eclectic group of Air Geeks who also work out of the airport is Brian Baldridge, 46, a surgical-equipment salesman who has turned his passion for flying into an occupation. As part of his business, he flies several hours a week delivering medical supplies to hospitals throughout the North State. His office is located at the airport.
Baldridge sits behind his desk in a well-kept ensemble—slacks, shirt and tie, a leather jacket and glasses. His office, off to the side of the hangar, is small and well-organized.
He explains that his father was a fighter pilot for the Marines and that he himself has been flying planes for over 25 years. He received his pilot’s license when he was 19 and, in the true spirit of the Air Geeks, showed up at his father’s house with a newly purchased plane and said, “Let’s go flying.”
Today, after hours of talking about flying, Baldridge is itching to get up in the air.
It’s a smooth take-off in his single-engine Cessna. As he climbs the plane higher, Baldridge points out the birds flying below, the fields and orchards, and the Chico State University campus, which looks like a red and green postage stamp. Reaching 4,500 feet, he’s in his element—at the controls of a plane. His face registers a satisfied smile.
It’s a beautiful day, sunny, and there are large masses of white clouds that we’re flying among and sometimes through. Baldridge takes the plane down to 1,000 feet, gliding along the silvery Sacramento River as it winds through the countryside.
After an hour of flying, he touches down on the runway, the real world setting in again. Time to get back to work.
Later that night, the Air Geeks will gather, plastic martini glasses in hand, to share stories, talk about planes and plan their next adventure.
As Baldridge puts it, "It’s more of a philosophy than a group or an organization. We’re just a bunch of guys who love to fly, have fun and drink too much."