OCEANSIDE — Cort Stark says it this way: “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” This is how he explains the name of Old Bold Pilots, a group of men and a few women, who meet weekly for breakfast and to chew the fat.
“There are no guest speakers,” said Stark. “There is no agenda. There are no dues. We just meet here every Wednesday morning at 7 a.m. to have breakfast. Anyone who was a pilot or who is interested in aviation is welcome.”
Stark was a lieutenant colonel who flew helicopters, earning 49 Air Medals and three Distinguished Flying Crosses. He did two years in Vietnam as a scout in light observation helicopters.
The group — which has been around between 15 and 20 years, no one is quite sure of how long exactly — was started by four World War II veterans. It has grown to about 60, strictly by word-of-mouth.
“We are just a group of men and women who share a common interest,” he said.
Among the mix is an author who is working on a book about the war years and a nurse who served.
There are a couple of German pilots who were on the other side shooting at Americans during World War II.
“A couple of them figured out they were shooting at each other,” Stark said.
But, there are no hard feelings.
“They feel it was their job, a chapter in their lives that is over and they move on,” he said.
A wealth of historical knowledge, from each pilot comes a story as unique as the person himself.
“Mac” McNicol is 91. He flew anti submarine F4F Wildcats during World War II. A native of Hollywood, Calif., his college education at UCLA was interrupted when the war broke out. After the war, he returned to school and then became a pilot for Pan Am Grace for 38 years. Because of “Pam Am,” the new television show about the adventures of pilots and stewardesses in the 1960s, McNicol’s wife has begun eyeing him suspiciously.
“My wife asks me, ‘Did you really do all those things,’ and I say ‘yes,’” he said with a devilish grin.
After retiring from Pan Am Grace in 1980, he started a successful business of leasing flight crews to airlines, some on a long-term basis. He had many clients in the U.S. and Asia.
Bob Waggoner, who flew P-38 fighters over the Aleutian Islands during World War II, said he is one of the original Old Bold Pilots. During the war, one of the challenges he and other pilots faced on missions were anti-aircraft guns that took a few minutes to home in on groups of planes overhead.
“You didn’t want to be the first and you didn’t want to be the last,” said the 89-year-old former flyer.
He said he comes to breakfast for two reasons: “I come for the camaraderie and to trade lies,” he said with a chuckle.
After the war he flew for TWA for a time, and then became a private pilot transporting Sears executives all over the country. He once flew former President Dwight Eisenhower from Los Angeles to Palm Springs.
Vietnam veteran Bob Stoffey did three combat tours and 440 combat missions and was shot down twice. After the war, Stoffey took a nice little job as a national sales manager of Rockwell International.
Among the group is Brig. Gen. Jim Greshik, who flew KC-135 tankers during the Vietnam War. Carrying fuel in such large amounts is like being inside a flying bomb, but Greshik is modest about his years as a “suicide jockey.”
He was stationed in North Dakota at a Strategic Air Command base, with easier access via the North Pole, if Russia decided to make trouble. Later he was an airline pilot for Eastern Airline and he joined up with the Wisconsin International Guard, where he stayed until retirement.
Oceanside resident Silas W. Bass said he didn’t do much of anything compared to his comrades. Bass was an airfield commander during the Vietnam War, whose responsibility was keeping the runway and airfield operational. No easy task, when the enemy shelled it regularly and sneaked into the base to sabotage aircraft.
He had the runway repair down to a science, but if the enemy was caught on the base, he didn’t know whether they were going or coming, so all the aircraft had to be checked.
“It was a goofy life,” he said.
Jay F. Walker flew B-19s during World War II, earning two distinguished flying crosses and six Air Medals. He became a producer for CBS Television after the war.
Gale Leon Grave protected thousands of troops on transport ships during World War II and later became a consultant to the aerospace industry and Eugene Deatrick, who was visiting from Virginia, provided support for ground troops during the Vietnam War. He later taught pilots at the National War College at the Pentagon.
A person could spend hours talking to each of these Old Bold Pilots. Anyone interested in meeting them can do so between 7 and 9 a.m. on any Wednesday at Denny’s in the Target Plaza on El Camino Real and Vista Way in Oceanside. They meet in the back of the restaurant where the walls are decorated with pictures of various types of aircraft and a few model airplanes dangle from the ceiling.