When most people talk camping, they tell of cars filled with camping gear, road trips and public parks. When longtime Oceanside resident John Dowell spins camping stories, they involve an airplane, grass landing strips and private campgrounds for pilots and passengers only.
“I don’t know what others call it,” says Dowell, who has 2,000 hours of flying time to his credit, “but I call it air camping.”
Those who have known 76-year-old Dowell for a while (full disclosure; I’m one of them) know that the retired Marine captain is always seeking the next adventure. Over the years, he counts among his pursuits sailing; skiing; scuba diving; hang gliding; running marathons; kayaking (he paddled from Catalina to Dana Point); stand-up paddleboarding on the Colorado River; and operating radio-controlled airplanes.
Dowell also spent parts of 2006 and 2007 in Afghanistan where he flew unmanned aerial vehicles as a civilian contractor with the Army’s Special Forces.
It was in 1966, during the first of three Vietnam tours, that he first got a taste of life in the clouds. He was an aerial observer with the VMO-2, an aerial observation squadron out of Camp Pendleton. A year later, while stationed at the Marine Corps Supply Center in Barstow, he took flying lessons through a civilian flying club. Since then, Dowell has owned seven airplanes; his current is a Van’s Aircraft RV-4 with a Lycoming 180 horsepower engine.
“It was built by a retired Air Force colonel who flew fighter planes in World War II, Korea and Vietnam,” Dowell explains. “He built it from a kit and won the Lindbergh Trophy for the best-built plane at the Oshkosh (Wisconsin) National Fly-In (for experimental aircraft). I have his book of pictures describing the building process and the trophy.”
The two-seater plane is perfect for air camping, too.
One of Dowell’s favorite campgrounds is near Columbia, California, about a two-and-a-half-hour flight north of Oceanside. He’ll camp here overnight en route to see his daughter and three grandsons in Corvallis, Oregon. A historic Gold Rush town of 2,200 where no cars are allowed, Columbia sits in the Sierra foothills almost due east of Stockton.
“There is a lot neat stuff there — a general store, a blacksmith shop, a theater that puts on plays in period costumes,” Dowell says.
And the grass airstrip is only a few hundred feet from a campground with hot showers, sturdy tables “and it’s only a 15-minute walk into town.”
Dowell first discovered the spot in the late ‘60s — “a time when you used to be able fly low through Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, which I’ve done, but you can’t do that anymore.”
Part of the fun of air camping is the people you meet, Dowell says.
“Recently I flew into the Kern Valley camping area and met an 89-year-old who was still flying around camping. He had started and grown a very successful business. He and his son owned three or four airplanes including an executive jet. We had a great time sharing stories.”
Flying your own airplane over an environment that you usually experience from the ground can be a spiritual experience, Dowell believes.
“It’s a way of expanding one’s perspective; and it makes life even more of an adventure.”
And sometimes that perspective can spill over to others.
“Several months ago, I decided to put a biblical quote on the bottom of my plane — God is love — in large red letters,” Dowell says. “Then a manager at the Oceanside Airport where I keep my plane called and said he’d just received a call from a lady who…had been dealing with a difficult depression. When she looked up and saw my plane with the quote, her depression was instantly gone. She was so grateful that she called the airport to express her thanks.”
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.