Retired San Diego Military Pilots Gather To Remember Days In The Air
San Diego is home to a number of retired pilots. On Friday mornings, you'll find some of them gathered at a weekly roundtable where they reminisce and share why their service remains so important to them.
Some of the pilots in the group, called Bagels and Baloney, are in their 90s. Most have not flown a military aircraft in decades — if they still fly at all.
Hank Goetz flew jets in the Air Force before becoming a commercial airline pilot as part of his 40-year flying career. Now in his 80s, he plays unofficial emcee for a group of retiring pilots.
“There is something that happens in the military when you’re young and you join,” Goetz said. “You become a band of brothers. When you’re flying with other people you have to rely on them, even in life and death situations. So you become close. Now that everybody in this group is retired and in their senior years, we still migrate back to that cohesive brotherhood and talking airplanes.”
On this Friday, they’re meeting on the sun porch of one of the members. At least 30 of them are packed into the room. The discussion gravitates to the recent death of a legendary test pilot Bob Hoover. A contemporary of Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sonic barrier, Hoover died in October at age 94.
Half of the group seems to have a story to share about him.
Vic Vizcarra, a retired Air Force colonel who flew in Vietnam, takes the microphone from Goetz.
“I talked to my buddy,” Vizcarra said. “A very close friend, and I asked how was the flying with Bob Hoover and his eyes got this big. He says 'Vic, I’ve done things on an airplane that I’ve never done before and it was scary.' He never did tell me what he did.”
That gets a laugh.
Most of them have lived long lives beyond the military — one member was wheeled in by family — but they are still defined by these stories of their time as naval aviators and air force pilots.
“Another one of our members is a POW,” Goetz said. “He spent over six years in the Hanoi Hilton. Some of those guys come back and they won’t talk about it. Other guys will, depending on the experience you had.”
Over time, the band of pilots picked up other veterans.
Mike Cattolico was a Navy diver who doesn’t even like to fly. Instead, he talks about the time when a great white shark came out of the gloom.
“There was my buddy, the great white,” Cattolico said. “I took the liberty of punching him in the eye. He didn’t like that. He didn’t like that at all.”
He gets a small laugh and several nods. Clearly, they’re here to entertain one another, but there is also something going on underneath: They’re accepted. They’re understood.
“Only guys like us would believe that,” Goetz said. “Because some of the stuff we’ve done is so strange. I was 25 years old. I’m sitting in a modern day F-105 going Mach 2 all by myself. You tell that to people who have had a 9-to-5 job. There is no way they come close to relating.”
The group is called Bagels and Baloney, because it started in a coffee house that served bagels. The "baloney" is because their stories aren’t strictly fact-checked. They’ve outgrown a couple locations. At times, they can get more than 50 people.
Goetz says naval aviators try to end their careers in San Diego so they can retire here. He’s found new members walking down the aisle at Costco.