Slice of Life

Letting the little ones fly away on ('not-so') Swift Aire

A pair of 5- and 6-year-olds take flight — by themselves

ktanner@thetribunenews.comJanuary 7, 2013 

So often, I wish we could fly the 325 miles to California’s Gold Country to visit family, rather than having to make the long-haul drives back and forth in our minivan.  Then that dredges up a lovely aeronautical memory with local ties.

In 1970, when sons Brian and Sean were 6 and 5 years old, my mom and dad convinced me the boys would be just fine flying by themselves from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to San Luis Obispo to visit Grandma and Grandpa, who had recently moved to Cambria.

Needless to say, I was terrified. But everybody assured me the boys would be supervised the entire time, and that Swift Aire had a terrific reputation for handling young passengers. Children flew by themselves all the time, I was told, and, after all, it was such a short flight from L.A. to SLO.

Not so fast, I thought. After all, a fond nickname for the San Luis Obispo-based airline was “Not-So-Swift Aire,” usually bandied about with moldy-oldie jokes about winding up the propeller’s rubber band, or the plane being so small your knees were the armrests for the passenger in front of you, or needing a hall pass for the third-grader co-pilot.

All that ran through my mind at LAX, where we really had to hunt down Swift Aire. When we asked employees of major airlines where that terminal might be, they looked deer-in-the-headlights blank and shook their heads.

We finally found a porter who had heard of Swift Aire, and he said that, because the airline was so small, it didn’t rate a full-fledged, grown-up terminal. Instead, Swift Aire had a desk.

We finally found the tiny ticketing area and the plane, both tucked under the auspices or wings of larger carriers and aircraft. The Swift Aire plane looked like a cold baby chick huddling up against its mother.

The one employee we saw sold us the tickets and checked in the boys’ “Hot Wheels” suitcases. The slightly harried man put the luggage on board, pulled away the plane’s rolling stairs and then waved his fancy light wands, guiding the pilot toward take-off.

Busy chap.

But as we waited in the loading area before Brian and Sean got on board, we had chatted for a while with a tall, dignified-looking man with a poised air of self-confidence. He asked if the boys would be flying alone. We said yes.

Accurately assessing my level of terror, he then asked if we'd like for him to watch over them to make sure they safely got where they were going.

We’d been assured that the pilot and co-pilot would be doing that, too, but we thanked him and cautiously agreed.

The man spoke to us and the boys for a while, left us alone for a moment to say our goodbyes and then walked our young sons up to the plane. Before they boarded, all three turned and waved, then clambered into the miniature aircraft.

As tears rolled down my cheeks, the busy employee walked back toward us. After removing his overgrown earmuffs, he said, "Your sons certainly are in good hands."

Surprised and relieved, we asked him how he knew that.

He replied, “The man that’s with them? That's my boss, Charlie Wiswell. He owns the airline.”
PS: Not only did Wiswell “watch over” the boys, he entertained them the entire way, even taking them into the cockpit so the pilot could show them how to fly a plane.

The trip ended much too soon, according to our enchanted sons.

Eventually, our youngest became a private pilot, his love of flying having been launched on that brief but memorable trip on Swift Aire.

Unfortunately, Wiswell’s airline closed down in 1981 after 12 years of service to such communities as San Jose, San Francisco, Modesto and Sacramento. Such a shame: At one time, it reportedly had been the fifth largest commuter airline in the U.S.

So we drive our minivan on family jaunts to those areas now. But, as we motor past San Ardo, Kettleman City or other far-flung, not-so-metropolitan areas, I often think wistfully about Swift Aire and Charlie Wiswell’s grace in reassuring two nervous young men and their petrified mother.

Kathe Tanner is a reporter for The Cambrian and The Tribune. Her Slice of Life column appears biweekly. Follow her on Twitter: @CambriaReporter.

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