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PORTRAITS / JOSEPH N. BELL

Flying and Computers Just Don't Mix, Says County Airport Pioneer

December 18, 1987|JOSEPH N. BELL

When Eddie Martin started flying--on a ranch in Orange County in 1923--the average life span as a pilot was seven years. Eddie will be 87 next August. He has been beating the odds all those years.

He refuses to say how many flying hours he has logged, even though he started what is now John Wayne Airport (a title he refuses to use) 64 years ago and since then has flown just about everything with wings, from World War I Jennies to commercial airliners.

"I don't want my hours compared with other pilots," he says with impeccable logic, "because so many of them pump up their time. I've kept a flight log since 1923--and they're all real flying hours. Hell, they don't even fly those big planes anymore; it's all done by computers."

Despite his reticence, Eddie--"I hate to be called Mr. Martin; I've gone by my first name all my life"--might well have built up more pilot hours than any man alive today. He flew many planes without a parachute, with minimal instruments and under abysmal weather and field conditions. He is pilot emeritus of the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants school and for that reason is openly contemptuous of the automated nature of much flying today.

He lives alone in a cottage in an old residential area of Santa Ana with his 15-year-old blind silky terrier named Jackson ("my middle name"), surrounded by artifacts of his years in flying and a desk piled high with papers, where he is making notes for an autobiography. "The reason this place is so messy," he says matter-of-factly of the general clutter, "is that it's not my house; it belongs to Jackson."

Eddie never was known for his outgoing personality. Most of his eloquence took place in the air. "I was so shy," he recalls, "that it was hard for me to talk to anybody."

Among the people with whom he does talk was the group that collects every morning for breakfast at Suzy's Restaurant ("It's actually run by another guy named Eddie," he says) on 17th Street in Santa Ana. He has been eating there at the same table for almost nine years, and he says his breakfast companions finally convinced him that he should start talking publicly and writing his autobiography. He thought it over and decided they were right.

His memory is sharp but volatile. One story reminds him of another, often before he's finished the first. The result is a tapestry of sometimes tenuously interconnected tales that are notable for graphic descriptions and unembarrassed opinions, often delivered so quickly that the listener is still back on an Irvine Ranch landing strip when Eddie has moved along to the perils of early airline flying.

He is, as he says, "a plain-spoken man, always have been." He wears his age well, with the same kind of amiable truculence that flavors his opinions. He has a full head of gray hair, a slightly receding chin and eyes that look straight at you. He wears red suspenders, which are just right.

Although he is no longer officially connected with it, the company that carries his name--Martin Aviation Inc.--is very much alive and prospering at John Wayne Airport (and two other Southern California locations). Many of Eddie's heirlooms are on display in its Orange County headquarters. The company threw a party in honor of its 60th anniversary a few years ago, and when Eddie contested the accuracy of the date, it threw another party two years later to square with his recollection. ("I should know," Eddie says, "Whose airport was it?")

He was the middle child (of five) of a prosperous rancher in what is now Fountain Valley. None of the boys wanted to go into ranching or had much interest in school. But--according to Vi Smith's detailed and entertaining history of Orange County aviation, "From Jennies to Jets"--once the Martin brothers discovered flying, all three were hooked.

Eddie remembers seeing a plane overhead with engine sputtering when he was attending a football game for which he'd paid a hard-earned 25 cents. He left the game, watched the plane make a forced landing, and never looked back. He soloed and bought his first plane--a Jenny--in 1923, and that year began flying passengers for pay from a field located on Irvine Ranch property.

Eddie knew he was trespassing and finally forced himself to seek permission from James Irvine Sr. The result was a five-year lease and Eddie Martin Airport (which became Orange County Airport shortly before it was taken over for military flight operations during World War II) was born. Johnny Martin, Eddie's older brother, who died in 1977, was involved in the airport in its early years but joined American Airlines in the late 1920s and later became its senior pilot. Eddie's younger brother, Floyd, took over the business end of the airport in 1928 and operated it with considerable skill until his death in an auto accident in 1955.

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