Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Up and away with Tony Gomez

Valley People

Express Staff Writer

Antonio Gomez

Ketchum resident Antonio Gomez was born in 1913 in the seaport town of Malaga in southern Spain. One day as a young boy, he looked up into the sky to see an airplane lumbering slowly over the Mediterranean Coast toward Africa and dreamed of eventually becoming a pilot.

His dream led to an adventurous career in aviation and many successful business ventures. Gomez, who first skied in Sun Valley in 1949, moved to Ketchum in 1990, where he lives when he is not traveling or looking for his next big adventure.

When Gomez was 7, his family immigrated to Marin County, Calif. His first flight was in Petaluma, Calif., in 1934 in a Kinnear Fleet open-cockpit biplane, the plane used by World War I aviators in training. His early flight lessons cost $6 each, but Gomez was earning only $15 a week working for his brother at a jewelry business. He knew he wasn't cut out for the family business, so he bought a large-format camera and went to work as a photojournalist for the San Francisco Examiner, taking pictures of whatever was newsworthy, including professional sports games and political events. He learned while photographing President Franklin Roosevelt that there was a prohibition against shooting the president while he was moving, due to his crippled condition.

"If you shot him while he was getting up or down, the Secret Service agents would confiscate your negatives," Gomez said.

He later went to work for World Wide Photos, the agency owned by Joe Rosenthal, famous for capturing the iconic image of American GIs raising the Stars and Stripes during World War II after the Battle of Iwo Jima.

"I enjoyed being a photographer, but I still wanted to fly," said Gomez.

Eventually, he got his instrument rating in Arizona. Shortly after, he went to Alaska where a friend of a friend had an interest in the only platinum mine in the U.S., and where Ray Peterson Flying service was busy shuttling passengers across America's last frontier.

"I became a bush pilot," Gomez said. "Alaska was a wild place."

From 1943 to 1951, he flew a five-passenger Stinson Reliant in and out of remote regions on Kodiak Island and around Bristol Bay. His plane was equipped with wheels in summer and skids in winter for landing on frozen lakes and rivers. He flew fishermen and missionaries into the interior of Alaska, and flew out mink pelts from native trading posts. He hunted Dall sheep and occasionally buzzed Kodiak bears for fun.

"Sometimes they would stand up on their hind legs and try to fight the plane," he said.

On a spring trip to the interior to pick up a group of Moravian missionaries, he had dropped off the previous summer, Gomez's plane fell through thin ice when he landed on a lake that had already thawed too much for a safe landing. The skids broke through and he was stuck. His friends at the platinum mine rescued him and the plane by building an A-frame to haul it out of danger before the plane sank.

Sadly, one of Gomez's two sons, John, died during an accident in Alaska.

"He wanted to be a bush pilot like his father," Gomez said.

Gomez eventually went to work for Woodley Airways during the era of the Civil Aeronautics Board, which strictly controlled commercial air routes. After three years, Woodley Airways was able to secure routes from Juneau to Seattle.

"That made an airline out of us," Gomez said.

Gomez then flew Douglas DC-3s and DC-4s, and later Boeing 707s and 720s to the Lower 48. By the time he retired in 1973, Delta Airlines had bought out Woodley Airways. As a result, Gomez travels for free anywhere Delta can take him, including an annual trip to Europe.

After retiring, Gomez and his wife bought a run-down, 52-acre vineyard in Napa Valley in 1968 for $75,000 and the Durade, a legendary yacht built by Olin Stevens in 1931 for $50,000.

Stevens had revolutionized yacht design with Durade, winning the Newport to Plymouth race with a two-day lead over longer boats and later wining the Transpac race from Los Angeles to Honolulu. While Gomez's captain was racing the boat in the Swiftsure International Yacht Race in the Pacific Northwest, another vessel collided with the Durade.

"Their boat sank in three minutes," Gomez said, "because Durade had three-quarter-inch planking."

Gomez lost insurance for the boat and later sold it for what he had paid three years earlier, $50,000. Durade still completes in classic yacht regattas.

Gomez replanted his vineyard and sold grapes to Robert Mondavi for 20 years—200 tons of grapes—which brought $200,000 each year. After selling the vineyard in 1988 for $1.25 million, it was replanted with cabernet grapes and recently sold for $35 million. The vineyard provides grapes for Screaming Eagle wines, a magnum of which can sell for $10,000 or more.

Gomez, at 97, attributes his longevity to drinking a bottle of red wine every evening. He knows that some wines are more expensive and perhaps better than others, but doesn't fuss too much about brand names.

"As long as it's red and dry, I will like it," he said with a smile.

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