Flying Lessons: Turkeys From Turlock

I don't know who came up with the idea of the advertising jingle. But whoever it was, they were clearly some kind of demonic genius. How else to explain the fact that even now, more than 30 years since those rainy fall mornings when I'd listen to the radio as I got ready for school, I sometimes find the Greenwich Savings Bank jingle bouncing around my head? (Think Green, Think Green-wich, Think Green-wich Savings Bank!)

It's a curse visited especially strongly upon those of us who were raised in the golden era of the jingle (1950s through the late-1970s), who still find ourselves occasionally triggered into breaking into those ridiculous songs out loud. Anyone who's ever done it knows exactly what I'm talking about. As well as the kind of concerned/horrified "are you sure you're quite well???" looks that tend to follow if those within earshot aren't familiar with the ad in question. Like the look I'm sure I was giving my friend Marty, 2,000 feet over the pungent farmlands of Central California.

We'd just passed over a section of fenced livestock yards lined with low, tin-roofed buildings. There was a distinct ammonia odor in the air, even at 2,000 feet.

"Perhaps they're dairy farms," I said, looking down. "Maybe those dots down there are cows."

"Or maybe," Marty said, "they're migratory turkeys."

He had an odd look on his face, as if he was highly entertained about something. I looked over at him, frowning. "Turkeys?" I asked.

A grin broke out on his face. "Yeah," he answered. "You know, 'Turkeys from Turlock, Turkeys from Turlock, Turkeys from TUR-LOCK!' "

Seriously. You had to be there.

Turns out the "Turkeys from Turlock" jingle was a throwback to the 1960s, when Foster Farms -- based in the Central Valley communities around Merced, California -- was trying to tout the homegrown, California nature of its poultry. Marty had been infected with its lilting, silly notes as a kid growing up in San Jose. And while I don't know how effective the campaign was in terms of actually selling turkeys, the annoyingly unforgettable jingle was responsible for Sen. Robert Kennedy winning some unexpected support in California's 1968 presidential primary. Or so Marty said.

Apparently, Marty went on to tell me, Robert Kennedy was making a last sweep through California before the primary -- only days before his assassination. On the train en route to a stop in Merced, Kennedy overheard someone singing the jingle, and asked about its origin. The local told him about the pervasive influence of Foster Farms and the poultry industry on the surrounding communities. So when Kennedy stopped to speak in Merced, he joked about how much turkey he'd eaten that day. The local crowd cheered at this astonishing exhibition of local knowledge, and more than a few votes were won over.

Amazing, the hidden jewels you can find in the farmlands of Central California. And that was before we came across the Cirrus-wing conference table.

Marty (my friend Marty Blaker) and I hadn't set out to find the poultry capital of the world. I didn't even know such a thing existed. I just needed a biennial flight review (BFR). Marty had just recently found the time to complete the flight instructor's rating he'd started 15 years earlier, so we came up with some grand plans for a celebratory BFR that would be more exciting and interesting than a standard "around the patch" skill check. We talked about doing a tour of historic airports in Northern/Central California. Of going up to the mountains. Of flying down to Santa Barbara.

Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate. And then other commitments started getting in the way. We were running out of days. On March 31st, with my currency about to expire, we finally had a day with good weather and a few hours to spare. We got to the airport and started looking at possibilities. All the exciting places we'd talked about were fairly far away, and Marty had a meeting he had to be back in time to attend. We spread a sectional out on the Cheetah's wing and looked at the options.

"The only place that's really convenient is the Central Valley, and there isn't much there," Marty said, scanning the map.

I thought about that for a minute. "So maybe we should go explore what 'not much' consists of," I suggested. Marty shot me a questioning look. "I mean, instead of going somewhere we think is exciting, let's try some completely nondescript place in the middle of the Valley we've never been to. And just see what we find there."

Marty shrugged and turned back to the sectional. "Okay," he said.

"As long as it has an airport café. I'm hungry," I added.

I pulled out my trusty Flight Guide to cross-correlate potential destinations with airport cafés. After a few non-matches, Marty's finger stopped on the airport in Merced, about 15 to 20 miles southeast of Turlock. I checked the guide. Rosie's Hangar Cafe was supposedly right there on the field. A quick phone call to confirm that it was still open, and the decision was made. Merced or bust.

Merced lies more or less east from Livermore (096 degrees on the GPS to be exact, but who's counting?). It's not even all that far-just shy of 70 nautical miles. But it's a world away from the fast-paced sophistication of the Bay Area. Get a few miles into the San Joaquin Valley, and you'd have a hard time distinguishing the land beneath you from central Missouri, if it weren't for two factors.

First, there's the minor landscape issue of the towering, snowcapped Sierras lying in full view to the east. Hard to square that with Missouri. And second … there's the matter of the section lines. Despite having learned to fly in the Midwest, where section lines between fields dominate the landscape, I'd been a pilot for some time before someone clued me in to the wonder of section-lines-as-a-navigational-aid. Seems some very smart person decided to make section lines run north-south and east-west. So if you follow a section line, you know you're headed in one of the cardinal directions. That is, at least in places where the magnetic variation isn't all that significant.

Flying over the Central California landscape, Marty commented on how Merced must lie east of where we were, because we were so closely following the section lines of the plentiful fields beneath us. Then we both glanced at our heading, which lay between 070 and 075 degrees. A shared look and two puzzled frowns. Then, as light dawned, Marty and I both said, "magnetic variation!" Which, it turns out, is about 14 degrees in our part of the world. Ah. Right. I knew that. On to the next phase of the BFR.

Merced Airport, it turns out, is a former military training field from WWII. There's a tower, but the field is uncontrolled. Only one runway remains, but it's 5,903 feet long. Which makes it a pretty good place to do some BFR practice landings and procedures. After we finished with that, we landed and went in search of Rosie's.

Merced, I have to say, doesn't exactly have a jam-packed ramp. But Rosie's Hangar Cafe is a lovely Midwestern treat, smack dab in the middle of California. Michelle Obama should have stopped there en route to speaking at the newly opened UC Merced's graduation, back in the middle of May. The café is kind of retro, with big windows that look out on Merced's terminal (which offers regional airline service from Ontario, California, in the LA Basin). It also offers a terrific club sandwich.

But the real surprise of Merced was the FBO, which we discovered after lunch. Merced has seen its share of FBOs over the years, housed in the same building and hangar complex. The current owner, Gateway Aviation and TDL Aero Aviation (fuel and maintenance, respectively), still has a charming outdoor patio with tables, chairs and hanging plants. But step inside the door, and all that changes.

Rightly or wrongly, I expected the FBO at Merced to reflect the general nature of the surrounding agricultural community. So the big, plush leather chairs, fancy tables, dark wood, and slick executive washroom with a beautiful tiled shower and subtle lighting and fixtures caught me off guard. And then, there was the Cirrus-wing conference table. Honest to god, it's the most creative, wonderful conference table I've seen in all of aviation. I'm sure more creative options exist out there -- I just haven't seen them. In the conference room of Gateway Aviation was a long, rectangular glass conference table, framed by black leather executive chairs … and supported by a graceful, white, composite Cirrus wing. Form meets function, in one beautiful moment of perfection. It could have been in a San Francisco art gallery. And here it was, in the FBO of Merced, California, a place best known for its chicken ranches.

Turns out that a charter pilot named Tom Lopes, who'd run an FBO in nearby Turlock for a while (and had traveled to many FBOs catering to corporate jets), bought TDL about six years ago. He decided to try to expand its upper-end charter and jet service, particularly for pilots taking passengers to nearby Yosemite National Park. He created "Gateway Aviation" to provide catering, fuel and support services to business customers, and renovated the FBO in order to create a more sophisticated and comfortable facility.

As for the Cirrus-wing conference table … turns out TDL is an approved Cirrus maintenance center. And the table was Tom's idea. And yet, the FBO still has a touch of country about it, as well. There are two very nice courtesy cars available to visiting pilots, as long as they purchase some fuel. No set amount, because (I was told) Tom didn't want to discriminate against small airplanes that might not need that much. But top-offs are always appreciated.

That same small-town friendliness also extends to the pilots who fly in and out of Merced. We taxied back out to the runway and did our run-up behind a Cessna 170 and a more modern, high-wing Cessna. As the 170 turned onto the runway, a female voice announced its intentions. A hearty, male voice, clearly from the other Cessna, came over the radio.

"Hey, is that Gail McClulloch's 170?" the voice asked.

"Sure is!" came the reply.

"Hey, it's your cousin Clint! How ya doin'?" came the booming voice from the second Cessna.

Seriously. I'm not making it up.

So the answer to what "not much" consists of is … quite a lot, actually. Merced and its surrounding community may be located in the middle of a thousand chicken ranches, and may have been best known in the past for a turkey jingle. But I hear it's got a terrific new university. And it's got a first-class FBO, a homespun airport café and family-friendly pilots. All a mere 70 miles east of the Bay Area.

So the next time anyone says there "isn't much" in the way of good aviation destinations in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley … both Marty and I will know right where to send them. The only difference is, Marty will be able to put it to music.