Standing Room Only at the Balboa Island Museum AirCal Speaker Panel

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AirCal exhibit at Balboa Island Museum

Formally titled “The AirCal Speaker Panel,” nothing was formal about the March 24 standing room only event at the Balboa Island Museum Newport Beach.

It was a joyous, raucous evening of stories and memories of AirCal alums, recalling a magical time from 1967 to 987, the era of Newport Beach’s “hometown airline.”

“We could have sold a ton more tickets,” Balboa Island Museum Newport Beach Executive Director Tiffany Pepys Hoey said, “but you know, the fire marshal is just up the street.”

“To me, it seemed like an old movie where the psychiatrist can help the patient conjure up an old memory and then the floodgates burst,” stewardess and Balboa Island resident, Susan Riddle said. “We seemed to have a collective bursting of the memory dam.”

Former AirCal Employees

This was more than a reunion, as the AirCal gang holds many reunions, including annual events on the anniversary of the airline’s founding, and weekly pilots’ confabs in Dana Point.

“I ran into someone a few days after the event, and they told me we brought the fun back to Newport Beach,” said Museum Chairman Shirley Pepys.

“It was like a comedy show with stories of how airlines were managed in the 70s and 80s,” said event attendee Rich Fischbeck.

Bill H. Lyon, Shirley Pepys, Mark Foster

It was Pepys’ idea to bring the AirCal story to the museum—the exhibit went live in The Gallery in March—knowing the airline still had a strong following in Orange County. And she knew both owners, General William Lyon and George Argyros.

“What a superb event last night,” Lyon Air Museum President Mark Foster wrote to Pepys the next day. Foster attended with Bill H. Lyon, the late General’s son. The Air Museum supplied much of the memorabilia for the exhibit.

According to local lore, five Corona del Mar businessmen founded Air California over dinner in January 1967. They included Developer William Myers and Architect William Pereira. In the mid-70s the airline fell into the swashbuckling hands of San Diego Industrialist C. Arnholt Smith, original owner of the San Diego Padres, and then fell into bankruptcy.

Argyros and Lyon bought Air California out of bankruptcy in 1981, re-branded it AirCal, and sold it six years later to American Airlines, Inc. for a handsome profit – one of countless stories recounted during the evening.

Riddle moderated the panel, in uniform, and was joined by pilots Larry Bufton, Scott Bergey, Roger Nilson and Wayne Chase.

Susan Riddle (left), with AirCal stewardesses and friends.

“Those 21 years, for the majority of us, contain many of our most precious and dopamine generating stories,” Riddle said.

The Balboa Island Museum’s AirCal exhibit will be up through the spring. Visit https://balboaislandmuseum.org fr more information.

Originally founded in 2000, the Balboa Island Museum works to collect, preserve, and promote the culture and history of Balboa Island and Newport Beach. Featuring exhibits on local histories of surfing, fishing, The Wedge and more, the museum offers a unique educational experience for locals and visitors alike.

The Balboa Island Museum Newport Beach is a 501(c)(3) organization ad is located at 210 B Marine Avenue, Balboa Island . (949) 675-3952 / [email protected].

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