Los Altos resident Dave Bridges has had a lifelong fascination with airplanes, from building model planes in high school into retirement – including the radio-controlled variety – to becoming a flight instructor in the U.S. Army Air Corps, to a 37-year career flying for Pan American World Airways. Even now, at 100 years old, when he sees jets flying overhead, he muses, “Oh, I wish I could be up there and do it again.”
Bridges survived prostate cancer 30 years ago, a bad leg break more than a decade ago and, last November, COVID-19.
Through it all, he has remained philosophical and gracious. He’s even learned to say ‘thank you’ in 11 different languages.
Living in the same house near Los Altos High School since the early 1950s, now with the aid of Tongan caregivers Eni and Mele (“nice, nice people,” he said), he recalls the days of apricot trees in abundance.
San Francisco to Los Altos
Born at St. Francis Hospital in San Francisco, Bridges spent most of his young life in Alameda. He and his wife, Eleanor, who died in 2002, moved from their house in the Outer Mission District of San Francisco, “to escape the fog,” according to daughter Pamela.
“Somebody suggested they knew a place down on the Peninsula,” Bridges recalled, “and they brought us down here and showed us. It was three of these big lots, the last of a big apricot orchard, the only land left on this street.”
Even after taking out 14 apricot trees to build the house, 13 or 14 remained, he said.
Bridges laughed when asked whether his kids worked in the orchards, as many local children did in those days.
“They were sick and tired of picking up the ones from their own yard,” he said. “All this land was all apricots. I made a dryer – a smoker. The kids got sick of that, too – putting the apricots on trays and up on the roof to dry in the sun after I smoked them in the smoker. We had dried apricots for a long time.”
Los Altos, he added, “at the time we moved here, was kind of out in the country, but not real bush country. The people were nice down here, still seem to be.”
His path to becoming a Pan Am captain began shortly after high school. After graduating from Alameda High School – where he was on a championship crew team – he briefly attended San Francisco Junior College.
“About a week after I started, I found out there was an aviation course being offered by the government,” he said. “The ground school was free – get yourself to the airport and all the instruction was free.”
Although the course was full and he was put on standby, one of the group departed, leaving a space open.
The instructor, also the head of the program, gave the whole class an oral examination,” Bridges explained. “With my background with airplanes and working in airports, I knew every question. Finally, he said, ‘OK, Bridges, go take the physical.’ … So, we trained at Mills Field, which was San Francisco Airport in those days.”
Upon completion of the flight course, he received a private license. A secondary course (“It was all aerobatics”) led to a course license. And another led to an instructor’s rating.
“I took an instructor course down in Douglas, Arizona, and became a commercial flight instructor,” Bridges said. “And I got a job down there, taught one class, an instructor refresher. I was just a 21-year-old kid.”
After graduating from the class, he returned home to Alameda and married Eleanor. The couple moved briefly back to Douglas.
“Neither one of us could stand it there, and I quit after the first class and we went back to California,” he said.
He spent the next year and a half as a civilian flight instructor for the Army Air Corps in Santa Maria, then joined Pan Am.
“The first two years with Pan Am, I flew the Boeing flying boats,” Bridges reminisced. “Twenty-four passengers, 11 crew. It took 17 hours to get from here to Honolulu.”
He spent 37 years with Pan Am – 19 years as a relief co-pilot, flight navigator and first officer, and 18 years as a captain. He retired a captain of a 747 in 1981.
Working for an international airline naturally came with some travel perks.
“We used to go to Hawaii quite often,” Bridges said. “We went around the world once. Went down to Fiji for a couple of weeks – beautiful place.”
Since his retirement, Bridges has maintained an interest in, “for some strange reason,
airplanes,” he said with a laugh. “I used to design and make model airplanes and then went to radio control.”
He also liked to “play around with engines and cars,” he said. “Now that I’m retired and so busy doing nothing, I don’t have time to study much.”
These days, music brings him joy – “My music,” he said (with emphasis on “my”). “From around the ’40s, ’50s, when music was music – The Platters, Louis Armstrong, big bands like the Benny Goodman Orchestra.”
He played bugle in the Boy Scouts and would have liked to play the trombone. Inspired by memories of his father’s clarinet-playing, Bridges recently bought one on Amazon – “This thing right here,” he said motioning to the instrument standing near his chair. “I can only get the first two registers – never took lessons.”
One of his hopes for the future is to be able to strengthen his legs, which have atrophied since his bad break.
“I’m going to try this summer to see if I can get out of the (wheelchair),” he said.
Physical therapy is on the agenda, Bridges said, to “see if I can get my old muscles back in shape again. That would be nice. They asked me what my ultimate desire was from therapy, and that was to get up and walk around, even with a walker.”
He told a story of a friend from Denmark whose wife recently died at age 107.
“At age 103, she was active – she took care of her house and did a lot of things,” he said. “But there was one thing her son would absolutely not let her do – she wanted to, but he would not let her – cut the lawn. So part of my joy is to go out and cut the lawn one of these days.”
His 100th birthday May 10 was a cozy affair due to COVID restrictions, but a bigger celebration was planned for early July.
His three children – Ross, Pamela and Dan – live in Mountain View, Point Reyes and Los Altos, respectively, and he has seven grandchildren, one of whom is currently living in Singapore with his wife and Bridges’ three great-grandchildren. He keeps up with the little ones’ activities – from martial arts to soccer and gymnastics – via video and photos, and enjoys FaceTime sessions with them.
“Of course, I’m prejudiced,” he said. “But I think they’re the nicest great-grandkids in the world.”