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Produce pair soar to new heights

Bill Brooks and Paul Villa are longtime friends in the Los Angeles produce industry, and they have had their respective heads in the clouds for a very long time. Recently, they were honored for that.

Both men grew up in Southern California with a produce broker as a father. They both started in other work but soon followed in their fathers’ footsteps and made very successful careers in the produce industry. Today, Villa is CEO of Great West Produce, while Brooks wears the same title for Westlake Produce Co. They have been colleagues, friendly competitors and occasional buyers of each other’s products for about 45 years.

But this isn’t a story about their produce careers.

Their early produce careers and the proximity of their offices above Los Angeles’ Seventh Street Market in the 1970s is what led them to discuss their mutual love of flying. Since then, they have flown together countless times, been partners in several different planes and borrowed each other’s private aircrafts on many occasions for their own flying expeditions. They have traveled to produce events together using their private planes as the mode of transportation.

Most importantly, the two men were recently honored as each received the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award from the Federal Aviation Administration. The award was a surprise to each man as their wives — Barbara Villa and Kim Brooks — secretly applied for the respective awards and made the presentation at a joint backyard gathering.

“We had no idea they were doing that,” said Brooks. “I knew about the award, but I never really thought about applying for it.”

“The Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award is the most prestigious award the FAA issues to pilots certified under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 61,” is how the FAA describes it on its website. “This award is named after the Wright Brothers, the first U.S. pilots, to recognize individuals who have exhibited professionalism, skill, and aviation expertise for at least 50 years while piloting aircraft as ‘Master Pilots’.”

The award itself is a distinctive certificate and lapel pin issued only after an application review and eligibility requirements have been met.

Villa is the more veteran airman as he began flying in 1968 when he was still in high school in Gardena, CA. A fellow student who had his pilot’s license introduced him to the hobby. “He took me with him once and I was hooked,” he said. That flight took off from the Hawthorne Airport, which is where Villa took lessons, got a job as a “line boy” to pay for those lessons and earned his license that same year. At one point, he did take aeronautics courses at the local community college with the idea of launching a career in the aviation industry, but fate led him down a different path.

His father, Art Villa, worked at the Los Angeles produce market where he launched his own brokerage operation. Unfortunately, Mr. Villa passed away in 1974 at the relatively young age of 62. Paul’s older brother briefly took over the business before the younger sibling tried his hand at buying and selling produce. Initially, Villa worked out of an office on L.A.’s Ninth Street Market but soon he moved over to the long hall of offices that stands atop the vintage Seventh Street Market.

Brooks was working for a non-produce endeavor when his boss introduced him to flying, taking off that first time from the El Monte Airport, which is now called the San Gabriel Valley Airport. He also was immediately hooked and earned his pilot’s license in 1970. In the early ‘70s, he started skydiving and also got his commercial pilot’s license so he could fly other skydivers on jumps. By 1971, he had joined the Brooks & Sims produce brokerage, which was also housed above the Seventh Street Market. He continued to work as a pilot but only on weekends as his burgeoning produce career was a full-time commitment.

Villa and Brooks had offices across from each other in the mid-‘70s but neither can specifically remember when they first shared their passion and started flying together.

“It must have been in the late 1970s,” said Villa, “but I don’t recall exactly. That was a long time ago.”

Their memories were much sharper when in separate interviews they were talking about the planes they have owned, both together and independently, and the many trips and flights they took over the years. Villa mentioned a Cessna 140 and Cessna 210, while Brooks talked about a Cessna 182, among others. Today, they share ownership of a Cessna with Villa also owning a more powerful Turbine Bonanza that they both fly on longer trips. Recently, Brooks acquired a World War II vintage plane from Roger Knutzen of Knutzen Farms, one of his potato growers in  Washington — a good friend and fellow pilot. The two flew the plane together many times in Washington and Brooks plans to continue flying it in Southern California. 

Villa mentions that the planes have been a “handy tool” over the years. “I can leave in the morning, visit a couple of growers and be back home for dinner.” He said these many grower and customer visits over the years — made possible because of the ease of flying a private plane — have forged life-long business relationships and friendships.

Brooks tells the same story. In fact, he noted that his father — Bill Brooks Sr. — was a bit reticent to embrace his son’s preoccupation with flying at first. But shortly after joining the family firm in 1971, the two men took off one morning in a private plane with the younger Brooks in the pilot’s seat.

“We flew to Klamath Falls, OR, saw three different growers and came back home the same day. My dad thought this wasn’t a bad way to do it,” he said.

Brooks also remembers flying up to Alaska to pick up an airplane for another owner — the Cessna 182 — and flying it back. “I took a couple of weeks and had a great time,” he said.

The flying pair have often flown together for fun, traveled together to the Oshkosh, WI air show several times, and flown to produce luncheons in Northern California. Villa remarked that Brooks’ flight with his wife retracing Route 66 from the air in his little Cessna is a testament to their marriage. He noted that the plane hardly moves faster than a car. Brooks remembers the trip fondly, noting that Kim was an able navigator and planned the many stops.

Both men also noted independently what a great friendship they have created over the years and how the relationship is very important to each of them. Fifty years of flying is a noteworthy achievement but so is a friendship that has lasted just about as long.

 

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