Small shop, smart ideas
Everything an aviator – or aviator wannabe – needs can be found at John’s Pilot Supplies at Brackett Airport.
by Susan Acker
photography by Leah Heagy
For the pilot who has everything, how about a stationery set made of flying charts? What about an “I’d rather be flying” keychain gift-wrapped in a can? At John Alago’s pilot supply store the possibilities are limitless. John Alago loves airplanes, boats, scuba diving and people, and he has turned his love of flying and his love of people into John’s Pilot Supplies, a business that he has run out of La Verne’s Brackett Field Airport since 1982.
Walk through the floor-to-ceiling glass doors of the terminal and there is something unique about this 1950s building. What is most eye-catching is the shop to the left of the terminal entrance. Flight jackets hang against the glass wall and model airplanes hang from the ceiling of the store. John’s Pilot Supplies is not like other pilot supply shops. From flying pigs to model P-47 Thunderbolts to airplane tires, Alago sells it all. He makes sure that he stocks what pilots need.
Alago walks along the south wall of the shop and points to various products that fill the shelves. “It’s mostly special stuff for airplanes,” he says. “Tires, hydraulics; you can’t use car hydraulics on a plane.” Since products pilots need and want typically are not stocked on the shelves of the local Target, Alago makes sure he meets his customers’ needs. He carries flight charts, flight manuals, pilot test prep books, books of aeronautical terms, protractors used for navigation, special lights, and just about everything else needed by pilots and aviation enthusiasts.
“John is great at remembering individuals, and he’s a fun guy who’s happy to be providing such a great service to the airport and the aviation community,” says Airport Manager Jared Fox-Tuck. “To be able to run over to his shop and grab something is extremely beneficial to the airport and to pilots in the Southern California area. He’s really an attribute to the airport. I’m always happy to see John when I come in.”
Alago made up his mind a long time ago that he was going to follow his passions, and he did just that when he bought his airplane. But Alago is a practical man and says he bought the plane to help him with one of his former businesses. He owned two gas stations, one of which was in Parker, Ariz. He used his plane to fly back and forth from California to Arizona so that he could check on his gas station.
Alago has a history of seeing needs and meeting them. In 1982, he saw a need for a pilot supply store at Brackett Field that carried products specifically for pilots.
“This is how I opened this place,” Alago says. “I got rid of the gas stations and jumped into this here. I did everything. I never did stand around and let grass grow under my feet.”
Alago began flying in 1950, but he ran out of money. In the Korean War, he was a paratrooper. “I jumped out of really good airplanes,” Alago says with a chuckle. “That’s the closest I could get to the airplanes because I couldn’t get in the Air Force.”
After the military, Alago spent three years at Mount San Antonio College and then worked for Los Angeles County driving trucks and operating heavy machinery. Not long after he started working for the county, he saw a need.
“I always get into unusual businesses,” he says as he recalls Jimmy John’s, the lettering and embroidery business he owned and operated for more than 12 years. “I hope I can find it,” Alago says as he shifts through papers in his filing cabinet. “Here it is,” he says as he sets the yellowed telephone directory ad for his former business on the counter. He later added scuba diving to his business.
“John has been one of the stability points of the airport,” Fox-Tuck says. “What John adds to the airport, it’s more than just pilot supplies. It’s a consistency of knowing that John’s there. People come from airports all around to pick up pilot supplies and aircraft parts. If John doesn’t carry something, he’s willing to find it for you. He’s got a lot of collector’s items and gifts that other pilot shops don’t have.”
Alago carries toys because he knows that eventually the pilots who shop in his store will have children.
“Pilots, you know, sooner or later they’re going to get married and I’m going to get them right here with the toys,” Alago chuckles as he points to the vast display of everything from authentic balsa wood model airplanes to battery-powered toy planes and die-cast model planes. “We don’t carry bears and dolls,” he says with a smile. No, this store is strictly airplanes. And the key chains with cloth tags at the front counter say it all with short messages like “Remove before flight,” and “I love flying.”
John and Marie Wheeler of Glendora visited the shop on a Saturday morning after finishing breakfast at the airport’s restaurant, Norm’s Hangar. They stopped in to look at what Alago had that was related to World War II.
“I’ve always been a WWII history buff,” John Wheeler says. John and Marie Wheeler said they enjoyed the atmosphere of the store and that they will be coming back.
Alago recognizes that his services are important to those at the airport and to those who come from other areas. “I’d like to get another day off, but people don’t like when I close Sundays,” he says smiling. He runs his store Tuesday through Sunday. “If you don’t like what you’re doing, you’re not going to do well. I like the airplane business. I like being here. I’m getting too old to start something else. If I sell it, what am I going to do? Go home and watch the tube?”