It's early morning on a barren stretch of Sierra Highway when John MacWhirter pulls his trademark yellow van into a dirt lot. Wearing a cap, sunglasses and raggedy jeans, he strides over to a flagpole and raises his Stars and Stripes over this unique corner of the Antelope Valley.
That makes it official. BJ's Corner is open for business.
Set on private property just beyond the main runway of U.S. Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale-- where almost everything high-tech is flown, from the newest B-2 Stealth bombers to aging TR-1 spy planes--the corner is a military aviation aficionado's version of an art-lover's visit to the Louvre.
Here they gather to watch sleek jets race down the runway and scream overhead, talking politics and the decline of defense spending, flirting with women visitors, telling occasional risque jokes and drinking sizable amounts of . . . well, since there are laws involved, let's just say a beverage.
"This is an area where folks can come out at no cost and see the result of their taxpayer dollars," says MacWhirter, known simply as BJ, who has been presiding over the corner for nearly 11 years. "There's a camaraderie out here. It's not just the aircraft."
The cast of characters, and many are, includes retired or laid-off aerospace workers, wives and relatives of current aerospace employees, construction workers with time on their hands and the just-curious who spot the crowd gathering.
That's where BJ comes in. Tipped off by insiders, he and some of his roadside regulars always seem to know in advance when the bat-winged B-2 or some other door-to-the-future marvel is going to be flying. And they let everyone else know.
Thus on a recent morning, BJ sat in his van chatting on his citizens band to a friend: "Hurry up and get your butt down here. It's on the runway right now. Come to the corner right now!" Sure enough, a few minutes later as more cars pulled in, a B-2 roared overhead.
"I got the word because I was talking to BJ on the radio this morning," explains Tom Engblom, a Lancaster concrete worker who's been coming to the corner for five years. "It's amazing how fast the word gets around," adds his partner Jim Beall, a retired senior photographer for Rockwell.
In a military environment that thrives on secrecy, especially involving advanced jets, these merry aerospaceniks could be expected to arouse suspicion or outright hostility from the authorities. And there have been minor run-ins over the years between the group and Plant 42 security.
But asked once if he worried about potential security breaches because of BJ and his regulars, the commander of the Air Force's 5,700-acre test and production facility just shrugged and said: "Nah, we've checked him out. He's OK."
Perhaps it's hard for the military to distrust a man who flies his own U.S. flag and has a sticker on his van that reads "God, Guns & Guts Made America." Yet BJ, an otherwise gregarious figure in his 50s, is reluctant to discuss details of his own past, saying "It doesn't matter who I am."
One thing's for sure: BJ's a storyteller. Some friends believe BJ's accounts of his own days in the military may be more wishful thinking than reality. But his stories of jet antics at the corner and other exploits give the place its own charm and appeal.
And he is, make no mistake, the leader of the group. The sight of BJ and his yellow van sends a signal through the community that something interesting must be flying. Regulars stop by to say hello and chat. And out-of-towners pull in to enjoy a hospitable refuge and to watch the jets.
One quickly learns there is an art to airplane watching. Binoculars, video cameras and even telescopes are standard. Cigarettes and ample patience are assets. Long before aircraft are fully visible, the real experts can identify the model by the configuration of the landing lights.
Because Plant 42 generally is used for testing and training, jets there often do touch-and-goes (repeated landings that turn immediately into takeoff runs), providing viewers with close-up action, often of a dozen or more aircraft in a day.
Amid the business of technology, there is also humor. A visitor only falls once for someone pointing to the top of a telephone pole and shouting "Look! There's a B-1RD." (Translation: Bird).
BJ's corner, at Sierra Highway and Avenue N, is more than just a viewing stand, though. Over the years, it's been a haven for the lost or broken down midway between Lancaster and Palmdale. He's seen a marriage there, a suicide too, and even helped deliver a baby, or so BJ says.
And almost everyone seems to know BJ. Drivers on Sierra Highway constantly honk their horns in greeting as they pass. Sheriff's deputies, fire department paramedics and even utility trucks all hit their lights or sirens to say hello. He even appears to have some pull with the railroad.
When an engineer recently stopped his train along Sierra Highway to watch a returning B-2 --blocking the view of the entire corner crowd--BJ managed to coax him to move the train down the tracks, drawing hearty cheers from his comrades.
"I love this corner. There's something magnetic about this place," says BJ, as the chilly afternoon desert winds kick up, the jets have settled down for the day and it's almost time to strike the flag.
As another watcher put it: "Quite a show today, wasn't it?"