Search planes combed the Southern California coast Wednesday looking for the San Diego area’s oldest lifeguard, an experienced pilot and free spirit who took his single-engine plane on a whale-watching expedition but has yet to return.
Ron Trenton, 51, took off from San Diego’s Montgomery Field at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday. Faithful to his routine, the avid recreational flier waggled his wings to lifeguard station mates on the nearby La Jolla shore as he turned toward his destination: Santa Catalina Island.
Controllers at Catalina Airport say the lifeguard’s rented Piper Cherokee landed about 1:40 p.m. and took off just before 3 p.m.
It should have taken Trenton 40 minutes to arrive in San Diego. But controllers there received a radio transmission from his plane requesting weather information at 6:05 p.m.
When the plane failed to reach its San Diego destination by 6:40 p.m., the search began.
Federal Aviation Administration officials said Trenton was not required to log a flight plan and could have simply continued his excursion well into Tuesday evening or even landed at another airstrip.
But a check of landing sites turned up nothing.
Three Coast Guard aircraft, two from San Diego and one from Los Angeles, were conducting the search until dusk Wednesday and will continue today, said Petty Officer Dan Tremper, a Coast Guard spokesman.
Tight-knit members of the city of San Diego’s 70-member Lifeguard Service were holding on to hope late Wednesday for the well-known beach figure, who took grueling three-day bicycle treks and annually paddled a kayak from San Pedro to Santa Catalina Island.
They said the 5-foot, 10-inch, 165-pound physical fitness buff could scrape his way out of any bind. “He’s someone who sets challenges for himself and meets them,” said San Diego Lifeguard Service Chief B. Chris Brewster, a longtime friend. “He’s a mentor to just about everyone on the beach.”
Trenton, who joined the Lifeguard Service in 1966, had reached the rank of sergeant. But he gave up the increased pay and prestige. Keeping the higher rank would have meant less time on the beach and less rescue work, limitations Trenton did not want.
“He just decided that supervising wasn’t for him,” Brewster said.
Although he stopped competing about 15 years ago, Trenton often coached the La Jolla station lifeguards to victories in San Diego-area lifeguard competitions with a verve few could match, friends said.
Tending bar at a popular La Jolla restaurant at night, the unmarried Trenton has lived in the area for 20 years. But he told friends he planned to build a home on Oregon property he owns and retire there.
“He’ll be living there,” Brewster said. “He only has four more years and he can retire.”