OROVILLE — To many Oroville and Butte County residents Gonzalo Curiel is known as the eyes in the sky — one who supplies photos of Oroville from a bird’s eye view.
Curiel’s name became more known in the community after his photos of the Oroville Dam spillway incident from his plane surfaced in 2018. Curiel, evacuated like many other Oroville residents, went to his plane to get a view of what was going on since roads and other access were closed.
On Sunday, Curiel, a private pilot who goes by “Peewee”, led a Fourth of July airplane fly in and car show at the Oroville Municipal Airport. The event was hosted by the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 112 and sponsored by the Rotary Club of Oroville. Curiel has led the biennial event since 2011.
During Tuesday’s Oroville City Council meeting several councilors took the time to recognize the work Curiel and others did in hosting the fly in.
Councilor Eric Smith, who assisted as the master of ceremonies Sunday, thanked Curiel for his work. Smith called Curiel an amazing asset to the Oroville community.
“If it wasn’t for Peewee it would not have happened,” Smith said Tuesday.
Mayor Chuck Reynolds called Sunday’s event “absolutely wonderful.” Reynolds said the event was much more organized than last year’s fireworks event.
“This year was much more organized and the facilitator of the fly in and car show is Gonzalo Curiel and he puts his heart and soul into this community and doesn’t collect a dime,” Reynolds said. “I would really like to give him credit for all he does. Just an absolute heart for this city and the turnout was phenomenal.”
Councilor David Pittman, who along with Reynolds is a member of the host Rotary Club of Oroville, thanked others involved including the Oroville Fire Department, Butte County Sheriff’s Office, Cal Fire-Butte County, California State Parks, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Highway Patrol and Recology.
Curiel said he has always been into photography dating back to a high school photography class he took, however he did not receive his pilot’s license until 2011.
Flying for Curiel, like many private pilots, is a hobby. He has made a career working in auto body shops. His first experience working with private planes came in 1983 when his brother began working as a mechanic at West Air, then based at the Chico Airport. Curiel had been doing paint and body work on cars and motorcycles since 1980. The company needed someone to fix chips and scratches on planes left from birds, so Curiel latched on part time doing touch up paint work.
In the early ’90s and early 2000s Curiel followed different car shows and boat races in California doing pin striping between races and shows. He and his family would set up at the Forebay Aquatic Center in Oroville and watch the races and Curiel would make money between heats.
Curiel’s love for flying grew in 2008 after leaving the car shows and turning his attention to radio control cars, trucks and eventually remote control helicopters. Curiel said he and friends would mount a camera onto the helicopters and use the headrest monitor from his pickup inside of a cardboard box and the group would fly around — similar to drone usage today.
In March 2010, Table Mountain Aviation’s Tom Hagler asked the photo-friendly Curiel to join him in a plane ride and get some footage for a promotional video for a fly in event. As Curiel was editing the video he realized what he truly wanted was his pilot’s license. With Hagler’s assistance, Curiel, then 47-years-old, began studying and training and in November 2011 he received his license. After renting an airplane from Hagler for the first two years, the two bought a plane together from Hagler’s brother. Four years later Curiel convinced his wife to buy a plane of his own and bought Hagler’s half of the plane.
“I always enjoyed motorcycles, I have a couple of (Harley-Davidsons), and to me an airplane is kind of a glorified motorcycle,” Curiel said. “Because it’s kind of the same deal. You jump on your bike, go for a ride and kind of forget everything you’re doing because you’re just riding it, and it’s no different with flying. Everything you have to do is to fly. You’re not thinking of problems and the pilot community is like the motorcycle community and tries to support each other.”
During the Oroville Dam spillway incident Curiel made it a point to fly at 8 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. until a temporary flight restriction to the height of 2,000 feet was enacted. Still, once the temporary flight restriction was put in place, Curiel flew above with a zoomed in auto timed lens on his camera and autopilot controls and a passenger on his plane. He said he has a suction cup mount for his iPhone he uses as well.
Curiel admits that he could have made a large portion of money off of the photos, however he said that was not his goal. He also said as a private pilot he legally could not go flying with the intent to sell his photos. Curiel’s goal was instead to give back to his community. He told local media outlets who requested use of his photos and videos that if they were going to use the footage to keep people informed they could use anything he has free of charge, but if it was going to be used to scare people they did not have his permission to use the photos and videos.
“I had my wife and family which is most important and it kept us updated, but at the same time once I had this information I threw it out there (on social media) just for anybody to see it,” Curiel said. “A lot of people appreciated that.”
The biennial Fourth of July fly in event was the first since 2018 after the pandemic forced the event in 2020 to be cancelled. Curiel had doubts that the event would happen because it was on a Sunday and he feared a red flag warning or a heat wave, however he said he thinks the roughly 50 to 70 planes that showed up Sunday were the most since 2011. Curiel made a point to thank the 15 volunteers from Northwest Lineman College in Oroville, as well as the pilots who offered 15-minute rides to visitors.
“All these people happy, smiling, it’s really rewarding,” Curiel said. “The (Experimental Aircraft Association) is all about the spirit of aviation on a national level is about sharing aviation. By doing a fly in we’ve met that mark. I’m kind of a one man show. But the other sense I’m at the mercy of all my friends and the pilot community. Without them the show won’t go on.”