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High Adventure at Low Altitude

Sample Article Aviation Adventure / Humor

High Adventure at Low Altitude
Bill Berle
2-14-05

 The Airplane That Tried to Kill Me... This is the Turner T-40, an open-cockpit single seat experimental aircraft I bought in Dallas. On the first landing attempt, it decided to roll over upside down, but fortunately it was low enough that one wheel touched the ground just before the wingtip. The seller had the high class and good character to take the airplane back and refund the money! Note matching color idiot-hat, useful in the rare sub-freezing temps in Dallas January 05. 
At the request of the chapter president, I present to you a rundown of an adventure I had this last week. After buying, test flying, and then rejecting a single seat T-40 homebuilt in Dallas for safety reasons, I revisited a deal I had been working on for a Taylorcraft antique. Although it was a long way away on the coast of Washington state, it was a good airplane at a good price. So Wednesday February 9th I showed up at Burbank airport carrying a (probably very suspicious) tool kit, aviation charts, warm clothes, and a cashier’s check. After a rather thorough security check, I took American Airlines up to Portland OR, arriving at 10:30 AM. The seller met me in a burgundy ’98 Cadillac Eldorado and we drove 2 hours to the Pacific coast on the WA/OR border.

 

 Here is our intrepid aviator on the first leg of the flight, somewhere just south of Astoria, Oregon. The fuel tank valve which figures prominently in the story sits innocently next to my head.

The 1940 Taylorcraft BL-65 (with Continental engine upgrade) was great. Restored very nicely about 60 hours previously, it was not quite an Oshkosh champion but well above average. It even had the round steering wheels. It also had a 6 gallon auxiliary tank in the port wing, bringing the fuel up to 18 gallons. After a brief look at the plane (and hundreds of questions, calls, photos and e-mail previously), I was convinced that the plane was airworthy and well worth the selling price. It had a fresh annual with the sale, and I have owned three T-crafts already, so I was fairly confident. The cashier’s check was handed over happily. It started on the second pull of the prop as promised, and because my weather briefings indicated a very rare two day period of crystal clear weather in that area, I wasted no more time and took off from Willapa Harbor airport at about 2:30 in the afternoon.

At the first waypoint, Newport Oregon, I turned the aux tank valve and waited for the main tank to be re-filled halfway. Nothing happened. There was nothing but beautiful, desolate, uninhabited beaches 2500 feet below me between the towns. Miles passed with no indication the aux tank was working. A decision was made that if I reached that particular point on the ground and there was not a noticeable increase in the fuel level, I would turn back and land at Newport. It didn’t budge. I made the first of two life-or-death 180 degree turns for this adventure, and landed at Newport with about 30 minutes of light left. There was less than two gallons in the main tank when I re-fueled. N29544 was tied down, kissed, and secured for the night. I spent the night in a not-pretty motel recalculating how I was going to get home with only 12 gallons usable.
 The beautiful but desolate Oregon coastline on the first leg of the flight. Gorgeous, but potentially disastrous if you had to land there.

Thursday I took off and headed for Gold Beach, Oregon. I flew 2500 feet above the most beautiful, rugged, and awe-inspiring coastline that America has to offer. Waves crashing against the rocky shores, with pine forest right down to the water. And no place to land except the beach. The beach looked like a great safe landing place in the morning, but when high tide rolled around I might have had the world’s first T-craft submarine. The other small problem was that in many places there would have been nobody within 40 miles. The little A-65 hummed along perfectly, for which I was thankful, but I also don’t think the airplane really wanted to get stuck on the beach either. I had promised it a nice dry hangar and it was going to take me up on it.
Gold Beach was a small airport at a small beach town, with ocean spray in the air. A gust of wind turned my show-off landing into an aerobatic maneuver and an unwanted demonstration of nearly full control deflection. When I taxied in to the fuel pump, what did I see but the main fuel float gauge getting higher and higher! I had left the aux fuel valve open just for grins, and my harsh maneuvering had dislodged whatever was clogging the line… so for now the aux tank was working. But safety dictated that I could not gamble the flight on it.

Next stop was Murray airfield at Eureka, California. The weather was absolutely beautiful thus far, for which I was also very thankful. The northwest Pacific coast can be a dangerous place for a Beech King Air in bad weather, and I had a little 1100 pound feather of an antique airplane with no electrical system. The weather had truly been a blessing. At Eureka I was also able to remove a couple of layers of warm clothing thanks to pleasantly warm temperature. I took off and turned away from the gorgeous coastline to follow Highway 101 inland. I just didn’t have enough fuel to continue down the coast to the next fuel stop if the aux tank decided to get playful again. I also had no choice but to follow the highway closely. There was nothing but tall forest and mountains for 40 miles at a time, with a four lane highway winding through it all. If I had to make a forced landing, that highway was the only way I would ever get help or get home.

The scenery on that leg was just like a Bengal Tiger. Breathtakingly beautiful, but it would turn deadly in an instant. The tall pine trees were just gorgeous, but they also promised a very uncomfortable (and possibly permanent) resting place after a dead stick landing. The T-craft didn’t feel like becoming squirrel food any more than shark food, so it carried me all the way through the forest to the town of Ukiah, California missing not so much as a beat. At Ukiah, the nice guy at the flight school gave me a fresh set of AA batteries for my GPS, and wouldn’t take a dime from me. “Come back and see us again” was what he said, after he even hand-propped the T-craft so I could get on my way faster.
 Approaching the mothballed WW2 battleships in Suisun Bay, visible off the left of the plane's nose

Heading into the northern part of the San Francisco bay area, the little Garmin GPS really became the critical instrument for the flight. It kept me under, over, around and pretty much away from anyone’s airspace. I hope I never forget map and compass navigation, pilotage and all that good stuff, but on this flight the little electronic gizmo cut my blood pressure and stress level in half. I owe it a big thanks. It was the GPS that calmly told me I wasn’t going to lose my pilot’s license that day, and I wasn’t going to be a silver splatter of paint on the leading edge of some finance company’s 737. Crossing Suisun Bay north of Concord, CA, I flew right over a dozen WW2 “liberty ships” mothballed forever. There was even a WW2 vintage small aircraft carrier (if there is such a thing) watching over the cargo ships. As I passed over the carrier, on a clear day at 3000 feet, I stopped to think about 22 year old pilots flying a battle-damaged Hellcat or Corsair in a storm, trying to find that ship in the middle of the ocean three hours after they left it. Sitting there for a moment frozen in time, I felt like maybe I wasn’t the world’s greatest pilot after all.
 Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

I flew past Concord airport, then turned left a few degrees toward Tracy, California. Flying past Lawrence Livermore national laboratories, I wondered about what they were working on down there. Mag-Lev supersonic trains running under the oceans? Horrible weapons to keep the terrorists terrified? Or was it plastic food wrap. The hour was getting late... it was almost four o’clock when I touched down at Tracy and taxied past two other Taylorcrafts with a smile.

Refueling quickly and getting airborne again, it’s still twenty after four as I turn down Interstate 5 heading for my destination. Now over familiar terrain, and with many good safe landing spots under me, I breathe the first big sigh of relief since Wednesday morning. I actually almost relax a bit. I-5 will take me all the way back home even if the GPS fails, even if the compass fails; I can get the plane home on a truck down I-5 even if the engine fails. Looking down at the big concrete freeway from 800 feet, I say “Take me home, baby” out loud with a big smile. My target is the airstrip at Harris Ranch, 90 miles or so down the road. Harris Ranch has a hotel, a good restaurant, and a fuel pump. If only I can make it there before dark. The GPS says I can, but my worrisome mind is filled with doubt. If it gets too dark to fly, I’ll be on a dirt farm road sleeping in an airplane that is uncomfortable to be in when you are awake. The T-craft is happy enough with a dirt road, I’ve landed on my share of them, and I at least know I am not going to wreck my new 65 year old airplane. The miles pass far more slowly than they have all day, and the GPS tells me how long it will be until I get there. 
 1940 vintage Taylorcraft advertising 'line art'


The suspense turns the screws tighter and tighter as I watch the sun start to disappear behind the hills on the west side of the San Joaquin valley. Not long now until dark. Another twenty minutes and I’ll be picking a road just like that one to land on. That field looks like I can land safely without sinking the wheels into the soil. That road leads to a building, I might be able to sleep inside if I can make someone feel sorry enough…maybe they have a restroom…maybe there’s nobody within miles. The GPS says Harris Ranch is three more miles. The sun has gone behind the hills. I should make it but I can’t see anything but the freeway and the late afternoon haze ahead.

A moment later I see a complex of buildings, gas stations, and a freeway overpass. Could this be it? If it isn’t Harris Ranch I’m gonna land someplace nearby anyway because it’s civilization. I can walk to the gas station and have a gourmet microwave gut bomb for dinner. Another moment passes and I see the runway, right next to the freeway. The cars on the road have had their lights on for the last fifteen minutes. I pass just west of the runway about 500 feet, pull carb heat, and make a quick downwind-base-final turn. No time for a proper pattern, and frankly I’m beside myself with joy. We plop down and taxi up to the fuel pump. The machine gladly accepts my wife’s credit card, and I fill the tank. Fifteen minutes later it’s completely dark. I’ve flown almost 750 miles in a 65 year old airplane, cruising between 85 and 99 miles an hour, averaging 2500 feet above the ground, starting on the Oregon coast and ending up in the farm fields of central California. I’m exhausted physically and emotionally.

My unbelievably supportive and tolerant wife Alycia says she’s coming to get me. I had said that I’d buy her a big steak dinner if I managed to make it to Harris Ranch, but I didn’t really expect her to drive 180 miles after a full day of work just to see me. But sure enough a couple of hours after I secured the airplane, Alycia and my dog drove in and greeted me with a joyful hug and a significant amount of barking. The weather was scheduled to be IFR and rain in Los Angeles the next day. I wouldn’t be able to get over the mountains north of L. A. The plane would have to stay at Harris Ranch for a couple of days. To my complete amazement, Alycia drove me all the way back home to Chatsworth. I slept in the car and I slept until almost noon Friday.

Saturday I availed myself of another dog. A Greyhound dog, painted on the side of a big silver bus. Turns out that the first bus stop between L. A. and San Francisco was Coalinga Junction, across the freeway from Harris Ranch. I walked across the overpass and prepared the Taylorcraft for flight. In this case it involved removing a lot of tape that I had put on to protect it against rain. I had taped over the aileron hinges, the wing root gaps, the pitot tube, the gas cap (rainwater can run onto the float gauge wire and into the fuel), the tail attach fittings, and the laughable door seals. After everything we’d been through, I owed the little T-craft not to let water get anywhere it could do any harm.
We blasted off at 1PM in marginal VFR weather. A thousand broken, three miles at best, haze, dust. Destination number one, Bakersfield municipal airport. An hour later, the blessed GPS takes me straight to the airport in visibility that would have gotten me lost otherwise. I could see the ground well enough to fly safely, but not well enough to navigate by looking for landmarks. Like I said, marginal VFR and I’m sticking to that story.

Now the problem became weather for real. There were low and mid-level clouds pushed up against the mountains surrounding the southern San Joaquin valley. “Mountain obscuration” is how the FSS weather briefer put it, adding an ominous “VFR flight not recommended”. I knew that if I could find a hole in the clouds to get over the mountains, it was relatively clear in the Mojave desert and I could probably make it home. I had three hours fuel, and the mountains were half an hour away. There were several low spots in the mountains at about 5000 feet, but the cloudbase was between 4000 and 5000. I could afford to go and explore for a while, and try to find a clear path through the mountains, and go back to Bakersfield if I had to. The rules say “visibility one mile, clear of clouds” when flying that close to the surface. Legal or otherwise, I had set my own personal limits at simply being able to see through the mountains and out into the desert… a clear path where I could stay out of the clouds and see the San Joaquin on one side and the Mojave on the other. I did not happen to bring a one mile tape measure to verify the other requirement.

I left Bakersfield and followed a valley up into the hills to look for a clear shot through the mountains. The valley became a narrow valley at about 4000 feet elevation, and I was looking at a solid wall of clouds. The map showed a large set of high tension power lines running up this valley and over the mountains into the desert. I followed these power lines up towards the clouds, looking to see daylight and the Mojave desert underneath in the distance.
At 5000 feet, the valley became a canyon, and no sight of the desert under the clouds. What I did see under the clouds were cows and grass. Some of the cows were at my altitude, grazing on the sides of the canyon. At 5100 feet, the engine started to kick and pop a little. Many older airplanes with 65 horse Continental engines had the mixture control wired full rich, and this one did too. The engine was starting to ask for a leaner mixture that I couldn’t give it. Or was it just trying to tell me to get the hell out of a dangerous situation?

 

5200 feet. Now my canyon was turning into a narrow canyon. And I was getting fairly close to the clouds that were standing in my way. I knew that those power lines would take me into the desert, if I could just have enough visibility to see and fly safely. Taking a careful look, I thought I saw some daylight under some clouds in the distance, but I couldn’t be sure. When I looked again, I saw the power lines disappear into the gray and white clouds. I wanted to get through and complete my flight. I wanted to be at work on Monday morning. I wanted to have a nice dinner with my wife that night, and pet my dog and send out a hundred e-mails with the details of my flight.

But the reason that I am writing this now is because I also knew just how many pilots had crashed in these exact circumstances, never to pet their dog again. I had come as far as I could with any small amount of safety margin, and then I had flown halfway into that safety margin looking for some good luck. And I found my good luck. It was common sense and the voices of all my instructors and mentors, telling me that I had gone as far as I should be going, and it was time to “live to fly another day”. The second brilliant, perfect 180 degree turn of the flight was made, and I landed right back at Bakersfield municipal. The cows had lost their bet… I wouldn’t be spending eternity up there in a cold misty canyon with them.

Now facing only a 90 mile drive, my wonderful Alycia once again drove out to meet me. This time, I managed to buy her and a friend of ours a very nice dinner at the Chateau Basque in Bakersfield. She even agreed to bring me out to Bakersfield the next day with my own dog instead of the Greyhound!

On Sunday I did find a hole in the clouds, just a few miles from my bovine friends. I climbed up to 6500 feet (with no complaints from the engine, by the way), and flew through Bear Valley and into the Tehachapi valley. I had far better visibility this time. I went through Tehachapi, down past Rosamond and Lancaster, under some low cloudbases over the hills between Palmdale and Santa Clarita, and finally into glorious 4 mile visibility through the Newhall pass and back into Whiteman airport.

At the Newhall pass, I turned on a borrowed handheld radio for the first time on the entire flight, spoke to Whiteman tower for a landing clearance, and rolled to a stop in front of my hangar. I let out a very long overdue sigh of relief, and congratulated myself on a very adventurous flight. When nobody was looking, I congratulated myself on a couple of decisions that allowed me to live through it, and had a long moment of humility. Then I called my wife to let her know I was home safe. In a few minutes, she would be there smiling to greet me, dog barking and all.

 

Bringing the little Taylorcraft back home a thousand miles with me, and it bringing me back from the abyss of not flying, will be remembered as one of the greatest adventures I have ever had in an airplane.