Illustrations by Barry Ross
Life and Death: Flying the Owens Valley
Climbing through 15,000 feet, I breathe a sigh of relief, slide my seat back and take a look around. Orange County, California, has one of the busier departure procedures in the country, and it’s a bit of a workout even when you’re familiar with it. But now that we’re high above the LAX Class B and talking to LA Center, there’s time to gaze down on some very familiar territory from my misbegotten youth. Nestled in the mountains to our right is Big Bear Airport, where, as a new instructor, I nearly paid the price for an ill-advised hot and high takeoff. Brackett Field, my home airport in those days, is sliding beneath us. Ahead is the impassive Mojave Desert, above which I spent so many dark, lonely nights hauling checks. And to my left, in the hazy distance beyond the Mojave, I can make out the jagged escarpment of the Sierra Nevada and the sheer hollow of the Owens Valley. I know it well. Some of the greatest beauty, terror, and sorrow of my career came out of that abysmal, parched valley. It was only 10 years ago, but it seems like another lifetime.
In the fall of 2003, I was a 22-year-old newly married “freight dog” facing unemployment with the impending liquidation of my small Part 135 employer. Few airlines were hiring in the wake of 9/11, and with 1,700 hours I was still considered a “low-timer.” Regional carriers back then still insisted that pilots gain experience before being unleashed on 50 paying passengers. Thus I jumped at the chance to fly for Ameriflight, then and now among the largest and most reputable of Part 135 cargo operators. Like all new hires at the Burbank base, I was assigned the Piper PA-32R Lance, a sturdy single-engine workhorse I had flown at my last job. As the most junior Lance pilot, I inherited Route 132, from Burbank to Mammoth Lakes via the Owens Valley.
Amflight 132 had a fearsome reputation among Ameriflight crew members, just as many California GA pilots speak of the Owens Valley in dread tones. Brent Cordill, the pilot who flew the route before me, often wore a football helmet into the valley. Another pilot before him reportedly quit on the spot on a bad day, preferring to take Greyhound back to LA. Severe turbulence, howling crosswinds and fierce snowstorms were all common wintertime occurrences. I ended up flying the route five days a week from October 2003 through April 2004.
A Severe Beauty
The first time I flew Amflight 132 under Brent’s tutelage, it was a still, clear autumn day. In such conditions, the three-hop trip to Mammoth Lakes was an enjoyable one. I departed Burbank at 6:30 a.m. with 400 pounds of canceled checks destined for the drawers’ banks. Climbing out through the Newhall Pass, I skirted the western Mojave to Inyokern, near China Lake. After dropping off a dozen sealed canvas bank bags at Inyokern, I took off to the northwest and aimed for Owens Dry Lake, where I entered the valley proper.
Here some description is necessary for the uninitiated, though words do little justice to the severe beauty of the place. The Owens Valley is an 80-mile-long, stirringly dramatic gorge — one of the deepest in the country — hewn between the vertiginous wall of the Sierra Nevada to the west and the White and Inyo Mountains to the east. Many peaks on both sides rise above 14,000 feet. The valley floor averages 8 miles wide and is mostly flat at around 4,000 feet elevation, with one exception: Crater Mountain, a large dark-red cinder cone plopped in the middle of the valley 20 miles south of Bishop.
The Owens Valley is sparsely populated, treeless and arid, but it wasn’t always like that: Runoff from the Sierra made the valley bloom until the beginning of the 20th century, when a burgeoning Los Angeles acquired water rights under shadowy circumstances, constructed an aqueduct and drained the valley of its lifeblood. The enraged, doomed ranchers of the valley responded with bullets and dynamite, igniting a low-grade civil war. Into this newly desiccated high-walled prison, the U.S. government deposited some 11,000 Japanese-Americans for the duration of World War II. Manzanar internment camp was quietly erased after the war, but from the air one can still see the barracks’ sun-bleached foundations scattered among scrub brush in the shadow of Mount Whitney.