Life and Death: Flying the Owens Valley
Given the limitations of the route, Ameriflight gave me a lot of leeway in decision-making; the only cardinal rule was “Don’t get stuck.” On really bad mornings, I flew as far up the valley as I could, and the Mammoth couriers drove down Highway 395 to pick up their bank bags. During layovers, I kept a close eye on the weather and scooted out to the airport at the first sign of snow moving out of the mountains. If it started getting bad at Mammoth, I repositioned to Bishop or even farther south as conditions warranted. Once, an unexpectedly strong cold front chased me down the valley all day, with snow squalls and low ceilings; the couriers finally caught up with me that night in Lancaster, a mere 40 miles from Burbank.
The Sierra Wave
An interesting piece of local lore underscored the terrific forces that were regularly leaving bruises on my head and lap. The Sierra Wave Project was a 1951-1952 collaboration among the Southern California Soaring Society, the Air Force and UCLA’s meteorology department. At the time, the standing mountain wave phenomenon was not well understood, so this small group of enthusiasts and scientists beefed up two gliders, equipped them with atmospheric instrumentation, and then launched them into conditions similar to those I was experiencing. Pilots with the Sierra Wave Project shattered world soaring records for altitude, endurance and distance, some of which stood for decades afterward. They also lost a glider near Bishop, when the tail snapped off in extreme rotor conditions; the instruments recorded a gust of some 160 mph that put over 16G load on the airframe. The pilot bailed out and escaped with his life after a wild ride through the rotor under parachute.
I received yet another demonstration of the Sierra Wave’s awesome power on a seemingly benign afternoon, with nothing worse than moderate turbulence most of the way down the valley. Passing Owens Dry Lake, though, the ride became increasingly wild. I dropped lower as I approached Inyokern, only to get knocked to a near-vertical bank several times. Suddenly, as I descended through 6,500 feet, the turbulence abruptly and totally ceased. Something wasn’t right. I looked down to find the VSI pegged upward and the airspeed approaching redline. I chopped the throttle to idle; it made little difference. I gained 4,000 feet, power off in silky-smooth wave, in under two minutes. I didn’t have the oxygen or the inclination to find out how high the wave would take me; I turned downwind and within a mile or two was riding it down as fast as I’d gone up.
A few months of such adventures and I was ready to be done with the valley forever. Luckily, in January a slot opened up on the twin-engine Piper PA-31 Navajo/Chieftain. Shortly before my training date, I route-trained my replacement on Amflight 132. Michael Ahn and I had worked together at my previous cargo outfit, as well as a flight school before that. On the second day of route training, we were napping at the layover condo in Mammoth Lakes when something woke me up: the first snowflakes of an ugly-looking storm coming over the mountain. We raced to the airport, fired up, and were nearly to the runway when a wall of white engulfed our little airplane. Having broken the cardinal rule, we shut down and returned to the condo to watch 3 feet of unforecast snow bury the town overnight.
A Clear Blue Day
The following Monday I was in PA-31 training, and Mike was on Amflight 132. It was an utterly miserable week in the valley, one of the worst of the winter. Mike never made it all the way to Mammoth, instead passing time and watching the weather from the Bishop FBO’s pilot lounge. I saw him that Friday, and he looked completely beat up. “I don’t know how you do this!” he sputtered. “Don’t worry, it’ll get better,” I assured him.
Indeed, the next Wednesday, Jan. 21, dawned still and clear all the way up the west coast. I flew the early Chieftain run to Oakland under instructor supervision and was back by midmorning. The next day, I reported to Burbank for the last training flight before my check ride and was passing the unusually subdued dispatch office when a notice tacked to the message board caught my eye:
“Ameriflight regrets to announce the loss of Lance N8701E, operating as Amflight 132, yesterday near Bishop, California. The pilot, Captain Michael Ahn, was fatally injured ….”
I stood blinking with incomprehension. Amflight 132 is my route! What’s this about Mike? Mike can’t be gone. It was a good day in the valley! I turned to the glum-faced dispatchers, who somberly affirmed the terrible news. In shock, I called up two of our mutual friends; they had heard the previous evening and had little to say. There was nothing to do but collect my instructor, strap into a Navajo, and take off to practice NDB approaches and single-engine landings through choked-back tears.
I passed my PA-31 check ride the next day but was back in the valley by Monday. With Mike’s death, the company needed Lance pilots more than it needed PA-31 captains. When I landed at Inyokern, Dottie threw her arms around me and sobbed, a startling display of emotion from a woman not given to it. She had been the last person to see Mike alive, and the news had hit her hard. In subsequent weeks, I couldn’t be two minutes late without Dottie calling the company to worriedly inquire about my whereabouts.