Because the TriPacer had been sitting out in the weather, I turned back briefly to see if maybe Larry had encountered a problem and had had to land somewhere in the desert. But I couldn’t spend too much time because I was running low on fuel. Then, all of a sudden, I noticed the oil temperature and oil pressure were decreasing. The Continental engine in the Taylorcraft had a history of using oil, so I had brought a few quarts with me just in case. Deciding to land somewhere before I seized up the engine, I found a beautiful landing spot on the desert floor and gently put the airplane down without a problem. Sure enough, the engine was low on oil. After adding three quarts of oil, I took off for Lake Havasu City. I really didn’t know how long I had been in the air, but I did know that I was running low on fuel and that the nearest fuel stop was Lake Havasu City. I had already used the fuel in the wing tanks, so I knew when the wire fuel gauge attached to a cork in the nose tank could no longer be seen that I really needed to be on final approach to land — somewhere.
As I got closer to Lake Havasu City I was able to contact Flight Service and advise them that I was running low on fuel and really didn’t think I would be able to make the airport. They said they would leave the communication line open for me and that they would notify the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) just in case I had to make an emergency landing. No sooner had I said that than the engine quit, and I was committed to land somewhere for sure. In scanning around, the best place I spotted was a cleared-out firebreak on the side of a mountain that looked pretty decent for landing. I advised Flight Service of my intentions and said I was going down. They said they were alerting the CAP and wished me good luck.
The firebreak was located on the side of Cross Mountain, and by landing uphill I felt the airplane shouldn’t roll much after touchdown. Plus, I had no other place to land. My approach looked good and the landing was reasonably smooth until I ran through a tall Joshua tree, which made a nice slice in the fabric on the underside of the wing. I had just about stopped and all seemed well and good until I hit a large boulder with the left tire. It was just big enough to cause a jolt and shear the forward attach bolt on the landing gear, along with snapping the landing gear’s rubber bungees. By then I had come to a full stop and was on the ground, safe and sound.
All I had with me in the airplane were my jacket and a briefcase that I used to carry all my charts and flying junk. No sooner had I climbed out of the airplane than I could see and hear the CAP airplanes circling overhead. They then rocked their wings in acknowledgment and headed back west toward Lake Havasu City. Even as early as it was, I knew the winter sun would be going down soon, and I really needed to be out of these mountains before nightfall. So with briefcase in hand (which I could have safely left behind!), I started hiking west toward Lake Havasu City.
After at least an hour of hiking (hill climbing!) I neared a peak, at the top of which I had the biggest and most welcome surprise: There in front of me was an International Scout with two men. One jumped out of the Scout and asked, “I assume you’re the downed pilot?” At the time this seemed like a strange question, since it must be a rare occasion for someone to walk around in the desert hills (much less with a briefcase). I replied, “Absolutely!” and said that I sure was glad to see them. As we headed back toward Lake Havasu City, I was feeling pretty good about myself considering I had just crashed an airplane on the side of a mountain and walked away without a scratch. That is, until one of the men asked me how I was going to get the airplane off the side of the mountain. For just an instant I felt sick to my stomach. Here I had a borrowed airplane stuck on the side of a mountain and I had no idea what I was going to do to get it off.
I told him the only thing I could think of, which was that, if I could get some help and some fuel, I thought I could fly it back off. They said that would not be a problem and we would go back to the airport and get what I needed. One of the gentlemen said that, before we started back to retrieve the airplane, there was someone in Lake Havasu who wanted to meet me. He said it wouldn’t take long, but it was important. It took us about a half-hour to get back to Lake Havasu in the Scout, and we immediately drove to a large convention center. As we entered the building I was escorted to the stage area, where a man was talking to people filling a large room. At that moment he stopped talking, walked over to me, put his arm around me, said “I’m Robert McCulloch” and escorted me to the microphone. At the time I had no idea who Robert McCulloch was! He then reached for the microphone and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I want to introduce you to the pilot you’ve been hearing so much about this afternoon. He is here in front of you safe and sound.” At that time everyone stood up and clapped, making me feel kind of like a celebrity.
McCulloch then asked me what my plans were. I said I would go back to the airplane, make some temporary repairs, put some gas in it and fly it off the mountain back to Lake Havasu City. McCulloch then jokingly said, “In my opinion, you should head straight for Las Vegas; with your luck you couldn’t lose.” Everyone in the building laughed. As I was leaving, McCulloch said something to the two men who had brought me, and after that we headed for the airport. When we arrived, I met with the airport workers along with their supervisor, who asked what I needed. I told him that I needed a three-eighth-inch bolt about three inches long, some heavy rope, five gallons of gas, some tools and some men to help remove a big boulder, along with some help to clear me a short runway down the mountain. He laughingly said, “You’ve got it!” So in short order, we loaded vehicles with a dozen men and equipment and headed back to Cross Mountain.
The temporary repair was not a problem, and in short order the Taylorcraft was back on its gear. Then, after moving the boulder out of the way, the next step was to walk the firebreak off to see how much room I had for takeoff and to inspect for any obstructions. I knew that, as light as the Taylorcraft was, I could get airborne in 400 feet. I stepped off the proposed runway and tied a white rag to sagebrush at the 400-foot mark. I then looked down the side of the mountain and could clearly see that there was more than ample room in the canyon to dive down and safely climb back out toward my destination.