The next step was to turn the airplane around and head it down the mountain. I suggested to the workers that a couple of men hold the airplane on each side by the wing struts until I brought the engine up to full power and then, on my signal, push as hard as they could to help me get rolling. I thanked everyone and climbed in the airplane.
Everyone was in position, and in short order the little Continental engine fired right up. All seemed set, but then again the best-laid plans don’t always work. It seems the guys on the right side saw my signal, but the guys on the left didn’t, and they were hanging on for dear life. Then, as the airplane started to veer sharply to the left, rapidly approaching the direction of the cliff on the left side, they started to shove the airplane back and got out of the way. I was able to get the airplane straightened out, but in doing so I also lost some of my momentum as well as some needed runway. Headed down the mountain path, I was waiting and watching for the airspeed indicator to start to climb. I knew I needed at least 35 or 40 mph to yank the airplane off, and it just wasn’t there. To make matters worse, I went past my marker, but just at that time the airspeed indicator hit 35. In desperation I yanked the control wheel back and threw in left aileron, and down I went into the canyon gaining the much-needed airspeed.
The T-craft was flying and it started climbing at the same time. As I climbed out of the canyon I could see everyone jumping and waving as I rocked my wings in acknowledgment and headed west to Lake Havasu City. When I reached the airport it was just turning dark as I touched down on the runway, and I believe it was the best landing I ever made. As I taxied up in front of the flight office, several men came out to greet me and said McCulloch wanted to see me as soon as I landed. When we arrived back at the center, the afternoon meeting was over and McCulloch was in his office. He again wanted to know what I planned next. I suggested that my wife would be really worried about me and so I should fuel up the airplane and head on home even though it was nighttime. Much to my surprise he said he really didn’t want me to do that and if I needed to get home he would have his pilots fly me back to Los Angeles if I could get a ride home from there. I told him that would certainly not be a problem and thanked him for his hospitality. I then asked about paying for all the workers that helped. He said they all worked for him and he was just glad to be of help, and to enjoy my flight home.
So we headed back to the airport. In the meantime, all the guys who helped had returned and were waiting for me. We all shook hands and I personally thanked each and every one of them with all my heart. I asked about what I should do about the Taylorcraft since I was leaving, and they said they would take care of it until I came back for it. I called my wife in Simi Valley and told her what had happened and that they were going to fly me to the Los Angeles (LAX) Airport. I was told we would be there in about an hour or so, but I had no idea what kind of airplane McCulloch had or exactly how long it would take to fly to LAX.
As I sat in the airport waiting room awaiting McCulloch’s airplane and pilots, I heard this great roar of engines outside. There on the ramp was a beautiful Lockheed Constellation (N90823) with two of the engines running.
The cabin door opened and a young lady came down the portable ramp and asked me if I was the passenger going to LA. I told her I was and she escorted me, with briefcase in hand, up the ramp stairs into this magnificent — and empty of passengers — airplane. I sat down in what felt like the first-class section (if it existed on this airplane) and buckled in for the flight. I watched out the window as the crew fired up the remaining two engines. They coughed and shot out flames and smoke as they came to life. If you have never seen large radial engines start at night, it is a sight to behold.
Not long after takeoff, I was invited to the cockpit, and the pilot asked if I would like to fly the airplane. Well, here I was a 26-year-old private pilot, and I couldn’t wait to get behind the controls of this great airplane. So when the first officer got up, I climbed into his seat and took the controls. The pilot let me fly the airplane for about 30 minutes before he said that he needed to return to his seat for landing. Reluctantly, I went back to my seat. After about an hour’s flight we landed at LAX and pulled up to the ramp on the south side of the airport. As I was preparing to leave the airplane, the pilot handed me a note that had a phone number written on it. He said, “Mr. McCulloch said, when you are ready to come back for your airplane, to call this number and tell them who you are and that there will be a seat reserved for your flight back to Lake Havasu City.”
My family was waiting for me, but before we left for home we watched as the grand Connie taxied back out for its return trip to Lake Havasu City. I was still mesmerized by the afternoon’s happenings and the flight back home in the Connie.
The weather didn’t cooperate much for the next couple of weeks, but then finally it broke and I was ready to go get the Taylorcraft. I called the number to see when I would be able to return to Lake Havasu City. The lady on the phone said that there was a flight the next morning leaving at 9 o’clock and that they had a seat reserved for me. So the next morning my wife drove me back to LAX, where the Connie was waiting for me to board, but this time I wasn’t alone. A group of prospective landowners that McCulloch had invited to look over Lake Havasu City property were on the flight too.
The flight back to Lake Havasu City was every bit as exciting as the flight to LAX, except that I didn’t get to sit up front in the cockpit. We landed in Lake Havasu City a little before lunch. I inquired about the Taylorcraft with the folks at the flight office and they said it was in the hangar and they would bring it around for me. It wasn’t long before they had it out on the ramp. To my surprise, the airplane was already fueled, the tear on the underside of the wing had been repaired (but not painted) and the landing gear had been repaired with new bolts and rubber bungees installed, none of which I had asked for or authorized. I was informed at the flight office that McCulloch was concerned about me flying the airplane back with damage so he had his shop fix everything and that the bill had been taken care of!
I later tried to contact McCulloch to personally thank him but never was able to reach him. In case you are not familiar with Robert P. McCulloch, he is famous for his chain saws and engines used back in the go-cart days.
Oh! And I guess you might wonder what happened to the TriPacer. Larry did make it home that afternoon. He later told me that, since I was considerably slower and he really needed to get back home, he had flown on ahead assuming I would make it fine. Little did he know!
Read more about Dick Russ’ cross-country trip, Larry and the TriPacer, and McCullough in the unabridged version in the February iPad edition.