(February 2012) This story is not only about an aviation experience, but it is also about a man who went out of his way to help a young pilot he didn’t even know. It is also a story about meeting some really great people in this country.
It all happened back in 1964 when I was living in Simi Valley, California, where I was a test engineer working on the Saturn S-II project at Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana rocket test facility in the Santa Susana Mountains. My wife (now ex) and two children were on the return portion of a cross-country trip in a TriPacer I had borrowed. We were heading home from Wiley Post Airport (KPWA) after attending my sister-in-law’s wedding in Oklahoma City.
It was the first cross-country trip I had planned since training for my private, and my only flying at that time had been in a two-seat 85 hp Taylorcraft BC-12D that I flew off of Simi’s short dirt strip. I didn’t own the Taylorcraft but had full use of it since I had restored it for the owner in exchange for being able to fly it. But the two-seater wouldn’t work for a family of four. Fortunately, another friend I worked with on the space program had a four-place Piper TriPacer I could use for the trip in exchange for some work on the airplane when I got back. (Being an A&P has its rewards at times, especially when you like to fly and you don’t have an airplane.)
Unlike the trip to KPWA, which went mostly without a hitch, the return trip presented its challenges, to say the least. The weather was still beautiful in Oklahoma City, but there was a possibility of snow showers in Arizona. We pushed on. We had some good winds to help, so my first fuel stop would be Albuquerque, New Mexico. In checking the weather in Albuquerque, it looked good all the way to Winslow, Arizona, but iffy from there to California. By the time we arrived in Winslow, the sky was overcast but still VFR. After fueling the airplane, a check with Winslow Flight Service revealed that the snow was forecast to be light and there was a (remote) possibility that we could make the flight and stay VFR. Needing to get home, I thought we would at least give it a try. It was late in the afternoon when we took off, but with the time change we still had plenty of daylight left. As we headed west the light snow turned heavy and visibility dropped. VFR flight seemed increasingly less probable. At that time I did not have an instrument rating, so I turned the airplane around and headed back to Winslow, where we rented a car and drove the remainder of the trip home.
The next day I called the TriPacer owner and told him I had to leave his airplane in Arizona and I would get the airplane back as soon as the weather allowed. He wasn’t too happy about that but said he understood. After I told my tale to a good pilot friend of mine, Larry Barrows, he generously offered to pick the airplane up for me. Larry was an airline captain for Flying Tigers freight lines and could fly free on the airlines to Winslow. So with that good fortune, I gave him the keys to the airplane. The following weekend Larry was set to go. The weather didn’t look that good to me, but then again Larry was a good pilot used to flying in all kinds of weather. If he wasn’t concerned, why should I be?
Eventually I heard from Larry’s wife that Larry was back in Winslow. He told her he had run into some bad weather and landed the airplane in a field somewhere along the highway in Arizona. He had hitched a ride back to Winslow and would be back later that night. When he got back to Simi, Larry told me the field where he landed the airplane was frozen over and made a perfect landing spot. He also suggested that as soon as the weather was good we should jump in the Taylorcraft and go pick up the airplane. So the following Saturday morning we jumped into the Taylorcraft and headed east to someplace in Arizona to see if we could find the TriPacer. Now, this was in the days of no GPS, and you flew by dead reckoning or a VOR navigator (if you had one). Fortunately Larry knew approximately how far the airplane was from Winslow. So with a road map we followed the highway, and it didn’t take long until we spotted the airplane. What we didn’t know was that the ground was no longer frozen over and was very soft from the melting snow. Fortunately, the Taylorcraft was reasonably lightweight, and being a tailwheel airplane, it wasn’t a serious problem to land it on the soft turf. After landing, we inspected the TriPacer, and it seemed no worse for wear from sitting out in the Arizona weather.
In the soft mud the TriPacer used every bit of the field, but made it off just fine. Our plan was to stop in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, for fuel and then fly direct to Simi Valley. We agreed we would talk to each other along the way on the multicom frequency and if either had a problem we would be able to help each other if possible. What we hadn’t discussed was the difference in airspeed, with the TriPacer flying at 125 mph and the Taylorcraft at 85. By the time we were over the desert somewhere near Bagdad, Arizona, I had lost sight of the TriPacer and lost radio contact with Larry.