So there I was, wondering if the dark side of the moon was half this cold as I finished the preflight of my Cessna Caravan with the big FedEx logo painted on the side. It was winter in Bishop, California, on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which runs down the back of California. Now, slope is probably the wrong word as those mountains pretty much go straight up.
Early that morning I had departed Ontario, California, on an IFR flight plan to Inyokern, which is also on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. It had been an easy, straight-in visual approach, a quick turn to drop off about half my load of packages, and then VFR up the Owens Valley to Bishop. Owens Valley, with Death Valley to the east and the Sierras to the west, has one of the largest rises in terrain in the United States from the burning sands to the snow-covered peaks. And I got to fly it every morning and afternoon — what a view! Of course, there were those days when the wind would push up the western slope and spill over into the Owens Valley, giving me a ride where it did not seem to matter if I held on to the yoke or not; the airplane was just a leaf in the wind. On those days I would question my choice of profession and talk to God.
As I was finishing up my preflight, the FedEx trucks rolled up and the drivers set up their scales, which mounted onto the conveyer/roller system used to load the airplane. In no time at all, the Caravan was loaded and I was on my way down the valley to Inyokern. Due to terrain, there is no IFR routing between Bishop and Inyokern; this had not been a problem up to now. On checking the weather before departure, Inyokern was VFR, as was Bishop … well, as they say, marginal VFR. There was low overcast and light snow reported between the two.
I was hardly out of the traffic pattern when I decided this was not going to work and it was definitely not VFR. Then everything turned an optic white. I had gone IMC. I’d made a turn toward U.S. 395, so a simple 180 would not take me back to the airport. It seemed like just a few heartbeats and I was engulfed in a full-fledged snowstorm and could only see straight down. I probably should’ve been doing something smart, but all I could think of was a line from some long-forgotten movie: “Your son died because he was stupid.”
Stupid or not, I was not ready to buy the farm just yet. The gods smiled on me as my RMI was tuned to the VOR on the field there at Bishop. I put that needle on the nose and no sooner than I had rolled wings level, the airport was under me. I pulled the power lever to idle, slapped the flaps to full and pointed the nose toward the runway. Between that big old Hartzell prop going to flat pitch and those barn-door flaps reaching full, that Caravan slowed immediately.
I’m not sure that the folks down at the local FSDO would have approved of my pitch or bank angle, but as I was circling and descending to the runway the visibility was improving, and soon I could clearly see the threshold markings through the swirling snow. Let me tell you, no centerfold has ever looked so good or welcoming as those simple white lines did on the black asphalt.
Back on the ground and filling in the flight log, I realized I had been in the air less than 10 minutes, 0.1 hours to be exact. In the line shack — it was a shack back in those days — I called dispatch and explained that there was no getting to Inyokern this evening, fully expecting them to tell me to go back to the hotel — wrong again. They wanted me to file IFR and fly over the Sierra Nevada to Lancaster, where the FedEx truck from Inyokern would meet me. Great. So I topped off, filed, and off into the wild white I went.
Now, there is no way that the Caravan — or anything short of the space shuttle — is going to outclimb the Sierras, so I was off to a holding fix, climbing, climbing, climbing to 16,000 feet, and then pointing the nose west. Once level at 16,000, I thought to myself, “Single pilot, single engine, unpressurized and on O2, over the Sierras at night in a snowstorm … doesn’t get much better than this. ” Then I noticed my ground speed was all of 95 knots. Normal for the Caravan is around 165 knots. Dang, in my hurry to get on my way, I did not check the winds aloft. Now I’m thinking about fuel because we carry much more than what’s legally required. Doing some quick math and checking the charts I soon saw that, even at 95 knots, I should be over the highest terrain shortly and able to start milking my way down to the lower minimum en route altitudes. If the wind let up just a bit, I’d make it to Lancaster just fine.
I was right about the point where I could get down to the lower MEAs, and the wind did indeed let up significantly. The snow had been replaced by rain. Or rather, ice. As many of you may know, there have been quite a few freight-hauling Caravans that came to an untimely end due to ice. Fact is, the POH for the Caravan says something to the effect of “if at full power you cannot maintain 108 kias, sacrifice altitude for airspeed.” That was a sentence I had hoped never to have to contemplate, but even as I worked the boots for all they were worth, it was a losing battle, and airspeed was headed slowly but surely south. At this time I was still about 6,000 feet, so I got on the radio and asked ATC for vectors out over the Great Central Valley of California, where I knew the MEAs run about 3,000 feet, and hoped the OAT was above freezing. It is on these nights that ATC becomes your best friend. As I got cleared to a lower altitude, off went the ice.
Now I headed down the valley to Bakersfield and then a little left over the Tehachapi Mountains and down into Lancaster. All went well as I was handed from one controller to the next. Off in the distance I saw quite a bit of lightning, but it was mostly clear from my current position to Lancaster, and I was able to shoot a visual approach. I shut down on the dark ramp, climbed down from the cockpit and noticed the place was deserted. Where was everyone?
I started looking around for a pay phone to call dispatch. I saw a figure walking toward me, under the dim overhead light of the FBO. He had an old cowpoke way about him, wearing an ancient, dirty Oakland Raiders ball cap, soiled especially bad on the bill where he lifted it on and off his head. His clothes sort of hung on his skinny, rail-looking frame, which vaguely reminded me of a piece of beef jerky. He asked, “You the pilot of that plane?” There not being another soul around, I was tempted to say something smart, but, being tired and needing answers and fuel, I replied, “You bet.”
“Well,” he said, “the boys in the FedEx van have been here and gone. They said to tell you just to head to Ontario.” I wondered if I should take his word for it as he proceeded to ask if I needed fuel. As soon as I checked in with Center, they told me to contact the company, which now informed me that I had missed the connecting flight out of Ontario and that I needed to take my load on into LAX.
After a little dance with Center and LAX Approach Control, I headed to the big city. All the lightning I had seen earlier now looked like someone had spilled colored popcorn all over my radar screen. It seemed like every airline on frequency was asking for a weather diversion. There I was, low and slow, trying to get a word in edgewise, with Approach trying to work me around weather and the fast movers. Once again that night, I was thanking the great spirit in the sky for fast, efficient and understanding controllers. Landing long on Runway 7R and taxiing straight into the cargo ramp, I was happy to see that the folks there expected me. I took my first relaxed breath of the night and enjoyed the lights of Southern California on the short hop to ONT.
It was past 10 p.m. when I tied the airplane down for the night, checked the oil while it was still warm, did a quick post-flight walk around, and reflected briefly on all that had transpired for me to make it to that spot on that ramp that night.
Back at the hotel, my roommate long since turned in, I sat on the edge of the bed and thought to myself, “What a night!”