Life and Death: Flying the Owens Valley

The perils of single-engine freight-dogging in the high country.

Illustrations by Barry Ross|

Climbing through 15,000 feet, I breathe a sigh of relief, slide my seat back and take a look around. Orange County, California, has one of the busier departure procedures in the country, and it’s a bit of a workout even when you’re familiar with it. But now that we’re high above the LAX Class B and talking to LA Center, there’s time to gaze down on some very familiar territory from my misbegotten youth. Nestled in the mountains to our right is Big Bear Airport, where, as a new instructor, I nearly paid the price for an ill-advised hot and high takeoff. Brackett Field, my home airport in those days, is sliding beneath us. Ahead is the impassive Mojave Desert, above which I spent so many dark, lonely nights hauling checks. And to my left, in the hazy distance beyond the Mojave, I can make out the jagged escarpment of the Sierra Nevada and the sheer hollow of the Owens Valley. I know it well. Some of the greatest beauty, terror, and sorrow of my career came out of that abysmal, parched valley. It was only 10 years ago, but it seems like another lifetime.

In the fall of 2003, I was a 22-year-old newly married “freight dog” facing unemployment with the impending liquidation of my small Part 135 employer. Few airlines were hiring in the wake of 9/11, and with 1,700 hours I was still considered a “low-timer.” Regional carriers back then still insisted that pilots gain experience before being unleashed on 50 paying passengers. Thus I jumped at the chance to fly for Ameriflight, then and now among the largest and most reputable of Part 135 cargo operators. Like all new hires at the Burbank base, I was assigned the Piper PA-32R Lance, a sturdy single-engine workhorse I had flown at my last job. As the most junior Lance pilot, I inherited Route 132, from Burbank to Mammoth Lakes via the Owens Valley.

Amflight 132 had a fearsome reputation among Ameriflight crew members, just as many California GA pilots speak of the Owens Valley in dread tones. Brent Cordill, the pilot who flew the route before me, often wore a football helmet into the valley. Another pilot before him reportedly quit on the spot on a bad day, preferring to take Greyhound back to LA. Severe turbulence, howling crosswinds and fierce snowstorms were all common wintertime occurrences. I ended up flying the route five days a week from October 2003 through April 2004.

A Severe Beauty

The first time I flew Amflight 132 under Brent’s tutelage, it was a still, clear autumn day. In such conditions, the three-hop trip to Mammoth Lakes was an enjoyable one. I departed Burbank at 6:30 a.m. with 400 pounds of canceled checks destined for the drawers’ banks. Climbing out through the Newhall Pass, I skirted the western Mojave to Inyokern, near China Lake. After dropping off a dozen sealed canvas bank bags at Inyokern, I took off to the northwest and aimed for Owens Dry Lake, where I entered the valley proper.

Here some description is necessary for the uninitiated, though words do little justice to the severe beauty of the place. The Owens Valley is an 80-mile-long, stirringly dramatic gorge — one of the deepest in the country — hewn between the vertiginous wall of the Sierra Nevada to the west and the White and Inyo Mountains to the east. Many peaks on both sides rise above 14,000 feet. The valley floor averages 8 miles wide and is mostly flat at around 4,000 feet elevation, with one exception: Crater Mountain, a large dark-red cinder cone plopped in the middle of the valley 20 miles south of Bishop.

The Owens Valley is sparsely populated, treeless and arid, but it wasn’t always like that: Runoff from the Sierra made the valley bloom until the beginning of the 20th century, when a burgeoning Los Angeles acquired water rights under shadowy circumstances, constructed an aqueduct and drained the valley of its lifeblood. The enraged, doomed ranchers of the valley responded with bullets and dynamite, igniting a low-grade civil war. Into this newly desiccated high-walled prison, the U.S. government deposited some 11,000 Japanese-Americans for the duration of World War II. Manzanar internment camp was quietly erased after the war, but from the air one can still see the barracks’ sun-bleached foundations scattered among scrub brush in the shadow of Mount Whitney.

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The valley took about 30 minutes to traverse, from Owens Dry Lake in the south to Bishop Airport in the north. Here I landed to offload more bags, and then made the final hop over the Sherman Grade to Mammoth-Yosemite Airport’s lofty elevation of 7,100 feet. After unloading the last of the checks, I drove the crew car — an ancient, decrepit Dodge Colt — into the ski village of Mammoth Lakes, where Ameriflight owned a condo it had bought on the cheap during the volcano scare of the 1990s. At 4 p.m., I returned to the airport, awaited the arrival of the outgoing bank bags and departed for Bishop. The afternoon route was the same as the morning’s, but in reverse, arriving back home in Burbank around 7:30 p.m.

That was how the route usually went on good days. I enjoyed the stark beauty of the valley and the implacable wall of the Sierra; I appreciated the change of pace and fresh mountain air afforded by the seven-hour layover in Mammoth Lakes. I befriended a few locals: the waitresses at my morning cafe, the town librarians, the laid-back staff at Hot Creek Aviation. I also got to know the route’s lead couriers quite well, for they were the first to meet an arriving flight and the last to see it off. At Inyokern the lead was Dottie, a hard-bitten, boozing old desert rat who seldom had a kind word for anything or anybody. In Bishop it was Bill, a genial mountain of a man with wild, upcurled eyebrows. Dottie and Bill held court while the other couriers came and went, and woe be to the pilot who wasn’t ready to launch when the last bank bag arrived.

A Wild Ride

The good days outnumbered the bad, but I came to live in dread of the bad days, which could be very bad indeed. I never knew for sure what kind of day it would be until I was in the valley. A Pacific storm making landfall farther up the coast was cause for concern, although it depended on the strength of the storm and exactly where it came ashore. I’d take off from Inyokern and turn northward, light chop quickly increasing to moderate turbulence. I’d spy bone-white lenticulars standing sentinel over the high Sierra in a bright blue sky smudged with dusty haze. At Owens Dry Lake, I’d find great ochre streaks of poisonous dust scouring the alkaline lake bed. Rounding the bend into the valley, I might even spot the evil torn wisp of a rotor cloud ahead. At this I slowed the airplane below 100 knots, tightened my seat belt as snugly as it would go, and dropped down to 6,500 feet or lower in preparation for the maelstrom.

The Sierra came alive; I watched angry squalls clamber over the peaks and squeeze through the canyons at breakneck speed. I would be slogging miserably along, getting knocked off my line into 30-degree banks, when I came abeam the mouth of one of these canyons. I knew exactly what was going to happen. I hunched over like a crippled man, one hand death-gripping the instrument panel and the other clutching the yoke, and waited. I could predict almost to the second when the hapless little Lance would be struck with terrible force, two or three times in quick succession, before getting tossed onto its side. No matter how low I hunched, my head would hit the headliner or slam into the side window, and I’d woozily crank over full aileron in an attempt to right the ship before it was struck again. This continued all the way to Bishop — 30 interminable, hellish minutes.

The northern end of the valley was usually a bit less violent, but then I was faced with the prospect of landing in blistering 40-knot winds. At Bishop this wasn’t so hard, given the airport’s three-runway layout that makes for manageable crosswinds. Mammoth Lakes, however, has a single east-west runway. Frequently, there was a direct crosswind with moderate to severe turbulence. Most of the time, I was able to get the sturdy Lance on the ground in one or two tries. If not, I’d beat a retreat to Bishop, getting bashed the whole way.

Sudden snowstorms were another frequent hazard on the route. You could reasonably predict that it would be snowing in the Sierra itself during any cold-front activity, but it was impossible to tell when the weather would sneak over the high peaks into the valley. With minimum en route altitudes of 16,000 feet, IFR was out of the question; the route was strictly VFR north of Inyokern. There were a few airports along the way if conditions got really bad.

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.

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The Sirens of Crater Mountain

Unsettling details about the crash emerged. Mike had clipped the very top of Crater Mountain, the lone cinder cone in the middle of the valley, in straight and level flight and at cruise airspeed. He had talked to Joshua Approach earlier in the flight but canceled radar advisories around Owens Dry Lake, as usual. The last radar returns showed a track heading roughly toward Crater Mountain and, more unusually, the start of a slow descent. I now flew over the accident site twice a day, wondering what had lured Mike to his fate on that lonely outcropping.

Investigators from the NTSB interviewed me, and they were clearly focusing on pilot fatigue. Two previously innocuous incidents took on new significance. On the first day of route training, Mike was tired between Inyokern and Bishop and asked me if he could take a short nap. It was an uneventful portion of the flight, so I said yes. The next day, he fell asleep in the same area, 15 minutes south of Crater Mountain, without asking first. When the NTSB’s final report came out, it mentioned my statement, as well as several other facts that would suggest chronic fatigue, but ruled the probable cause to be the “failure of the pilot to maintain clearance with mountainous terrain for undetermined reasons.” The cause of the crash will never be known for sure, but everyone’s best guess is that Mike was simply dog-tired, let his guard down, and nodded off on a beautiful day in the valley.

Weeks and months went by without another PA-31 slot in sight, and so I stayed on Amflight 132 through the winter. I could have bid another Lance route by now but didn’t, perhaps out of lingering guilt over my role in Mike’s death. It was because of my training that he was on my route, and I’d missed the warning signs when he had fallen asleep. The guilt may have been misplaced, but it imbued the valley with a more sinister character. Now the bad days felt personal, like I was being punished. The sunny days of early spring felt like soothing lullabies crooned by the sirens of Crater Mountain.

Springtime in the Valley

Ameriflight actually lost two airplanes in the week of Mike’s death. A Metroliner crash in Spokane killed the Seattle base chief pilot, who had thousands of hours in type, and occurred under similarly puzzling circumstances. Even at reputable operators like Ameriflight, single-pilot Part 135 is a risky business. Besides Mike, one of my first flight instructors was killed flying night freight, and I’d had a few scares myself. I often thought about that beefed-up glider torn apart by the Sierra rotor. The Lances were built strong and were well maintained, but they were nearly 30 years old and had suffered many rough trips up the Owens Valley. I made up my mind to leave and redoubled my efforts to get hired at a regional airline.

On a still, clear spring day in the valley, I got the telephone call that led to my first airline job. I route-trained my replacement and left Amflight 132 as snowmelt poured from the Sierra and made the parched valley floor bloom again for a few weeks of springtime. My last day at Ameriflight was spent flying the Chieftain from Las Vegas to Burbank, and so I ended my Part 135 career where it began, where I’d fought my own battles against sleep by the dim red light of a gently rocking, thrumming cocoon suspended in the inky void of a Mojave night.

The Owens Valley continued to challenge Ameriflight’s new pilots for a few more years before technology finally made the check-flying business obsolete and put an end to the stout Lance’s long, faithful service. Bill, the friendly lead courier from Bishop, wrote me after the last flight of Amflight 132, and again when Dottie passed away shortly thereafter. She talked about Mike and me up until the end, Bill said. I think about that lonely old lady now and then, and Mike, and the Lance, and the angry gods of the Sierra. The joys and sorrows of those days come rushing back even now, as I gaze out of my flight-deck window and across the desert to the valley that was my home and my tormentor for a season, 10 years and a lifetime ago.

Perhaps it is odd to feel nostalgia for such a place, but I’m hardly the only one. Most pilots who’ve been in this business for very long have at least one tough, dangerous flying job in their past. Most of us scared ourselves a few times, and many of us knew a fellow aviator who didn’t make it through. Yet even the senior veterans of the line often look back on those early days with real affection — perhaps more in retrospect than they felt at the time. Those hard years often yield the greatest beauty, adventure and friendships of a pilot’s life. Both the terror of the Sierra rotor and the tragedy on Crater Mountain are diminished by all my good memories of Amflight 132. It was the most demanding, most interesting flying of my career thus far. I’m glad I did it. But like most of my colleagues, looking back, I’m sure as hell glad I don’t have to do it again. I’m not sure my luck would last another winter in the valley.

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