I Learned About Flying From That: The Flight I Will Never Forget

How one pilot's unexpected aircraft trouble sparked the generosity of strangers.

I Learned About Flying From That

I Learned About Flying From That

** To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go to
barryrossart.com.**

(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.

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.

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!
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Read more about Dick Russ' cross-country trip, Larry and the TriPacer, and McCullough in the unabridged version in the February** iPad edition**._