First Emergency Flying Incident
After getting out of active duty I went back to work at Robinson Technical Products at $2/hr, then a few weeks later went to work at Lockheed as a draftsman at $2.50/hr. After 7 weeks at Lockheed I landed a job as an environmental tech at the Ramo-Wooldrige Division of TRW at $3/hr. How I had some more money for flying!
I looked for a place to
continue my flight training. I knew I
had to learn how to use aviation radios. Progressive Flying of Hawthorne had
just opened an operation at Van Nuys.
The airplane rental rates were low.
I made an appointment for a Cessna 150 checkout. I would continue my training at an airport
with a tower. It was the 10th
busiest airport in the
The year is 1962. I have not flown for about 18 months. I walk into the Progressive Flying office at VNY. I meet Chet Odom, a 55 year old chief pilot that has been flying all his life.
Chet gives me a briefing on the communications both with the ground controller and tower. It is early evening on a very hazy day. Sky partially obscured, 3 miles visibility. I think the Tower lies about the visibility so that VFR pilots can fly. It is really more like 2 miles. Since there is a Tower in operation, VNY is a Control Zone. The Control Zone has a 5 statue miles radius and extends up to 14,500 feet (the base of the Continiental Control Area. The VNY Control Zone is truncated on the east side as it merges with the BUR Control Zone. These are old airspace terms not applicable today. The required VFR weather minimums in a control zone were 3 miles visibility, 1000 foot ceiling, with the pilot not authorized to come closer to clouds than 500 feet below, 1000 feet above, and 2000 feet horizontally from.
I taxi the Cessna 150 out to Runway 16L. This is not the current 16L which is 4000 feet long and about 50 feet wide. You can see the remnants of the old 16L. It is between the current 16R and 16L. It started right at the fence next to the railroad tracks and was only 2000 feet long. On approach you had to look right and left to make sure a train wasn't coming, since you might hit it just before touchdown. 16L back then was about 20 feet wide.
So I learn what to say at each position around the 16L traffic pattern from Chet. On the second landing Chet says he has seen enough. I drop him off and then taxi back to work the 16L traffic pattern. This is all very new to me. So here I am, a student pilot with 30 hours, who hasn't flown in 18 months, flying solo at a Tower airport for the first time, at the 10th busiest airport in the country. The sun has gone down. It is twilight time. I've never flown solo at night before. Chet said to get 3 landings in. I'm excited. I love this shit.
God is my co-pilot. Experience is my teacher. It is learning by doing, one incident at a time.
Instruction from Chet, the old-timer, was a pleasure. The most calm instructor I have ever had. Regardless of the situation, he refused ever to touch he controls. After a few lessons, I decided to get that one more solo cross-country trip. I needed 2 hours to get the total ten required.
I planned a trip to
I got to the airport and it was really murky. It was sky partially obscured, visibility 1 mile in fog and haze. This meant that the sun was visible as an orange ball above, but the visibility was below VFR minimums. I showed up at Progressive Flying. Chet was there. He said, "You know you will have to get a Special VFR clearance in order to takeoff or land here today, don't you?" "No, I don't know that. What is a special VFR clearance?" Chet explained that I would have to request a special VFR clearance to VFR conditions on top. He gave me step-by-step instructions. It never bothered me to fly in these conditions at Whiteman.
This was before there was radar at Burbank or Van Nuys. The control method was to send the first airplane to the west, the next airplane to the south, and the next airplane to the east. Then hold the next plane on the ground until one the last 3 that took off reported on top of the haze layer.
I got my clearance, "Cessna 67571 is cleared to VFR conditions on top. After takeoff fly runway heading. Report reaching VFR conditions on top." I verbally stumbled through the copying and read-back of this clearance.
I sat there on the ground with the engine running for about 25 minutes, then my takeoff clearance came, "Cessna 571, cleared for takeoff, report VFR on top." I was off. I headed out on a heading of 160. At about 2500 feet I was on top, but I forgot to report. "Cessna 571, are you on top yet?" came the call from the Tower. "Affirmative, 571", I replied. "Roger 571, frequency change approved, have a good flight." Ok, I was free. But where was I? I could not see the ground. My planned course was a straight line from VNY to ONT. I was many miles south of that line. So I just turned east and tuned in ONT VOR on the navigation radio. I spun the OBS until the left-right need le centered, and the To/From flag indicated To, and read the bearing to ONT. Then I turned the plane to that heading. Well that should do it. I'll go direct to ONT and then proceed along my planned course.
I'm chugging along at 5500
feet. Suddenly the engine misses a beat,
then another, and then it is really running rough. I play with the mixture control to no
avail. I try running on each magneto
separately. It makes no difference, the
engine runs and coughs and runs and coughs.
I have no idea of my location other than I am east of VNY and west of
ONT. Got to find a place to land!. All I can see of
the ground is a very small circle downward about 1 mile in diameter. I am over city. (It never occurred to me to call for help on
the radio.) I look on the chart for an
airport along my course line. I see
In my tracking to ONT I
wander north of course. I fly right over
the top of
Over the telephone Chet tells me to find a mechanic and find out what is wrong with the airplane. It is Sunday. I find a mechanic working on a P51. I ask if he will help me. He tells me to use his tools and take off the cowling and remove all the spark plugs. Now, I instantly become an aircraft mechanic. This is an extremely educational day!
We find that both spark plugs, top and bottom, on one cylinder are black with oil. The piston in the cylinder is pumping a lot of oil. The piston rings are evidently bad.
I call Chet. He says to fly the plane back to VNY so they can fix it. I say no. He says he has flown many a rough hour in his lifetime, and to just bring the plane back. I am emphatic. No way am I flying that airplane!
hitch-hike to my uncle's place in
It is 4 days before the
weather improves enough so that Progressive Flying can pick up that airplane
and fly it to