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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 USA in terms of aircraft takeoffs and landings per year.  I didn't know that at the time.


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.


"VNY Tower, Cessna 571 at 16L, remaining in the pattern, ready for takeoff."  "Cessna 571, make left traffic, report downwind, cleared for takeoff."  Away I go.  I climb out on the upwind until reaching Victory Blvd, then turn left to the left crosswind leg, then turn downwind.  Reaching the pattern altitude of 1800 feet, I transition from climb to level flight at a pattern indicated airspeed of about 90 mph.  When abeam the Tower on the downwind leg, "VNY Tower, Cessna 571, downwind abeam for touch and go."  "Cessna 571, cleared for touch and goes."  This is easy.  Next time around I call again at the downwind abeam position asking for a touch and go.  The Tower replies, "Cessna 571 extend your downwind to avoid wake turbulence from the C97 on final for 16R."  Uh!  What did he say?  I have no clue.  "VNY Tower, Cessna 571, please say again."  The Tower repeats the instruction.  I still did not understand.  "VNY Tower, Cessna 571, student pilot, I do not understand, please say again."  "Cessna 571, just keep flying on the downwind until you see some brick buildings.  That is the Veteran's Hospital.  Make your base leg at the hospital.  Look for a big 4-engine airplane on final for the right runway."  "Roger, 571."  A hospital is out there somewhere.  Sure is murky up here.  The lights are shining up at me through the haze.  I see something that looks like a hospital and turn to base.  I see the big C97 double decker National Guard plane go by off my nose.  I think, “Wake turbulence? I wonder what it is?  Must be like the wake behind a boat.”


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 Palm Springs.  I drew a line from the VNY airport to the Ontario VOR (now call the Paradise VOR) to the Banning Pass, and to the Palm Springs Airport.


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 Chino Airport a few miles northwest of ONT.  I measure the bearing and distance from ONT to Chino Airport.  I decide to track to ONT, turn left about 135 degrees and track the VOR bearing to Chino.  I decide to descend lower so I might see the ground better.  That was a stupid thing to do.


In my tracking to ONT I wander north of course.  I fly right over the top of Chino Airport.  Oh God, thank you!  I recognize its crossed runways immediately.   I dump all power, put in all flaps, and tightly spiral downward right on top of the airport.  I see no other airplanes.  I decide to land to the southwest on the biggest runway.  When I get near the ground I am experiencing a strong crosswind.  I touch down in a flat attitude with a crab angle.  There is a tremendous "BOING" when the plane hits the ground since with the plane is pointed about 15 degrees off the runway direction, but moving down the centerline.  It was the worse crosswind landing of my life.  On the ground I later learn the visibility is 1/2 mile,  That is below the IFR minimums for landing there.


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!


I hitch-hike to my uncle's place in La Habra.  He gives me a ride to meet my dad in Hollywood.  I get home late that night.


It is 4 days before the weather improves enough so that Progressive Flying can pick up that airplane and fly it to Hawthorne for repair.