Close call: A heavy-iron encounter over the Mojave Desert almost ends in disaster
When I earned my private ticket in 1960, jet aircraft were still rather rare, even in the San Fernando Valley. My home field, Whiteman Air Park in Pacoima, California, was near Van Nuys and Lockheed airports, both of which were busy commercial fields.
The local landing and departing traffic was mainly at piston-engine airspeeds, which rarely exceeded 120 knots. Maintaining 100 knots on final either in front of or behind a DC-6 or a Connie was no problem. But when I started working on a commercial ticket at San Jose Airport in 1969, we had entered the DC-9 era. In spite of the 250-knot airspeed limitation below 10,000 feet, flying in the traffic pattern of a major airfield required an increase in situational awareness. The big difference in approach speeds was handled at SJC by letting the big boys make “straight-ins” while lining us little guys up on the downwind leg. I remember the tower would let me in as number eight or nine to “follow the yellow Bonanza,” or whatever, and tell me to “wait for permission to turn base.”
Turning base under those conditions often put us perilously close behind an arriving jet airliner, and we had to stay high and land long to avoid those vicious wingtip vortices that could flip us if we weren’t careful.
On the taxiways, ground control would sometimes warn a light airplane getting too close to the tail end of the big blowtorches. Such are the required
precautions when mixing aircraft with a big difference in performance in close quarters.
En route separation was not considered a problem since there was a great difference in cruise altitudes. Jets quickly climbed above our normally aspirated limitations. At least that’s what I thought until I tangled with an Air Force monster that came close to swatting me out of the sky.
In 1971, I bought our first family plane, a ’68 Cherokee 140, which was the same model I had flown during my advanced training in San Jose. At that time, I was teaching aeronautical and mechanical engineering at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, and it was a five-hour trip via Los Angeles by car to visit my dad in San Bernardino. Even though the 150 hp Cherokee cruised at a meager 110 knots, we could make it to Grandpa’s in just over two hours by flying in a straight line over the Mojave Desert. That’s what my two preteen daughters appreciated most about their daddy’s new toy.
The trip became routine over the next couple of years. From cruise altitude, one got a good view of Edwards Air Force Base and Rogers Dry Lake to the north, where the experimental manned rockets were tested. Our path took us directly over Palmdale, where the final-assembly plants of the larger military aircraft, as well as the Los Angeles en route ATC center, were located.
One trip, however, almost ended in disaster. On a return flight, I saw a large jet depart Edwards Air Force Base about 30 miles ahead and to our right. We were at 4,500 feet — the cardinal cruise altitude for VFR flight with a westerly heading — and I assumed the jet would soon be above us and on its way. But about 40 miles from the Tehachapi range of the Sierras, I spotted the jet, an Air Force cargo plane, down near the desert floor, making a sweeping left-hand one-eighty and climbing. I estimated it must have been doing close to 260 knots as it rolled out of the turn and headed straight for us.
One thing that was beaten into my head during training was that if another plane stayed in the same spot in your windshield you were on a collision course. I watched it for another minute or two and it didn’t move — it just got bigger and bigger. I finally recognized it as a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter and decided that since it was committed to climb, I’d better descend — fast.
I figured my best chance was to make us as visible as possible — perhaps by spinning and exposing our rotating wings, but with two girls in the rear seat, that option was prohibited. So, I pulled the power and started a 60-degree banked spiral to the left. We showed a descent rate of about 1,000 fpm, but each time we turned to face the Starlifter it just got bigger. On my last rotation, we passed so close that I could see the pilot’s face. He was looking at us, and I swear he was smiling.
I felt a flush of anger and grabbed the mic as I rolled out to our original heading and started a climb at full power. I had been monitoring Palmdale Tower, so I called them first and reported the incident. They gave me Edwards’ comm frequency and suggested I report to them. Edwards said they had an aircraft in their MOA and declared it hot. That put me on the defensive, even though I wanted to scream that their published MOA on the sectional chart didn’t include the whole damn Mojave Desert.
Worried that my daughters might have been scared by my radical maneuver, I turned around to assure them that we were OK. No problem — they were still deep in the books they had been reading since we left and were unaware of the close call.
I continued the flight home with mixed emotions. Though still angry, partly with myself, I sadly remembered that two years before, almost to the day, a colleague lost his wife and infant daughter when an F-4 Phantom fighter collided with a DC-9 not far from where our near miss occurred.
The Marine F-4 Phantom II was being ferried VFR to El Toro for repair, with no oxygen or working transponder. Hence it was flying low in marginal weather — at about 12,000 feet msl — while the DC-9 had departed from LAX for SLC on an IFR flight plan. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the aircraft were approaching each other at over 1,000 feet per second — literally as fast as a speeding bullet. Only the crewman in the rear seat of the Phantom survived the accident.
I resolved then to always maintain extreme vigilance outside the cockpit regardless of the seductive sense of free airspace in relatively remote territory. That habit saved me in more than half a dozen very close (within 500 feet or less) near misses during my 50-year flying career.
We showed a descent rate of about 1,000 fpm, but each time we turned to face the Starlifter it just got bigger. On my last rotation, we passed so close that I could see the pilot’s face. He was looking at us, and I swear he was smiling.