Close call: A heavy-iron en­counter over the Mo­jave Desert al­most ends in dis­as­ter

Flying - - CONTENTS - By Bruce Fal­stein

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.

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