As I got back into flying, I started adding various ratings to my license in order to broaden my experience. My multi-engine license was obtained on a Piper Apache, one of the earliest on the US register. I found it an honest airplane, although this particular example could be cranky on occasion, having a left engine which could not be persuaded to restart in flight. Basically it handled like a big Cub and I occasionally landed the Apache on the shorter of the two parallel runways at Torrance airport without any fuss.
Next came the instrument rating, and I criss-crossed the Los Angeles Basin night after night wearing a hood to blank out the sight of the brightly lit fairyland of lights. Occasionally we flew in clouds and rain, doing it for real. Gradually the complicated clearances, to reporting points in the ocean with quirky names like LIMBO, PERCH and ALBAS became as familiar as street names to a daily commuter. Approaches to the commercial airports at San Diego or Long Beach would be enlivened by the knowledge that an airliner was following me down the approach.
My Commercial Rating was taken in a Cessna 172RG, almost the same familiar Cessna in which I had spent so many hours, but now with the complexity of a constant speed propeller and retractable gear.
Flying in California had its own set of operational problems as well. High temperatures in the summer led to frequent battles with engine cooling and oil temperatures often pegged on the upper limit during climb. High density altitudes were common during the summer months and flying a relatively low-powered aircraft out of a small field with the temperature over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit gave an appreciation of the performance figures in the manual.
Extensive forest fires were common in Southern California. When combined with the often-present inversion over the LA Basin, this could lead to a situation where visibility from the cockpit was drastically reduced by layers of smoke. One day in particular the LA Basin seemed ringed by fire as half a dozen large fires burned in the hills. As I climbed into the inversion flying a Citabria the smell of burning timber became strong. The air temperature rose twenty or thirty degrees as scorching blasts of smoke-laden air blasted into the cabin through the fresh-air vents. It was an uncomfortable few minutes until I climbed through the inversion into cooler air.
A further hazard was the Santa Ana wind. This was an offshore wind which blew out of the surrounding mountains when a high pressure area formed inland in the winter months. Below the canyons a venturi effect magnified the effects of the wind and it was not unusual for extensive gale damage to result. Aircraft were ill-suited to resist such a wind storm. Hangars were occasionally blown down, and aircraft were ripped from their tie-down ropes and flung carelessly across the ramp. If encountered in flight the Santa Ana wind caused problems ranging from dust storms and severe turbulence to having to cope with high and erratic winds on landing. All this usually took place under an innocuous blue sky. If a Santa Ana wind was forecast it was normally a day to leave the aircraft on the ground.
Aviation traffic in southern California was heavy. I flew out of Torrance, Orange County and Long Beach, airports which ranked high in the number of aircraft movements per year in the USA. Generally speaking the controllers managed to integrate the general aviation and airline traffic satisfactorily. However in bad weather often there could be quite a delay on the ground before you could be slotted into the system. Occasionally the only solution was to shut down until your allotted time slot arrived.
In the USA general aviation was much more necessary than in England. After all, Los Angeles still lay at the edge of the desert. Highways crossed the desert, but the average day’s drive could stretch to five or six hundred miles. The US system of flying, with access to the airways available even to the VFR pilot, proved well suited to the individual needing to cover long distances by air.
I could not help reflecting on the differences in flying in the USA and Europe while climbing out over Long Beach early one morning. The sky just after dawn was that translucent green found only on clear days as the sun rises. Looking through the arc of the Apache’s port propeller I watched Mount Baldy silhouetted against the growing light to the east. Visibility on this winter morning was unlimited and the range of the San Gabriel mountains stretched eastward for a hundred miles in snow-capped majesty. It was a privilege and a pleasure to be flying on such a morning. The only discordant note was a slight mismatch in the engine speeds, causing an unpleasant beat in the propeller noise. I fiddled with the pitch levers and succeeded in synchronizing the engines. As the engines settled into a smooth roar, I leveled off over the Seal Beach VOR and trimmed for level flight. Looking out over the nose towards the Cajon Pass to the east, I could already see the vapor trails of the Phantoms flying out of George Air Force Base, which lay a hundred miles or so to the East.
Even at our relatively modest 140 knots, Las Vegas lay less than two hours away across the burning desert, halving the time to make that interminable trip by road as I had done so many times before. The beauty of the system here was that the FAA operated largely for the benefit of all users. Airliners, general aviation aircraft and commuter airliners all used the airways here, in VFR or IFR conditions. From my point of view it made my life simpler. The various controlling facilities would monitor my journey across the state boundary and into Nevada. All this was largely free, in contrast to the growing tide of navigation charges which was strangling general aviation in Europe.
Basically the sky was a world in which I generally flew alone, but on occasion I could share it with friends or family, watching the beauty of a sunset, or sunlight playing along the coastline. Springtime was an especially pretty season when flying in California, as large areas of the coastline were rimmed with purple as patches of ice-plant started to blossom, while further inland the California poppies turned the desert in the Antelope Valley intoa riotous stretch of red and orange blooms. The sight of the Los Angeles Basin at night, with thousands of lights stretching for miles in every direction, made a spectacular sight. At night the freeways were turned into rivers of red lava tail lights and white headlights. Airport beacons flashed green and white and the sky was full of winking strobes and anti-collision beacons. It could be a crowded sky.
This same sky could also give rise to some strange sights. Did I believe in UFOs? Well, before coming to California I was not convinced either way. However, keeping an open mind was one thing, actually seeing something rather strange was a different matter…
One moonless night at Camarillo airport I was intent on copying down my instrument clearance for my return flight to Torrance, having switched the radio to a ground channel to do so. My engine was running, so I was oblivious to any external noise, when something made me look up, some sense of not being alone.
A hundred yards distant, directly in front of my idling propeller, hanging motionless thirty feet above the twin blue lines of taxi-way lights, was a weird Christmas tree of pulsating lights set against the dark mass of the hills. Red and white lights flashed and shimmied in the gloom, while strange flashes of red were spun off intermittently into the blackness.
For the first time in my life, I started to feel the hair stand up on the back of my neck. What on earth was I looking at?
Transfixed, I stared at this apparition, which bore no resemblance to anything I had seen before. At that moment I would not have been surprised if little green men had descended from it.
Then the radio crackled into life: ”52 Echo, be aware of a military helicopter coming past you. We are letting him air-taxi down the taxiway to the ramp.” Reason returned. I started breathing again. As this strange beast hesitantly crept nearer, the strange lights came from the anti-collision beacons reflecting off the twin tandem rotors of this dark-painted Chinook. In the slight wind the big helicopter was crabbed slightly so its green position lights were hidden from me, with the red position lights and landing lights combining to give this strange effect .
A casual approach to flying usually has tragic consequences. Occasionally the odds can be beaten, either by skill or by some favorable intervention from the gods.
One day at Hawthorne I was at the end of the runway, waiting to takeoff, when an unfamiliar Cessna appeared on final approach. It was against the morning sun and my attention was attracted to it as it drew nearer as the silhouette was somewhat different from the normal Cessna 172s. I looked again. As the Cessna came over the fence, I could see that trailing from the rear of the aircraft was a large concrete block on a four-foot length of rope. In the USA any aircraft not hangared is tied down overnight. Wings and tail are often tied down to these fifty-pound blocks, or to ropes or chains firmly inset into the ramp. Normally this is sufficient to tether the aircraft against any gusts of wind. On this occasion the pilot had obviously neglected to unhitch the block prior to flight.
However he had managed to taxi the length of the field dragging the block behind him, then succeeded in taking off despite now having a center of gravity somewhat further aft than normal. Once around the pattern with the control wheel pushed firmly forward to stay straight and level was enough to convince him that something was wrong, and he was now returning to rectify the situation.
The Cessna touched down normally, with the block simultaneously hitting the runway and exploding into fragments. Turning off at the next intersection he taxied back to his tiedown area, dejectedly dragging the rope behind him. It was a hard way for him to learn a lesson.
Nobody laughed. He was still alive. The controller closed the runway for thirty minutes while the maintenance crew swept the debris from the runway.
I found that working in the aerospace industry in California was quite different from the ordered way of life in England. It was a dynamic environment in which jobs could evaporate almost overnight as program budgets were slashed. Even for high-level positions, job security was defined as being employed until the end of the week. After this had happened to me a couple of times I added a second string to my bow by branching out as a freelance aviation writer. My previous writing coupled with my jet-flying background would provide opportunities to fly in a number of fairly exotic aircraft, including military jets.
Jet flying in particular had a magical quality. At 30,000 feet over the western United States, a good portion of California’s Central Valley lay beneath the wings of the speeding jet, and out of the bubble canopy I could see the sweep of the coastline from the Channel Islands behind the trailing edge to San Francisco over the nose. The Sierra mountain range had an almost lunar quality to them, with no sign of habitation from this altitude. The sheer size of the United States never failed to awe me, after flying for many years in England where it was possible to see right across the country from the North Sea to the Irish Sea on a clear day.
On occasion cruising at altitude over cloud I could look down at our contrail racing over the blinding-white cloud deck below. At the head of the contrail was the shadow of our speeding fighter. Surrounding the shadow was a perfect rainbow, a multi-colored halo, seen only by aviators and mountain climbers. Explainable completely by the laws of physics, it was nevertheless still a beautiful sight.
At these altitudes, a significant proportion of earth’s fragile atmosphere lay below. Breathing through an oxygen mask was sufficient to remind me that the environment at this height was hostile to humans and only technology enabled mankind to exist up here for any length of time. Seeing the sun redden through veils of smoke from forest fires, or watching steam ooze from the blasted volcanic stump of mount St. Helens was a reminder of the fragile hold we have on the surface of this planet, and overall we were still subservient to the powers of nature.