Miracle at Mojave: surviving an airplane crash

The second most favorite activity of pilots is hanging around airports. This places them in close proximity to some of the objects they love most, namely airplanes. This is especially true of young pilots, whose ardor burns brightly, and who are always looking for opportunities to “build time.” Such opportunities may often present themselves at a moment’s notice, and so they must be available to take advantage of them.

I was one of those young pilots on a beautiful September day in 1963. It was one of those days that California is famous for, a miracle in itself. Warm and mild, light winds, no coastal stratus, and endless blue sky (no smog on the central coast in those days). It was a day that made you feel great to be alive. Naturally, I was hanging around the airport.

The bond between pilots is usually strengthened by the amount of time they have flown together. But even pilots who do not know each other aeronautically, so to speak, still share a common bond which brings them together as friends. And so it was that I came to know my friend Gus, who I had never flown with, but whose presence at the airport often coincided with mine. Gus, who had a couple of hundred hours, was a bit more experienced than me. On this particular day, Gus asked me if I would like to accompany him for an excursion in his recently acquired Luscombe 8A, which had a two-place, side-by-side seating arrangement. I said sure, so we hopped in and off we went.

Luscombe
The Luscombe is a great airplane for lazy afternoon flights.

We headed from the California central coast over to the San Joachin valley and landed at a few different airports. On a couple of occasions, I noted that Gus’s handling of the airplane was a little “dicey,” but didn’t give it much thought. He was obviously still getting used to his new airplane.

Eventually our meanderings took us to the California City airport in the Mojave Desert. We decided to head home from there. There was no fuel available at Cal City, so we made a short hop to Mojave to top the tank. At this point in the narrative, it’s important to know that the fuel tank in a Luscombe 8A is a cylindrical affair that sits in the aft cabin directly behind the heads of the pilot and passenger.

When we arrived at the Mojave airport, there were no other airplanes in the pattern and the only folks we saw were two people on duty at the local flying service. After fueling, we fired up and taxied out for takeoff. There were no witnesses to the spectacle about to unfold.

I had never flown a Luscombe, although I had a fair amount of time in a Cessna 140, which is a similar design and configuration. While the Cessna was quite docile, the Luscombe had the reputation of being somewhat more demanding of the pilot’s skill level. The Luscombe had an 85 hp engine, barely up to the task of taking off that day from the Mojave airport, which sits at an elevation of 2792 feet. It was also moderately warm, raising the density altitude a little higher.

Apparently, the success of Gus’s previous takeoff from nearby California City did not guarantee another successful attempt from Mojave. Gus was most accustomed to operating out of our home airport, which essentially sits at sea level. So it’s not totally surprising that Gus lost control during the takeoff roll. We were veering down the runway, alternating from one side to the other; the excursions amplified with each oscillation, a classic example of pilot-induced oscillation.

There was a moment that I had an impulse to reach over and pull the throttle back to idle. But I hesitated and the moment was lost. No conversation or comments passed between us. On the final excursion, just as we were about to run off the edge of the runway, Gus jerked the Luscombe into the air, and we staggered along trying to gain airspeed and altitude. The little Luscombe seemingly had a mind of its own and while mid-field and about 25 feet in the air, it decided to make a gradual 90 degree turn to the left. I don’t know if Gus was helping or not, but we wound up headed between two hangars.

For a moment, I thought that we might make it, but alas, a power line intervened. We did not actually hit the powerline. When I saw it, I thought, “go under it, there’s room enough,” but unfortunately, I kept that thought to myself. This would have had the added advantage of increasing our airspeed slightly. Instead, Gus decided to try to go over it. At an altitude of about 50 feet, the airplane stalled and Gus lost control. Given our present situation, a team of engineers, analyzing every available factor, would be hard pressed to come up with a set of circumstances that would make this event survivable. I closed my eyes just before the lights went out.

The ground scar and resulting wreckage was contained within an area of about 20 feet in diameter, with one exception. On impact, the fuel tank, containing about 80 pounds of fuel, punched a hole through the side of the aluminum fuselage and came to rest about 25 feet from the aircraft, where it quietly drained into the sand. Thus we became forever indebted to centrifugal force. The aircraft was demolished, engine torn off, a veritable heap of rubble. The caption that appeared the next day in the local paper noted the improbability of anyone walking away from it. We may have staggered and stumbled more than walked, but nevertheless we exited under our own power.

Newspaper clipping of crash

My seat belt had broken. We were both unconscious, but somehow, miraculously survived. We suffered lacerations, contusions, and in my case a broken nose. It could have been a lot worse. I attribute this to the fact that the loss of control happened at a relatively low altitude, and there was no post-impact fire. Gus was the first to wake up, exit the wreckage and come around to my side of the airplane. The first thing I recall after regaining consciousness was him calling to me. My right cheek had been lacerated by the door frame almost completely through, and my right ear lobe was hanging by a thread. We were a ghastly sight. I extricated myself from the wreckage with his assistance, and we made our way back to the flight line office to seek help. The two folks on duty were shocked when we staggered in the door.

Eventually (it seemed like an eternity), an ambulance arrived and took us to the Tehachapi hospital, where they treated us and gave us a warm bed to spend the night. The next day, Gus’s dad and wife arrived to take us home. In the immediate aftermath, I felt very fortunate to still be around – in particular, to witness the birth of my first daughter a few months after the accident.

In the days and weeks following the accident, my body was healing, but my psyche was still trying to work things out. My visits to the airport were as frequent as ever, but I wasn’t sure if I would ever fly again. Watching the airplanes, I had a strange and overpowering feeling that every one of them that took off was going to crash. Slowly, through the help of one of my good friends, I was coached back into the air. John was a part-owner of a Porterfield, and I had my first ride with him about a month after the accident. I eventually become a partner in the Porterfield.

I resolved to do two things. First, even though I failed to intervene in the Luscombe, I vowed to never again be placed in a situation where I lacked control in an aircraft. Obviously, I had to make some exceptions, but they were few and far between. I don’t necessarily recommend this as a hard and fast rule. Do whatever works for you, but at a minimum, if you’re going to entrust your life (or family’s or friends’ lives) to another person in an airplane, be assured of their skill level and capabilities. Simply having a pilot’s license is not enough. The second thing I resolved was to attain advanced flight ratings to increase my skill and allow me to handle such situations should they arise. I quickly began working on my Commercial, Flight Instructor, Instrument and Multi-Engine ratings, all of which I attained in the following two years.

I returned to Mojave in 1975, this time as PIC of a Cessna 172 with a couple of friends. We were there to check out the newly established Rutan Aircraft Factory, and to talk to the master himself. It was interesting and informative. I also sought out the area that the Luscombe had crashed, but obviously no physical evidence remained. This trip turned out to be therapeutic, because it was the point at which, for me, the last vestiges of the incident in 1963 faded away and Mojave became just another airport.

4 Comments

  • This is truly a wonderful story about perseverance in the face of adversity. What if you had quit flying and never pursued your passion? I really enjoyed this story.. Thank you.

  • Wow, thanks for sharing that Ken. You are a person of depth and talent. A rare find. I’m glad Terri made you known to all of the rest of us in her family. You are an awesome brother-in-law! Love you! Aunt Liz

  • Likely I also started flying in that Aronica. Was there in ’57/’58. Don’t recall the air base, but probably not too many planes like if. Gale York

  • Taking control from the captain can be tricky. I remember being the F/O in a DC-8 when I instinctively grabbed the controls from the captain just as we were landing. I think my intervention was helpful but my captain was not happy.
    Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

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