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The year was maybe 1970. We lived in Southern California and my wife of 25 years wanted to fly to her home in Tacoma, Washington, and visit her mother for our summer vacation. So, I borrowed the company Bonanza (with permission) and we took off early one morning headed north.

Everything went well and we stopped in Red Bluff, California, for fuel and a bite to eat around 1300. While settling up for the fuel at the FBO’s office, a California National Guard Major came in with a harrowing tale about how he had just survived being tossed around in the clouds over the Siskyou Mountains. He said he had tried to climb the O2 Bird Dog over the top, but gave up at 15,000, and he heard airline traffic talking about cloud tops at 35,000.

So, I decided to pass up an instrument flight plan and scud run along the coast – a very old method used in that area by nearly everyone.


Not the sight a pilot wants to see on a low level flight. (File photo)

While flying over the coastal range at 8,500 feet toward Yreka, I slowly became aware of a put-put sound over the purr of the O-470. I decided to stop over there and check it out.

On the ground, I discovered the exhaust gasket on the number four cylinder was leaking. The local FBO’s mechanic said he had some in stock, and I broke out my tools (I’m a licensed A&P, also). So, in about 30 minutes I ran her up and everything was fine again.

After washing up, we got started again into the onset of a fine rain that had moved in and I headed up the coast between a quarter to a half mile offshore and just under the overcast at about 700 ft. It was fun having done that back in the old days, and I was enjoying it again. The coastal highway undulates along the hilly terrain, and a few times we were below the highway traffic headlights there. The rain stayed light and I had good visibility for over a mile ahead, always keeping an eye on the shoreline in case I needed to make a forced landing.

I’ve always kept my 35-mm camera lying on the glare shield for any photos of opportunity. Suddenly I noticed a strange glow through the rain ahead, and it continued to come at me, getting more intense by the second. I rolled to the right to avoid whatever it might be, and as I leveled off again, I was shocked to see a B-52 pass below me and to my left so low his engines were kicking up rooster tails on the surface of the ocean. The whole episode was over in less than 10seconds.

My camera? Still up there on the glare shield!

I did the same thing the year before while flying over west Texas, when I nearly had a head on with a large golden eagle. He must’ve had a seven- or eight-foot wing span. We passed within a hundred yards of each other, and I can still see him doing a double take as we went by.

Yep, the camera was still up there on the glare shield!

Warren Smith
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3 replies
  1. Jerry Smith
    Jerry Smith says:

    The B-52’s, I worked on its engine while in the Air Force 66 to 69. No, you would not want to meet up with one of them. Would have been quite nice if you could have gotten that picture, yet I would think you may have been in a bit of shock seeing that big thing so low.

  2. Doyle Frost
    Doyle Frost says:

    Flying with a friend, after he got his license, and we had a similar experience. Local traffic was primarily B-52’s and KC-135’s. We’d just taken off from a friend’s private field, (he was a retired USAF pilot of the big birds,) and he’d warned us there was a possibility of a practice alert anytime soon, so be cautious. Got up to our sightseeing altitude, over where we both lived, (going to get some pictures for our wives,) and we got tossed all over the place. One of the 52’s had taken off, but stayed low, for the rest of the pack to keep going. Scariest experience we’d ever had, up to that point. One I’ll never forget. Never get too close to the back end of one of those big birds, especially in a small two seat trainer. (Both of us should have known better, as we both worked on those beasts.)

    • Warren Smith
      Warren Smith says:

      Getting tossed around in the wake of any jet is almost traumatic.
      I was cruising along in that same Bonanza, westbound [CAVU] at 8500-ft msl about thirty miles west of LAX one afternoon when a B-727 came up alongside crossing my heading…! He was so close that if I had known anyone of the PAX staring out the windows with alarmed expressions, I would have recognized them! I cut the power, and rolled to the right [away] from them only to cross their wake and was continued to be rolled onto my back, with the controls now crossed into a left roll. As I righted, I was then into the jet’s left wing vortex and rolled to the left with the controls in a right roll configuration. Again I found myself on my back but recovering. Once I was level again I restored cruise power, and noted that I had lost just 50-ft of altitude. Just thinking a bout it, I can almost smell the kerosene exhaust. It stunk!
      My report to the FAA went nowhere!

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