Stuck on a riverbed in a Champ

This story is kind of a confession, so let’s just keep it between us flyers, OK?

Purple Belly, the local airport Aeronca Champ had been flying for a while when it got a set of oversize tires. Same wheels, but the tires had a bit bigger outside diameter. They weren’t all that big, but they were noticeable and of course everybody who flew that airplane (and they were legion) started thinking about the fact that these bigger tires expanded the envelope of places where Purple Belly could land and take off. Including me. Now I have to say I didn’t actually decide to try landing off airport, it just kind of happened. Call it a target of opportunity.

Big tires on airplane
If you have big tires, you have to try them out, right?

It was in the winter, after a huge storm had blown thru the area and the Santa Clara River had been very high. As I flew alone over the river near Fillmore, California, I noticed a really big area of sand that had been scoured flat and level by that high water. It was white, obvious and very clean looking, and the water was long gone. Curious, I wandered over to have a closer look.

This is when it occurred to me that a guy might just be able to land on it in a Champ with big tires. I thought, “I’ll just make a low pass and see if it’s really that smooth.” I lined up into the wind and got pretty low, I guess about 50 feet over the sand and gave it a good look. I could see some small ripples, but no logs or rocks or holes or anything else that seemed scary.

“Not bad,” I thought. “Now I’ll just do a touch and go using my very best soft field techniques and see if it’s packed enough to hold me up.” So I made a pattern to circle around into the wind again, slowed, got to a three-point attitude and touched down gently. No worries, it didn’t bog down or anything so I added power and went around again, this time intending to land and stop. Ha, my first off-airport landing!

This is where the trouble started. I circled around again and landed just like before, only this time I smoothly pulled the throttle closed as I touched down and pulled the stick back. And that’s where Purple Belly wanted to stop. I learned something there… that the power and smooth landing had kept the wheels from taking much of the weight of the airplane, and me, and when the airplane slowed and settled, the wheels sank into that nice, dry, pretty, white sand.

Realizing that I was about to get stuck, I added some power, and as the airplane continued to slow (pretty rapidly, actually), I added some more power and then all the power Purple Belly had, some 75 horsepower, on a good day. All that power (?) turned out to be enough to taxi at about a walk and I knew I was stuck. I won’t tell you what I was thinking, but you can be sure it wasn’t “Goodness me, I’m stuck.”

I started to dread the long walk to a telephone to call the owner, who was also my boss, and tell him his airplane was stuck in the sand, pretty much a mile from anything. I couldn’t believe the fine mess I was in now but I doggedly turned around and taxied downwind to the end of the sand to try to take off anyway.

Santa Clara River
The sandy valley of the Santa Clara River made for a tempting off airport landing.

Even taxiing downwind took full throttle, but I turned around into the wind with the hopeless optimism of the Compleat Idiot and tried to fly. Purple Belly of course did not gather any speed at all for a few feet until… for some reason, it finally dawned on me that if the sand was that soft, the tailwheel must have been digging in like a plow back there. Keeping the stick back protected us from going over on Purple Belly’s nose, but also made a ton of drag that the poor little Continental could not overcome. Besides, Champs sit kind of heavy on their tailwheels anyway, so, I just carefully let the stick come forward so the tail just lifted out of the sand.

Woo, when the nose came down a bit, that poor mishandled airplane accelerated just like it was on a concrete runway, took off and flew with not a care in the world. Those big tires really did work; it was just the goofcase pilot who gummed things up.

It was a long time before I told anyone about this, and so far, that’s my last off airport landing. I’m a little smarter now and I realize I got a cheap lesson from Purple Belly and the Karma Monster. And heaven only knows where else that airplane went with those tires. I never asked anybody.

By the way, although it was a dumb thing to try, landing off airport is not against any FAA regulations, although sometimes there are local laws about that. BUT, as an FAA guy told me once, if you land off field and crash, your pink backside belongs to them for violating Federal Aviation Regulation 91.13, Careless and Reckless. Yeah, I was that lucky.

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at:


  • I was sweating a little near the end of the article that you would be stuck and what you would do to get it out. It reminded me when I was taking seaplane lessons and we landed in the ocean off the coast of Long Island. The swells were bigger then we thought and to make matters worse, the floats started to leak. We could not takeoff…Thank God for the coast guard that came to our rescue and tied us up to their ship and pumped out the floats……..a lesson learned. I remember thinking as my instructor yelled to put on our life preservers, that I was worried about getting my pilot license wet!

  • I’m guessing this was right after the flood in 2005? Before my time, but I’ve heard a lot about it from locals. I’m now based at KSZP, and have also experienced an (unplanned) landing in the Santa Clara river bed. Didn’t go so well :-(. Engine failure on takeoff in a Stearman leaves you few options, and the heavy brush and bamboo growth following rain in recent winters contributed to a noseover, wrecked aircraft and broken back. That river bites!

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