Santa Clara River
5 min read

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: [email protected]

Jerry Deanda
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16 replies
  1. Richard Wyeroski
    Richard Wyeroski says:

    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!

  2. Gareth Williams
    Gareth Williams says:

    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!

  3. Aloyisus Fornortener
    Aloyisus Fornortener says:

    I was a Technical Writer for a major airline and just can’t stop being one when I read aviation stories. I controlled the engine maintenance and aircraft maintenance for 20 years. There were no mispelled words in two stacks of 8 X 11 paper that each stood over 7 feet tall.

    Your story went well until I saw this: “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”.

    I guess I’m in he same league as having a Roman Catholic Nun walking up and down the isle in the classroom ready to whack anyone who makes a mistake………… with that heavy duty metal edged Westcott (brand) ruler.

    It’s spelled “complete”.

    Anyway…yes…I know sand bars and gravel bars and Naval Aviator bars…and “yew done good boy….real good !”

    • CH
      CH says:

      Aloyisis, sir, you have at least two misspelled words in your third paragraph (“he” which should be “the” and “isle” which should be “aisle”). Also, google Compleat Idiot. You’ll find plenty of references to the term. Figured you’d want to know.

    • Joerg Picard
      Joerg Picard says:

      Jerry’s choice of “Compleat” is in reference to the taildragger instruction bible titled “The Compleat Taildragger Pilot”. At least, that’s how I read it and got a good chuckle when he titled himself the “Compleat Idiot” instead of the “Compleat Pilot”.

    • Brent Tyler
      Brent Tyler says:

      Aloyisus is surprisingly quiet- no critique of the critique of the critic? People in glass houses…. you know the saying. Better go back and check those two stacks of paper, or maybe someone else should.

  4. Bradley Barker
    Bradley Barker says:

    Aloyisus Fornortener…”I guess I’m in HE…HE…HE (oh that is ‘the’) same league…”

    :) I couldn’t resist!

    Spell check isn’t everything and yes, even us pilots make mistakes sometimes!

    • Bradley Barker
      Bradley Barker says:

      Well, some of us pilots are not small enough to be counted as ‘wee’ pilots and I know I’m more than a ‘wii’ pilot! I don’t claim to be an expert in grammar though!

      Have a Very Merry Christmas!

  5. Peter Hamilton
    Peter Hamilton says:

    I took “Compleat Idiot” as a reference to the book “The Compleat Taildragger Pilot” by Harvey S. Plourde, yes, the title is spelled exactly as that. It is an excellent book all about tailwheel planes and flying them.

  6. Jerry Deanda
    Jerry Deanda says:

    Ah, it’s turned into a spelling and grammar fest. Thanks to all who stood up for me. Compleat came from Muir’s “How to Keep Your VW Alive: A Manual of Procedures for the Compleat Idiot.” There are a few other titles using this spelling. I just liked the irony of misspelling the word next to the word idiot. Aloyisis, you’re my new favorite proofreader. :-) I’m aware of Plourde’s book as my CFI wife has a copy but I’ve not read it. I probably should and I’m sure it discusses soft field takeoffs and the need to use the elevator appropriately. Mostly, I’m just glad folks read my stuff, enjoyed it and paid attention. Thanks to all!

  7. Duane Mader
    Duane Mader says:

    Read John Muir’s book. Overhauling my V-Dub was the start of my A&P career. And as an experienced tail dragged pilot who mostly landed on hard surfaces, I would have been in the same fix. Good thinkin’!

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