It was raining that day. A light drizzle collected in shallow-looking pools alongside the runway and taxiway. I sat in the flight school, hoping that some student would ignore the gray skies and come in for a lesson. Fremont Airport, closed now, much regretted, fondly remembered, was built on clay, caliche clay. It’s hard stuff when dry, harder than concrete. But it was raining and had been raining off and on for weeks. We knew that a step into one of the shallow-looking pools would be a step into sticky, soft mud. You could sink up to your knees in a pool that looked to be about an inch deep.
The owner-builder of an experimental airplane was fiddling with his engine. The engine started, ran for a bit, and then died. He went back to fiddling with it. The phone rang. Renee, behind the counter, answered it. I hoped that it was a new student inquiring about flying lessons, or maybe a private pilot who wanted instrument training. But Renee picked up an eraser and moved to the schedule sheet. A cancellation: “Because of the rain.”
Dan, another instructor, luckier than I (he had convinced someone that the glue that holds the wings on an airplane doesn’t melt in the rain), landed with his student and taxied to the fuel pumps. The engine on the experimental airplane came to life again. It sputtered a few seconds, and then smoothed out. The phone rang again. I watched Renee answer it. A student? Another cancellation? Renee’s boyfriend? No, a salesman.
I watched the experimental airplane move to the taxiway and putter toward the end of the runway. I looked at the sky again and wished that I had an instrument student. Or any student who didn’t mind if the sky was gray. Renee hung up the phone. The experimental airplane took off. I watched it climb out until it passed out of my view behind a hangar, then I turned away.
Then I heard the engine quit.
Okay, I thought, he’s got enough altitude. He’ll make it across the dikes and land straight ahead. He’s in for some embarrassment, but he’ll be all right.
Let me explain: Across the end of the runway was a flood-control canal bordered by twelve-foot-high dikes. On the other side of the canal was a relatively flat area, covered with scrubby bushes, and bound to be marshy in spots with the rain. People had made emergency landings there before, so I didn’t think there would be any difficulty. But the important thing to remember is that there was no access to that area by road. Well, there was a road of sorts along the top of the dike, but it meandered in from I don’t know where, and there were several locked gates barring the way.
Dan’s student came running in. “Call the fire department,” he said to Renee. “It looks like he hit the dike on the other side.” I saw Dan take off from mid-field in the Cessna 150 that they had been using for training. I figured he was going to do a reconnaissance from the air.
I walked over to the helicopter operation behind the flight school. Wilbur-the-helicopter was already preflighting the big Sikorsky. (That’s what we called the helicopter pilots: Wilbur-the-helicopter and Steve-the-helicopter. One of the mechanics was known as Steve-the-wrench. You get the idea.)
Wilbur called out to me: “I’ve already heard.”
You know how it is; there’s an emergency in progress and everybody else is doing Something Important. And you look around and try to find your own Something Important to do. And so I was trying to find my own personal Something Important.
I could see a fire truck going down the freeway and then turning from the freeway onto the exit that led to the airport. “Somebody,” I thought, “had better unlock the gate.” There was a flimsy iron-pipe gate between the parking lot and the taxiway. It was secured by a combination lock, and I happened to know the combination. I had found my Something Important.
So as I fumbled the lock open and swung the gate open, the fire truck, lights flashing, rolled up, rolled through the gate, and rolled onto the taxiway. “No,” I thought, “he’s got to realize that he has to stay on the taxiway. He’s got to realize that he can’t drive in that mud. He’s got to stop…”
Whump! Right up to the hubs. Momentum carried the truck about eight feet past the end of the taxiway, lights flashing and wheels kicking up a brown mixture of clay and water. And there he stuck, lights still flashing, rear wheels churning.
I was still holding the gate open when an ambulance came through. I tried to tell the driver to stay on the taxiway, but he wasn’t listening. I thought maybe he would see that the fire truck was stuck and take warning, but no, he saw the fire truck and decided to pass him on the left.
Whump! Right up to the hubs. With his lights flashing and the rear wheels churning.
I tied the gate open and walked back to the helicopter. Wilbur had already started it and was warming it up. He signaled me to get in, so I found my second Something Important to do. The inside of the big Sikorsky is like the inside of a two-story building. The pilots sit up on the second story and the cabin is down on the ground floor. I found a headset on a hook inside the door and put it on; it was connected to an intercom system so that the crew could talk to the pilot. I looked up at Wilbur. Since nobody else was around, I was the rest of the crew.
“It should be another two minutes before it’s warmed up,” he said.
Meanwhile, I saw another fire truck and another ambulance go through the gate. “Good luck,” I thought, and then the helicopter took off.
From the air, I could see that the second fire truck and the second ambulance had stopped on the taxiway. I suppose somebody from the first set had signaled them to stop there. Wilbur landed next to the second ambulance and four people with a stretcher climbed in. I told Wilbur when they were ready and we took off.
Once again in the air, I could see the mired vehicles and some firemen slogging their way to the dike. Also, I could see that Dan had somehow managed to land the Cessna 150 on the far dike near the accident. Dan was a hell of a pilot. I don’t think I could have landed there, and I know I wouldn’t have tried. But Dan did. So he was second at the scene of the accident and was able to give first aid to the injured pilot. (Second at the scene? Ah, yes. Always remember that the pilot in command is the first at the scene of the accident.)
We landed on relatively firm ground and the stretcher crew left. Almost immediately, two of them came back. They pointed back toward the ambulance. “Need a backboard,” one of them shouted at me, which message I relayed to Wilbur through the intercom. Evidently they suspected that the pilot had back injuries and didn’t want to take chances.
In the air again, I could see that two of the firemen had climbed over the first dike and had slid to the bottom of the flood-control canal. That was a bad mistake. They waded across the sluggish, greasy stream at the bottom and were trying to climb the second dike. It looked pretty slippery to me.
We picked up the backboard and crossed the canal again. I could see the two firemen in the canal covered with mud and making remarkably little progress climbing up the side. They had given up trying to climb the second dike and were trying to get out the way they had come in. Two other firemen were standing on the first dike and seemed to be giving them advice and encouragement, but of course, I couldn’t hear.
On the ground again, the paramedics strapped the injured pilot to the backboard and loaded him into the helicopter. As we crossed the canal again, I could see the two firemen still trying to climb back up the first dike. They didn’t seem to be making much progress.
The injured pilot was loaded into the second ambulance, which cautiously backed out on the taxiway. Did I tell you that the taxiway was too narrow to turn around on? Well, it was. The ambulance backed up to the gate, turned around, and shortly, I saw it on the freeway, heading for the hospital.
The injured pilot spent two weeks in traction and was back flying again.
The two firemen were rescued from the canal with ladders from the mired fire truck.
The second fire truck managed to winch the first ambulance back onto the taxiway, but all efforts to pull the first fire truck out of the mud resulted in broken chains and cables until they got a heavy-duty tow truck to do the job. All of this heavy equipment damaged the taxiway so that we had to be careful taxiing on it for a while.
Dan flew the Cessna 150 off of the dike; a more difficult job than landing it. Somehow I missed seeing it. Later he told me about it. “You have to remember,” he said, “if you ever have to take off or land on a dike, you don’t have any ground effect to help you.” Dan was a hell of a pilot.
I wasn’t there when they brought out the experimental airplane, but someone, (maybe Wilbur-the-helicopter) brought it out and they put it in a hangar.
The next day it rained again. Then during the next week everything dried out. The ruts left in the caliche clay by the fire truck hardened and we could see them for months afterward.