In May 1995 I was living in Los Angeles, working for a global courier company specializing in small, time-critical deliveries. Our local clients were mostly film studios and record labels sending audio and video tapes (the last gasp of the analog age). One day a call came in for a same-day delivery to Squaw Valley, Tahoe, and the quickest option was for me to fly the shipment up to Truckee from Santa Monica airport. I rented a Piper Warrior from Justice Aviation at SMO and headed north. (Some months later another Justice aircraft made an emergency landing on a golf course where recently-acquitted OJ Simpson was on the fairway. No one was injured but there was talk of how poetic it could have been had things turned out differently.)
The weather was easy VFR over the mountains north of LA and up the San Joaquin Valley, but I was flying under an overcast by the time I reached Auburn, northeast of Sacramento, to follow I-80 over the Sierras. With few emergency landing options in the mountains, and cloud now enveloping the peaks, I was happy to clear Donner Pass and drop down to land at Truckee. I took a taxi to complete the delivery. A film shoot could now continue on schedule (wardrobe needed the same boots filmed in an earlier scene, or would have had to shoot from the knees up). I gassed up the Warrior and considered my options for getting home.
I couldn’t head back the way I had come VFR, and solid IFR over the mountains single engine didn’t seem like a good idea, even if I was current. However, it was mostly blue to the east, although the wind was kicking up. Truckee Airport, at nearly 6,000 feet and surrounded by mountains, is well known for turbulence, which local soaring pilots call lift. After a bumpy departure it was a short flight down to Reno, Nevada, at 4,400 feet, which at that time still had a Flight Service Station on the field. I dropped in for an in-person briefing. It was clear south towards Carson, but clouds sat on the nine and ten thousand foot mountains either side of the valley. Gusts up to 65 knots were reported at the tops.
I didn’t really want to stay the night and the Warrior’s schedule was busy next morning, so after watching some departures to assess the crosswind, I launched south, with the cloud-capped Sierras on my right. The climb-out was bumpy but manageable. After Carson City and Minden, a string of smaller, high desert airports stretch down US-395 to the Mojave Desert. Bryant, Lee Vining, Mammoth, Bishop, Independence and Lone Pine, at the foot of Mount Whitney (at 14,500 feet, the highest in the contiguous forty eight). If the weather deteriorated I could drop into any one of them and wait it out.
I figured there was blue sky down the middle of the valley with clouds either side because air was flowing downhill from the west, warming as it went, then cooling again as it rose up the other side, where clouds reformed. So I stayed away from the Sierra side to avoid descending air. Picking up Joshua Approach for flight following south of Minden, they asked for my en route cruising altitude. I told them 9,500 while passing 8,000 at 1000 fpm. Not bad for a 150 hp Warrior at that altitude. Nice to get some free lift.
As I approached 9,500 feet, the climb rate hadn’t slowed, even after reducing power, so I accepted the smooth elevator ride and told Joshua I was going to 11,500. A couple of minutes later I was still going up at more than 1,000 fpm, with throttle closed, carb heat on, nose down, doing 140 kts—30 faster than cruise. I figured with air going up this fast it must be going down equally rapidly the other side of the valley, so I stayed where I was, advised Joshua I’d be at 13,500 (they still couldn’t see me on radar) and started thinking about oxygen (which I didn’t have). Mono Lake slid past a mile and a half below as I blew through 14,500. Somewhere abeam Mammoth, around 15,000, I stopped going up, still surfing along at 140 knots at idle, which meant the air was still rising at around 500 fpm, but with no hint of turbulence. I checked myself for signs of hypoxia but all seemed good.
Following the Owens Valley south, I drifted back down 13,500, past Bishop towards Lone Pine at the north end of Owens Lake, dry now as its water was greening LA lawns 150 miles south. As the valley widened out into the Mojave Desert, my free ride was over and I fed in power to normal cruise. I was now in the Owens MOA and watched an AV-8B Harrier and A-4 chase each other over the mountains towards Death Valley. What a great way to spend tax dollars! I’d heard stories of Navy pilots “locking on” to cars on Highway 395 for target practice, watching for brake lights to see who had a radar detector.
Other than crabbing into wind, things were now back to normal, but a problem was fast approaching in the form of R-2505, the restricted area around China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station. Joshua Approach advised it was active so if I didn’t want to risk a missile up my empennage, I’d better stay clear. There’s a thin sliver of airspace between the western edge of R-2505 and the southern tail of the Sierras. I was not looking forward to discovering what the air was doing in there.
I found out when my lunch hit the roof. Luckily it was still in its brown bag but the VSI pegged full down and it felt like Godzilla was simultaneously shaking a wingtip while yanking the tail. I pulled power to stay below VA and fought the yoke to stay more or less level, as airspeed, attitude, and altitude went nuts. The stall warning would blare moments before the ASI jolted back to VA. It was all I could do to stay sunny side up. Sink switched to lift with a bang, mashing me into the seat, then seconds later my flight bag was trying to levitate against the passenger seat belt. It was the wildest turbulence I had ever experienced. And, I’m pleased to say, it still is.
Non-towered Inyokern Airport, right on the edge of R-2505, was just ahead and the obvious bolt hole, since I had already lost several thousand feet in a couple of minutes. There was no way I could read a chart so asked Joshua Approach for the frequency. They didn’t respond but a recently departed American Eagle flight took pity and passed me the numbers. I dialed in the CTAF between jolts.
I was dumped out the bottom of the worst turbulence a couple of thousand feet AGL and a mile or two from Inyokern. No one else was on frequency, or dumb enough to be flying. There were three runways arranged in a triangle. I didn’t know the numbers but picked the most westerly and headed for it. Turning final at 500 feet I saw a big white cross painted on the threshold. Damn! Landing on a closed runway is not something I generally make a habit of, but I wasn’t going to stay airborne any longer than absolutely necessary so I continued the approach, looking for fences, ditches, holes or other deal-breakers. Not seeing anything bad right down to touchdown (with an into-wind groundspeed of around 40 knots I had plenty of inspection time) my short field landing took maybe 450 feet. I taxied in, climbed out and tied down, somewhat shakily. As I turned towards the FBO a gust rocked the Warrior’s wings, clanging the tie down chains.
Inside, I sat on a sofa and let the adrenaline subside. A ground school was going on in a back room. When it broke up and people drifted out I asked one of the guys if turbulence was common around here. “Out of control?” he asked. “That’s normal.”
I ended up staying the night in a motel and hitched a ride back to the airport with a commuter turboprop crew at 5.30 a.m. The flight back to Santa Monica was mercifully uneventful (and the 9am Warrior booking cancelled anyway).
Twenty three years later, now living in northern California, I got back into gliding. I had last flown gliders in 1976 as a teenager in Germany, where my father was based with the Royal Air Force. My logbook is full of 5 and 6 minute flights from 800 feet, launched by a barrage balloon winch left over from the Second World War. $2 per launch in a Schleicher Ka-2. Things have moved on a bit since then. I added my new glider rating in a K-21 at Williams Soaring Center, the US Schleicher dealer, northwest of Sacramento. (The newest design is the super-sleek, electrically self-launching AS-34).
A few months later, I was offered the chance to fly a Stemme S-10 with a company pilot at Minden. He was there for Wave Camp. Turns out Minden is one of (if not the) best soaring locations in the US, due to great wave lift. When the wind blows over the Sierras from the west at the right speed with stable air above, sailplanes can soar for hundreds of miles in the resulting mountain wave, up to the flight levels. (The world distance record is 3,008 km, set in an S-10. The Airbus sponsored Perlan 2 soared to 76,124 feet over Patagonia in 2018 ). Turns out Warriors can get along pretty well in it too.
Waves are often marked by lenticular clouds but are also accompanied by usually invisible turbulent rotors spinning off the mountain tops like a giant wingtip vortex. Watch out for those. Very nasty! You live and learn. Better late than never.