It feels safer, but is it? The first words broadcasted over the emergency frequency, 121.5, early evening on November 21, 1981 were simply, “help! help!”. The voice was frantic. I had just reached a cruising altitude of 6,500 feet after departing Bakersfield, California enroute to Sacramento. Our Cessna 310 belonged to a law firm and on board were four law students heading back to Sacramento, and the wife of an attorney going to visit her parents. Off my left wing, the last light of the sun was visible over the California coastal range and off the right wing, the sun still illuminated the snowcapped peaks of the High Sierras. It was a clear night. City lights stretched along Highway 99 up the San Joaquin Valley all the way to Sacramento.
Notably none of the control towers in the valley responded to the call. Aviation radios are “line-of-sight.” Airborne you can communicate for several miles, but transmitting on the ground to another radio on the ground has a very short-range leaving the impression the caller was on the ground.
The call for help sounded like a prankster. The caller hadn’t used the phrase, “Mayday, Mayday,” the universal call for an emergency. Someone had access to a radio and was trying to be funny–not the first time that had happened.
Fifteen minutes later the same transmission: “help! help!”. However, this time Stockton Tower responded, “Aircraft in distress state your call sign and position.” Silence…
Whoever was pulling this prank must be close to the Stockton airport. No other tower had responded. The silence lasted for about ten minutes when again was heard, “help, please help!”. The voice was now panicked and high pitched. Stockton tower reached out again, but silence followed.
Fifteen minutes later another call for help. This time, however, Sacramento Tower responded, “Aircraft in distress do you have a VOR?”. The reply came back “What is that?”.
My impression was wrong. For both Sacramento and Stockton to receive the transmissions, whoever was making the calls for help was airborne and this person did not know what a VOR was. My second thought was a pilot had lost consciousness leaving a non-pilot at the controls. The high pitch voice sounded like it belonged to a woman. The voice also had a foreign accent.
Another call for help. This time it was Travis Airforce Base that answered, “Aircraft in distress, do you have a transponder?”. Followed by the same reply of “What is that?”. The transmissions ceased again.
For many years, foreign countries and their air carriers have sent primary and advanced students to the United States for training. The U.S. has a reputation of having the best aviation training programs in the world. Training in the U.S. also provides opportunity for students to improve their English, the international language of aviation. In some cases, however, these students are not proficient in English when they first arrive. Flight schools that cater to international students will generally employ an interpreter to assist with communication. An interpreter will often be present in the control tower to help translate during a student’s solo flight. This person was having trouble with communicating.
The airway was silent for several minutes when a final call was made, “Help, I’m going to crash, I’m going to die!”. Then shortly thereafter, “I’m going to put it down in a shopping center”.
Now that was a clue. With Travis Air Force Base, Sacramento Tower, and Stockton Tower responding to the emergency, most likely the aircraft was somewhere in between the three locations.
Flight instructors teach their students, when in trouble, to use the three Cs—climb, call, and confess. This pilot had called and asked for help, but didn’t employ the first “C” to climb. The irony was had he climbed to a higher altitude other control towers would have attempted to contact him making it near impossible to pinpoint his location. By staying at a lower altitude, he had unwittingly narrowed the search area.
Lodi, California was in the triangle of the three responding towers and big enough to have a shopping center. I decided to start my descent early into Sacramento on the off chance that Lodi was the aircraft’s location. Approaching Lodi, I could see a shopping center to the West of town and circling above it were the lights of a small aircraft.
I approached the aircraft from behind and to its right, decelerating to match its pace. I could make out the familiar shape of a Cessna 150. Even at my minimum safe speed, my Cessna 310 was still faster. I came even with the aircraft on its right wing, keyed the mike and said, “Aircraft in distress do you see another airplane off your right wing?”. Silence…maybe this wasn’t the airplane. As I inched ahead of the Cessna 150 I made a second call, “Aircraft in distress do you see another airplane off your right side?”. An excited response came back
“Yeah, I see you,” then a desperate request “Get those cars out of the way, I’m going to land it.” He was panicked and acting irrationally.
It was Saturday after Thanksgiving, one of the busiest shopping days of the year. The parking lot at the mall was a sea of taillights and Highway 12 from Lodi to the Bay area was bumper-to-bumper with shoppers and commuters on their way home. This was not going to be easy.
The Cessna 150 was orbiting above the mall at about 800 feet. I set up a wider orbit to keep visual contact. The pilot was focused on landing in the shopping center. That would have to change if there was any hope of a successful outcome.
I started by asking the pilot some questions in an attempt to calm him down.
“Are you a pilot?”
“I’m a student pilot” (that was something to work with).
“Which airport did you depart from?”
“What’s your altitude?”
“Tell me your airspeed?”
We were making progress. He was beginning to calm down. Then I asked, “How much fuel do you have?”.
He said, “I’M EMPTY”.
The clock had run out! Ready or not we had to act now.
Stockton was the closest airport. Hopefully, he had enough fuel to make it. If not, a forced landing in open country at night would give him a better chance of surviving than setting down on a crowded highway.
“Okay, here’s what we’ll do. We are going to the closest airport. I’m going to pass in front of you and then you need to turn and follow me. Can you do that?”. “Yes,” came the reply.
“Stockton tower we are coming your way. Did you copy the low fuel state?” Stockton Tower replied, “We did and we are notifying law enforcement to stand by. Set your transponder to 7700.” “Roger Stockton, please turn your runway lights on high”.
I was relieved to see the Cessna 150 following me, but he was falling behind, so I circled to make sure he kept me in sight. The runway at Stockton was a straight-in from our approach angle. “Follow me”, I said, “I’ll fly over the runway and you can land first”.
I flew over the runway and made a left turn to enter the downwind leg. On base leg, I watched the Cessna 150 safely touchdown. God had decided it was not his time die.
We both stopped on the taxiway and got out to shake hands. The young man had come to the U.S. from the Middle East to learn how to fly. He said he was on his first solo cross-country when he got lost. I reached in my pocket and gave him a quarter. “What was that for?” he asked. I said, “Somewhere there is a flight instructor who must be worried sick. You should give him a call.”
During this incident I had completely forgotten about my passengers. Returning to my aircraft I could see the adrenaline rush had affected them also. It was time to get them to their destination. Arriving at the terminal in Sacramento, two law students immediately made a dash for the bar.
- “I’m going to crash!” -helping a pilot in distress - February 22, 2023