Mooney M20E
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On this particular day, I had flown our Bonanza into Big Bear City, Ca (L35) from Las Vegas, NV to join our Saturday morning “Breakfast Club”.  Though tucked in among high terrain to the north and south, it has good approaches to its nearly 6,000′ east/west runway and has an excellent restaurant in the terminal building.  After securing the ship and walking toward the terminal, I encountered a young man who was heading to the tie-down area carrying some luggage. We said hello to each other and, I don’t know why exactly, we struck up a casual conversation. He was flying back to his home in Colorado Springs in an older Mooney with two young women companions. This was when I became concerned.

airplane taking off

The pilot was flying back to his home in Colorado Springs in an older Mooney with two young companions.

Big Bear City has one of the highest airport elevations in California at nearly 7,000’ and is surrounded by high terrain. With three young adults, baggage and fuel to fly to Colorado Springs, it didn’t take much thought to realize they were going to be on the cusp of performance capability as the density altitude was more than 9,000’.  I asked him in which direction he intended take off and he responded that he intended to take off to the east which was his course for home.  I explained that when departing Big Bear to the east over Baldwin Dry Lake, a pilot is soon confronted with elevated terrain.  As the winds were light and variable that morning, and trying to be as diplomatic as possible, I recommended departing to the west due to lower terrain and with altitude and speed permitting, he could reverse course over Big Bear Lake. On the other hand, if a lack of climb rate became an issue, he merely had to stay over the lake, fly over the dam on the west end and follow the river drainage and lowering terrain to the southwest. And with that said, we parted company.

While ensconced in the airport coffee shop, I saw them taxi for departure. To my relief, the young pilot taxied his ship to depart to the west. I lost sight of them before liftoff as they passed behind the fuel island tanks. A short time later, I got the idea of following their progress on ForeFlight with my iPhone while I was waiting for breakfast. Sure enough, there they were, a M20C Mooney!  They had passed over the dam and were following the river drainage to the south. At this point, they still had not climbed above pattern altitude. I continued to monitor their progress. After what felt like an agonizingly long time, they finally reached their cruise altitude of 9,500’ as they worked their way back toward the east and south of the high terrain surrounding Mt. San Gorgonio.  They took the Banning Pass into the Palm Springs area and were on their way home.

As I ate my breakfast, I began to ponder. What would have happened if I hadn’t bothered to talk to the pilot?  Would they have made it over the higher terrain taking off to the east or become wreckage for the NTSB to investigate and which Big Bear is not unfamiliar. I do know the young pilot followed a successful course of action for him and his companions. Perhaps I had made a difference.

Geary Keilman
Latest posts by Geary Keilman (see all)
7 replies
  1. mike harper
    mike harper says:

    My oldest brother told me of being in a failed takeoff at Big Bear. This was maybe 70 years ago. The Swift his friend was flying did not climb out of ground effect and the plane crashed back on the airport. I remember him telling the takeoff was uphill. No harm to the pilot or him except plane damage and embarrassment. My brother told me he was trying to get out of the airplane but couldn’t. Seems he, in the panic of the moment did not unbuckle the seat belt.

  2. Pat
    Pat says:

    Always nice to read an Air Facts piece with a happy ending. Twenty years ago, when we lived in Indio, CA, L35 was a regular Sunday morning flight for my wife, dogs, and myself to escape the summer desert heat in the Coachella Valley (KTRM). It was a quick 30 minute flight with a typical temperature difference of 30 degrees F. The “Landings Restaurant” had one of the best breakfast burritos to be found anywhere. And, they had outside seating that allowed our dogs to join us for breakfast (their preference was the side orders of crisp bacon). We would then enjoy a day of hiking in the surrounding mountains before descending back into the “ovenlike atmosphere” at home. And yes, there was a very noticeable difference in performance at 6750′ compared to our home airport at 115′ below sea level. I have heard more than one tale of aircraft unexpectedly forced to take advantage of “ground effect” over the lake to make a safe “getaway”.

  3. Rick Junkin
    Rick Junkin says:

    Thanks for sharing this story Geary. In this day and age where a lot of folks seem to keep to themselves more than in the past, I’ve been happy to find most pilots are different. We never know when a casual conversation at the airport can produce a potentially life-saving gem for one or both parties. I know I’ve been on both sides of this quite a number of times. Your story is a good reminder to engage, share and listen at every opportunity. It could be our chance to make a difference.

  4. John Stipetich
    John Stipetich says:

    Thanks for what you did that day to save 3 lives. I could write a book on how good a pilot you were to do such. Could write a book on accidents too. Hindsight is a tool used after the event. What you did was foresight which is rare and precious. Thanks.

  5. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    Sharing experiences we’ve had ourselves or learned from others had been and continues to be a positive part of our aviation world. Thankfully, your short conversation was a game changer!

  6. Ruffin Benton
    Ruffin Benton says:

    Never miss an opportunity to speak up. Never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut. Pray for the wisdom to know the difference. Thanks Captain K ✈️

  7. Mark Garrard
    Mark Garrard says:

    Great story. Thanks. About 10-12 yrs ago at KFLY outside Col Spgs, a young man from TX & his fiance in a Bonanza flew in for a weekend at a nearby resort. An older gentleman (& CFI) on the N end of the field saw them loading up…bag after bag of purchases. He warned the pilot about DA & suggested taking off to the S (slight downhill) would be wise. The young man didn’t listen, and apparently also failed to do a run up…never leaning his engine for best power at that high altitude airport. He was able to get off the ground maybe 10-12′, just cleared a fence & road at the edge of the airfield then pancaked into an adjacent field, sliding nearly into a second road. The destroyed plane sat in the weeds at Meadowlake for years. Fortunately the young man & his fiance were unharmed…at least physically.


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