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.
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.
- Making a difference – speaking up when it mattered - April 26, 2023