Surplus military trainers were a common sight at airports throughout the Los Angeles basin during the late forties and early fifties, and flyable airplanes could be purchased for a little as $250. My Vultee BT-13A was made from the best parts of three other BTs—I bought it for $450 and had it relicensed for $65.
A friend and I decided to fly my BT to the Lake Elsinore airport east of Los Angeles, to witness a soaring event. I didn’t get a weather briefing because the morning seemed unchanged from a predictable weather pattern—haze with an inversion layer around 3,000 feet, which trapped the smog between the mountains and the ocean.
As expected, conditions were hazy when we departed Van Nuys, with a higher overcast that was not ideal for soaring but smooth flying for us. We arrived at Lake Elsinore and after several hours of observing graceful sailplanes and a hotdog or two, I noticed some stratus clouds sliding over the tops of the foothills to the west.
No problem—I figured it was just the marine layer moving inland due to heating in the desert. Still, we decided to start back just in case the clouds moved over the Santa Monica Mountains and over the San Fernando Valley, covering Van Nuys.
We climbed to top the haze as usual, but this turned into a solid undercast around halfway home. We continued on, hoping that the clouds did not yet cover the valley, but as our estimated time of arrival for Van Nuys neared, I could see nothing but solid clouds below and a lowering overcast above.
I wasn’t totally helpless. I could confirm our position by viewing the tops of mountains penetrating the undercast, and while I lacked formal training in instrument flight, the BT did have a full panel of military gyroscopic instruments. I positioned the airplane over the Santa Monica Mountains, headed south, and trimmed the airplane for a slow descent.
I entered the undercast, expecting to break out in the clear over the flatter terrain south of the mountains within a few seconds. I knew I needed to avoid a graveyard spiral, so I concentrated on keeping the turn needle of the Turn & Bank centered. In the clouds now, I noticed the airspeed was increasing, so I pulled back briskly on the stick. This pushed me into my seat and provided the sensation of entering a steep climb.
I was losing orientation, fast. Despite the apparent climb, the airspeed was not decreasing—was I coming down the backside of a loop? If so, the airspeed should be increasing much faster than it was. Was I about to exit the cloud base in a vertical dive? What’s going on? My senses tell me I’m inverted, and suddenly, we’re back on top, in the clear, the wings are level and we’re in a normal climb. I won’t try that again.
Regrouping, I listened to the weather broadcast on the Los Angeles low frequency range; it describes thunderstorms over the deserts and higher mountains. I figure we can climb high enough to land at Big Bear airport and head that way, but evening is upon us and a light rain begins to fall.
Fuel is now a concern. I tell my passenger that if the engine quits, I’ll change fuel tanks. The second time it quits, I’ll roll the airplane on its back, and he can open his canopy and bail out. I’ve got the mixture leaned to the limit, and there are towering clouds ahead, over the Big Bear area.
Suddenly, I notice that several thousand feet below there is a view of the ground—the floor of a valley within a small canyon. I make a quick decision to get down there fast, and fly under the stratus to a nearby airport I was familiar with. I close the throttle and dive for the canyon floor, but it doesn’t work out. The stratus is almost on the ground, and we can’t fly under it.
Now what? Do I climb back to 7,000 and hope to get into Big Bear? Or climb and head for the Cajon Pass to the high desert? I quickly realize that I don’t have enough fuel or daylight left for either option. There’s a dirt road running from under the stratus into the canyon—could I turn sharply enough to fly a downwind leg along one side of the canyon and turn final into it?
Each time I advance the throttle, the BT’s radial engine bellows in protest with a huge backfire or two—this did nothing to salve my nerves. I decide to try for the road and crank down 40 degrees of flap—two degrees for each turn of the crank—and reduce the airspeed as low as I dare.
I roll into a steep left bank a few hundred feet over the ground—buffeting! I shove the stick forward and shallow the bank, but now I’m lined up to the right of my chosen section of road. But just ahead, the road jogs to the right—perhaps I can land on the straight section beyond the turn. I reduce power and start the final approach, slowing even more.
“Look out, there’s a power line ahead!” shrieks my long-silent backseater. We’re too far up the canyon to go around, and it seems inevitable that we’re going to hit the wires. I raise the nose and brace for impact but we just miss the wires; it must have been a matter of inches. The airplane is stalling but just then the tailwheel makes contact, and good footwork keeps us on the narrow road. Brakes only slide the tires on the dirt surface, but the incline helps and we come to a stop without a scratch.
I pull the mixture to idle-cutoff, and notice that I’d forgotten to richen the mixture during our hurried descent. No wonder it was backfiring! I release my shaking legs from the brakes, and the airplane starts to roll backwards. Hey backseater, put some rocks behind the wheels so I can climb out of this thing!
Lessons: Although I only had a single HF transmitter and a “coffee grinder”-tuned low frequency receiver, I could have asked for help, even if it meant admitting my plight and ignorance of the system. I had two chances to check the weather—once before each takeoff—and neglected them both. I mistakenly assumed the weather was in a rut and was merely a repeat of past performances. And I learned that a full gyro panel does not make an instrument pilot.
On the positive side, I was proven to have a good feel for the airplane, perhaps due to my training in basic aerobatics, stalls, and slow flight. The BT-13A, like other trainers of its day, had no stall warning system, and pilots were expected to discern an approaching stall through aerodynamic, visual, and auditory clues.
Had my turn close to the ground been uncoordinated, the outcome would most likely have been a half snap roll to an unrecoverable spin. All of my 250 hours flown up to that point were in tailwheel airplanes, which no doubt aided in keeping the mains on the road, which was only a few feet wider than the landing gear track.
Although we averted disaster, this was clearly a case of shabby preflight preparation, ignorance of the system, poor in-flight decision making, and reluctance to ask for help when needed. I violated the basic premise that good pilots avoid testing their piloting skills through proficient and thorough headwork.
Bob Wall, age 22 at the time of this flight, is now 79 years old. He’s still flying and has logged more than 27,000 hours in corporate, instructional, and personal flying. These days, he enjoys flying his Piper Comanche with his wife, and formation work in a North American T-6G.