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Density-altitude scare at Big Bear

Flight Lesson

I was 19 years old, spending my summer flying for a fishing boat, spotting swordfish to be sold in local restaurants.

Flights of more than five hours were not uncommon in the Cessna 150, and I had accumulated nearly 190 hours, loitering around 1,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean near Catalina Island. I took flying very seriously and treated it with respect, as I planned to fly professionally after college.

On August 1, 1986, I had persuaded a friend to help me spot fish. We got a late start waiting for the typical coastal cloud layer to clear up. After flying 2.3 hours without spotting any fish, we were notified from the boat that we were done for the day.

We decided to fly to Big Bear, California, for lunch. We climbed from the ocean to more than 10,000 feet to provide ample clearance from the rising terrain where Big Bear City Airport (L35) lies.

It was a clear, warm day. Before making our descent into Big Bear, I rationalized that the density altitude was manageable because I was able to climb to more than 3,000 feet above the airport’s 6,752-foot elevation.

Our approach and landing were normal. After parking the airplane, we enjoyed a burger at the airport restaurant. We made some small talk with the waitress, who asked us what kind of airplane we were flying. I responded, “A Cessna 150.” She politely told us that the more-than-85-degrees-Fahrenheit temperatures and elevation at the Big Bear airport made it difficult for smaller airplanes to take off and suggested we stay until it cooled down.

I mentally dismissed this and kept telling myself that if the airplane could fly at 10,000 feet, I should be able to take off at 6,752. We returned to the airplane; I tried to hide my trepidation as we boarded and prepared for takeoff.

We started the takeoff roll. The airplane was very slow responding to the throttle, and I could tell the density altitude was taking its toll on the power from the engine. About halfway down the 5,850-foot runway, I tried to lift the nosewheel. We continued down the runway on the main wheels with the nose off the ground.

I pulled back on the yoke and the airplane lifted off the ground, only to quickly return the surface, so I tried again and again. We were bouncing down the last 1,000 feet of the runway, at little more than stall speed, in ground effect.

I knew the area, and I thought that if I could clear the runway, it was all water for eight miles to the end of the lake. At the end of the lake is a low dam, followed by a deep canyon, so I knew if I could make the dam, I was home free.

We lifted off and maintained about 10 feet in altitude. I was not happy with that, and I could tell my passenger was having second thoughts about my decisions. I was content for the moment that I could navigate the lake at 10 feet, but quickly discovered there was a road about one mile from the airport that crossed the lake in our path. As we got closer I could see that a set of power lines ran about 20 feet above the road.

We were too low to go over, and in too narrow of an area to turn around. So I pulled the nose even higher and managed to climb over the power lines with the stall warning blaring. As soon as we made it over, I lowered the nose and returned to our 10-foot altitude and the stall warning went off.

Since I frequently flew over water for long periods of time, I kept inflatable life preservers and was well educated on water landings. I reminded my friend of the water gear and the water landing briefing I had given him before our flight over the ocean. I told him he should consider opening the door a crack so we could get out in the event of a water landing. He looked at me in disbelief and said, “Don’t talk. Shut up and fly.”

We maneuvered around sailboats, like pylons at an air race, all the way across the eight-mile lake. We narrowly cleared the dam where the canyon was no more than 200 feet wide; I quickly dropped the nose and dove down the canyon, picking up much needed airspeed.

Lesson learned: Never take density altitude for granted, especially on warm high-altitude days. And listen to advice from airport waitresses.

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