By Pete J. “PJ” Van De Hei
This story took place 55 years ago in a small California town where I lived most of my life.
In April 1968 an innocent distraction during maintenance started a chain of events that ended tragically. I was a high school senior at the time. My father Myron was a 49-year-old commercial pilot, A&P, husband, and father of four children. We lived on a 182-acre ranch he named the Flying Circle V Ranch. In 1955 he built a 1,500-foot-long airstrip that was nestled in the middle of large pine trees on the ridge high above our 100-year-old ranch house. The strip was at 3,000 feet msl elevation in the Sierra Nevada.
My father learned to fly Stearmans, Ryan PT–22s, Vultee BT13s, and the like in military flight school in 1943 at Gary Field in Blythe, California. In 1950 he was an airport manager in the Livermore, California, area. During that time, he flew crop dusting and performed maintenance on a variety of aircraft. He owned and flew various airplanes, a Piper J–3 Cub, PA–12, Cessnas, and the Stearman, and I’m sure there were others. I don’t believe he ever flew anything without a tailwheel on it.
In 1953 we moved to the ranch. Dad went to work for the California Youth Authority and later was a real estate developer, but his passion was aviation.
When I was in third grade my dad had just finished rebuilding a J–3 Cub. One day he kept me out of school to take me flying. The following day I carried this note to school: “Please excuse PJ from school yesterday as I took him flying so he could learn more about aviation. I feel this is just as important as a day at school.”
My father was always talking about safety and how important it was to do things correctly. I remember him saying, “It isn’t like a car. You can’t just pull off to the side of the road with an airplane when something goes wrong. It must be fixed properly the first time.”
We would listen to his stories with great interest. During the late 1950s he flew Stearmans spraying for spruce bark beetles in British Columbia, Canada, during the summers. I remember that summer when he returned with the Stearman and landed on the dirt airstrip at the ranch. My friends and I crowded around the airplane to get a look at this biplane. He let us kids sit in the cockpit, and we would pretend we were flying. It seemed like such a big airplane to us as small children.
Dad and Mom attended the Reno Air Races every year. In the mid-1960s he built a Midget Mustang but never competed with it because his 6-foot 2-inch frame didn’t fit. He sold it to a man in Texas. Each year we would hear stories about the air races and the pilots he knew. Once he flew an open cockpit Stearman from Cleveland, Ohio, to Oakland, California, in bad weather. Some days he was only able to go 100 miles or so before he was forced to land on a road or in a field. At that time it was not unusual to land in a farmer’s field if you needed directions, fuel, or to wait out weather. Dad used to say you meet some of the nicest people while flying. It was fun to listen to his stories as a young boy; I know it sparked my lifetime interest in aviation.
Every few years he would buy aircraft that needed repairs. He would fix them up, fly them awhile, and later re-sell them. During my senior year in 1968, Dad’s project was a damaged Cessna 140. Dad and I took the fuselage and wings up to the dirt strip about mid-morning for final assembly. The engine had already been tested and ran fine. The installation of both wings went smoothly, wing struts were installed, and then the control surfaces. By the time the control surfaces were installed it was getting late in the evening.
I was more interested in cars, motorcycles, and girls at that time. I had agreed to help dad on that day, but he didn’t think it was going to take nearly this long. He was having a problem with the right aileron rigging and having trouble getting it finished. I was getting more impatient by the minute and wanted to leave and voiced my opinion more than once about wanting to go. Almost an hour went by, and Dad still didn’t have the problem corrected, something about a bolt and a cable, but he stopped what he was doing and said he would finish it later.
It would be about two weeks before Dad could find the time to work on the Cessna 140 again. He finished the Cessna by himself, and the day came for the test flight. I drove him up to the airstrip. Dad was going to fly the airplane to the nearest airport and leave it there for a while. I was going to drive the 16 miles to the airport and pick him up. I watched Dad take off and the Cessna 140 climbed into the sky. About one-quarter mile after departure I saw the airplane banking to the right. For a moment I thought I saw something hanging from the right wing as it went out of sight behind the mountain and trees.
Driving up to the airport, I was surprised the Cessna 140 was not there yet. I waited about 45 minutes and was about to drive home when the phone rang in the airport manager’s office. My mother said there had been an accident, the Cessna 140 had crashed in a wooded area two miles from home on a hillside. Dad had been seriously hurt in the accident, and unable to see very well, had managed to stumble about half a mile to a road. A fellow student from high school was driving by and stopped to help him. Another car came by, then went to the nearest phone to call an ambulance. My mother said to meet her at the hospital.
Arriving at the hospital I was able to see Dad in the emergency room for only a few minutes. The doctors said my father would have to be moved to a bigger hospital that could care for him better. Mom reassured me that dad would be OK. But he had suffered major facial injuries from hitting the instrument panel, and sadly he died the next day. Dad would have been the first to admit that the accident was caused by a maintenance mistake that cost him his life.
I went to college the following year and earned my private pilot certificate. The following few years earned two degrees in aviation, became a commercial pilot with single-engine land and sea, multiengine land, and instrument ratings. I also got my A&P mechanic and IA certificates. I’m sure Dad would have been proud.
This was not an easy story for me to tell. I’ve had 55 years to think about it, because I have always believed I was my father’s distraction.
Pete J. (“PJ”) Van De Hei is a commercial-rated pilot and A&P/IA mechanic living in Fairbanks, Alaska, the past 45 years.