PIONEERTOWN – Famous for old West shoot-'em-up films and galloping horses kicking up dust down Mane Street, Pioneertown got an unscheduled visitor who dropped in from the sky at 9 a.m. Saturday. While en route to Big Bear from Palm Springs, a pilot experiencing mechanical difficulties used Pioneertown Road as an emergency landing strip. Calling the landing "controlled," the pilot, Dan Espensen of Palm Springs, stepped out of his aircraft unhurt.
"I was ready to cross over the mountains into Big Bear when I heard an engine noise getting louder and louder," said Espensen. "Experiencing loss of power, I attempted to reach Yucca Valley Airport."
I call him Danny. We've been friends for over 30 years! I met him when I was learning how to fly at Santa Monica Aiport, back in the late 70's. Back then, before we got immersed in our careers and families, we'd go flying all the time and became good friends.
An opportunity arose and Danny acquired this airplane - a 1940 something Funk aircraft, similar to a Piper Cub. He bought it cheap and you might say it was a "fixer-upper" but that would be an understatement.
Soon thereafter, Danny, my brother Paul and eventually I moved out to Palm Desert for some work opportunities. Amongst his possessions, Danny rented a trailer, took the wings off his sad and neglected looking Funk and trailered her out to the desert. I'm going to estimate that it took Danny at least 15 years to get this airplane into airworthy condition. It was a complete labor of love for Danny. From what I remember, the fabric covering the wings and fuselage had to be re-covered twice (the first person he took it to used the wrong sealant and it spoiled the fabric). He had to get the airframe inspected, the cables replaced, along with many other components that make an aircraft go - engine, propeller, wheels, brakes, upholstery and flight navigation instruments. But Danny is persistent and persevered: he restored it to a level that, in my estimation, paralleled how it must've looked when she rolled out of the Funk brother's factory in Kansas in the mid 1940's.
Danny is proud of his Funk and has logged many, many safe hours flying her to different "fly-in" events that feature antique aircraft. He and his plane have been interviewed and written up in various antique aircraft magazines. It's a wonderful restoration.
So was it any surprise last week, when on his way to Big Bear, CA to meet some friends for breakfast that Danny manged to safely land his beloved airplane without any engine power? (I think not).
I believe thinking outside the box saved Danny's bacon. Before I tell you why, let me share something:
It does take some skill to fly an airplane BUT the requirements for staying "current" or put another way, maintaining an active pilots license are abysmally (very bad) low. The only requirement for staying current is a private pilot needs to pass an annual physical exam and make at least (3) takeoffs and (3) landings withing a 90 day period.
When we took flying lessons, part of our training occurred when our flight instructor would pull back the throttle somewhere over the ocean, near the Santa Monica mountains, and said, "your engine just quit, show me where you're going to land this airplane." Taken off guard, at first we're scared and then we learn from our instructor to try and find an open area. When we find it we're taught to set up an imaginary landing approach in the exact same way you'd approach an airport. There are (3) legs to make a landing. Commercial airliners embrace the same procedure. After locating the runway, you enter at a 45 degree angle and head downwind, paralleling the runway. Next, you turn either right or left, depending on which side of the runway you are approaching the field from and enter your "base leg." Your last turn is called "Final" where you're now flying into the wind and are heading straight for the runway to set up your landing. This is how it is done.
But think about it. Many active pilots, like Dan, who have been flying for over 30 years don't get re-current flight instruction - especially true when you own your own airplane. If you were renting an airplane, you'd be required to go up with a flight instructor and show him you are capable of handling the airplane and know how to navigate.
I think, many pilots, who have not had any flight training for a long, long time might forget about the "engine-out" emergency landing procedures and not thinking outside the box and facing an emergency, like Danny did, would get focused on finding an airport runway to land on.
So let's get back to Danny's flight to Big Bear. He's still climbing and he's about 6,000 feet above sea level, still climbing so he can clear the mountains to make it to the Big Bear airport that has an elevation of 6,750 feet ASL (above sea level). He has happy thoughts as he's thinking about the friends he's about to visit and all the catching up he has to do. He's thinking about his family and maybe just taking in the magnificent beauty of the desert - the deep blue sky contrasting with the tall snow-capped mountains and white desert sand below. But his thoughts are suddenly interrupted when he hears an unfamiliar rattling vibration coming from his plane. He puts his hand on the door, thinking maybe it's not closed properly. But suddenly, his tachometer drops way off and he loses power. His propeller is still turning but still he can't get the engine going beyond 400 revolutions per minute, hardly adequate to keep his plane flying.
Danny has to make a decision. He's going to land whether he wants to or not. Suddenly, his adrenaline kicks in, causing him to become extremely alert and focused - focused on his own survival. He quickly figures out he won't make it back to his hanger at the Palm Springs Airport and heads towards Yucca Valley, where there is a small airport. While slowly descending towards the earth (an airplane like this is light and glides quite well), he gets on his radio, dials in 121.5, the emergency frequency, and calls out "Mayday, Mayday." Quickly, an American Airlines pilot radios Danny back and asks "what are your intentions." Danny says, "I've lost power and I'm descending and plan to make an emergency landing at the Yucca Valley airport." The American captain squawks back, "keep it safe, good luck, and I'll radio Flight Following and let them know what your intentions are." Danny quickly squawks back a quick "Thanks," and gets off the radio so he can focus on his landing safely.
As he's descending he comes to realize that he does not have enough altitude to make it to the Yucca Valley airport. The mountains that precede the Yucca Valley airport are starting to look really big and he doesn't want to take the chance of wrecking his plane while trying to make the airport.
He's right over Pioneer Town, a city adjacent to Yucca Valley. He looks down, looking for a suitable place to land. He finds a paved highway that has a slight grade. Preferring to land uphill, to slow his plane down quicker, Danny notices there's a bunch of power lines and poles he will have to clear in order to land uphill. But on the other side of the highway, there aren't any power lines.
He decides to take this approach and goes ahead and acting as if he's going to land on a real airport runaway, visualizes the highway as the airport runway. He enters at at 45, turns downwind, then base and now he's lined up for final. On final and now at a much lower altitude, Danny sees a car travelling in the same direction as he's heading but the car is travelling faster than he. There' enough distance in front for Danny to land safely behind the car (can you imagine looking in your rear view mirror and seeing an airplane right on your tail?). Danny stays focused - as a matter of fact, the hair is standing up on the back of his neck. Totally focused, he sees a power pole and high tension wire on one side of the highway and banks his wingtip to avoid hitting it. He lines himself up and soon feels his wheels hit the smooth asphalt pavement and makes a safe 3 point landing. As he's rolling down the highway, he sees a bowling alley with a dirt parking lot and pulls over and gently applies his brakes. He comes to a safe stop. He gets out of his plane and let's out a sigh of relief. He is safe!
As he's standing beside his plane and using his cell phone to call the FAA to let hem know he's safe, a family approaches him with a couple of little kids. The little boy has the idea that Pioneer Town iss having an air show today and says "Mister, can I get a ride in your plane!" Danny smiling, looks down at the little boy, smiles and says, "Sorry sonny, not today."
I want to underscore how thinking outside the box and using sound judgement saved Danny's life. If you've ever read aftermath airplane crash accident reports, there is a high percentage of pilots who might have survived had they not been so obsessed with landing at the airport. They reach a practical point where there is no way the airplane has enough altitude and speed to make the airport but somehow, false hope kicks in and it becomes an emotional game trying to make the airport and when they fall short, many crash and either die or are severely injured.
Danny realized he wasn't going to make the field. He quickly created a plan "B" that saved his life. There are many people who say how flying a plane or riding motorcycles is so dangerous. And the truth is, there are higher risks involved than say driving a car. Still, while no guarantees on who will live and who will not, good judgement and the right attitude are two important qualities to possess.
I spoke with Danny yesterday when he told me this story. I asked him, "how do you feel?" Danny says, "It's like being alive and being able to read your own obituary."
Please help me in congratulating Danny on his unbelievable experience in losing his engine and making the right decision that has provided me with the inspiration to write this short story.