By: Norm Goyer
I have lived in the High Desert of SoCal for forty years now and have flown the mountains extensively. Apple Valley, my home area, is located at 3,000 feet altitude, 16 miles north of the Coastal Mountain Range which include three of the highest mountains in California. The mountain range is narrow and high with only three passes funneling airplanes, cars, trains and early settlers through their low level routes to the Pacific Ocean. The west side of the mountains sits at about 900 feet which diminishes to below sea level as the terrain heads east. Cajon Pass which crests the mountains at 4300 feet high climbs from 900 feet. This beautiful canyon (part of the San Andreas fault) is often called the Cessna Trap. Each year at least one, sometimes more, inept pilots, attempt to fly out of the overcast Los Angeles Basin area into the clear air of the High Desert. Their intended route is to follow Interstate 15 north out of San Bernardino area. Really a bad idea. About two thirds way up the pass there is a gigantic bowl with steep sides all around it with no escape route except the way you came. The pilot can see the clear blue sky peaking beneath the clouds at the high end of the pass. But, there is no way the average pilot can turn around to head back home. Most end up in a stall spin accident as they attempt to force their plane to climb at rates impossible for it to accomplish. Even a 180 degree turn around climb and stall won’t work as there is not enough altitude. A Helio or maybe a Maule could skirt the terrain and make a low speed maximum turn but not many pilots are that good. Result, Cessna Canyon has caught another one. Our mechanics loaded up so many crashed airplanes to haul out of the area we made a special trailer just to haul the victims out of there. One year we pulled out three airplanes and one helicopter. Figure that one out. Most were fatal accidents.
Norm’s Rule Number One for Mountain Flying: Never fly up a canyon, if you must, fly down a canyon. Not a good idea in any direction.
Then there are the pilots, like me, who were hired by Government contractors to count wildlife in the mountains. The best way is by agents on the ground hand count them. But, these mountains are so rugged that it is impossible to get into these areas except by helicopter and that method is too expensive. So they hire dumb pilots who should know better. It proved to be an excellent profit center for our companies so we bid on the jobs. Our fleet consisted of a Cub, Champion Scout and a Cessna 195. Each had its specialty. Our pilots knew that they had the right to refuse any route that they considered dangerous. The BLM guys and gals didn’t know an airplane from a Land Rover and often requested routes that a mountain goat would refuse.
One day we received an urgent call from the feds needing an airplane for a search for a missing agent in the mountains near Joshua Tree National Park. Of course this required special permission as these parks are no fly zones in many areas. Our fleet of mountain planes were all busy so I used a turbo Cessna 206 belonging to a lease back customer. Smart decision on my part as the extra power saved my butt. Into the mountains we went and believe me these are rugged rock filled mountains filled with airplane trapping canyons. We searched the whole area at least three times except for one canyon I was avoiding. But the two rangers would not go home without checking it out, their fellow worker was missing and might be injured. I climbed above the area in question and circled at a safe height trying to spot the escape routes on my downwards trajectory. When searching you fly as slowly as you can so the spotters can have time for a good eyeball search of the area. By circling at altitude the missing person will often climb to higher ground to signal the aircraft. Crossing my fingers and calling in on the Unicom to let 29 Palms airport know where I was, I lowered the nose and headed down. I purposely did not deploy any flaps keeping them for an emergency. The big Cessna slowed down to 80 knots the slowest I would fly it at and began a downhill slow turning between the walls for a better view. One of the rangers yelled “Over there on the rock waving, I think that’s him.” I turned the plane towards the area and guess what? Rocks, lots of rock, ahead and no freaking way to turn the sucker around. I slowly firewalled it, pushed the prop into full low pitch and started lowering the flaps. Up, up and away, thank heavens for lots of cubic inches. The Cessna easily climbed over the cliff with a hundred feed to spare. Love those big cubes stuffed with a turbo. We radioed in our find and went home.
Very often luck, or lack of, plays an important role in safe or unsafe mountain flying. Unless you have an excellent reason to be down low and slow in the canyons, DON’T DO IT. These wild tales do make excellent hangar flying sessions however.