The following is an excerpt from personal memoirs I’m currently working on. It details an airplane incident in the mid-1970s that resulted in an emergency landing but which could very easily have been a fatal crash instead.
By Robert A. Vella
At age 19, I rented a room in my coworker/friend Bob’s house. He had soon obtained his VFR pilot’s license (i.e. Visual Flight Rules only, not authorized to fly in bad weather using instruments), and I became his regular flying companion. We flew all over the states of California, Nevada, Arizona, and Oregon in leased aircraft such as the high-wing Cessna models 150 and 172, Beechcraft Bonanza S33 and S35 (V-tail), and 4-6 seat versions of the Piper Cherokee. Eventually, Bob bought a wooden-constructed 1958 Mooney M20A which was very fast with its retractable landing gear. The 150 was cramped and slow, and both Cessna models tended to swing side-to-side like a pendulum. Also somewhat uncomfortable was the S35 which felt like it was swimming through the air (like a fish) because of its lack of a vertical stabilizer. The Cherokees were much more enjoyable to fly as was the Mooney. The vistas from the vantage point of a small plane are truly breathtaking. Even at the heights of the tallest skyscrapers, the view isn’t nearly as good; and, at the higher altitudes which commercial airliners fly, the rich detail of ground surface features is lost. I have treasured memories and pictures of natural wonders like brilliant Crater Lake (OR), the beautiful forest land around Flagstaff (AZ), the towering Sierra Nevada mountain range, the stunning San Francisco Bay, and the rugged California coastline. Such excursions are so stimulating and so seeming effortless that people tend to ignore the inherent dangers. The old proverb, what goes up must come down, definitely applies to flying as we would discover on a weekend trip to South Lake Tahoe. Bob, myself, and two coworker friends (Debbie “Boozer,” and another Bob who had taught me some martial arts) were returning to San Carlos airport on a nice Sunday afternoon. The weather was clear and warm. Bob’s Mooney was at capacity with passengers and luggage. We had little trouble gaining enough altitude to pass over the Sierras, and the journey across the Central Valley was uneventful other than a closer than desired encounter with another small plane (besides bad weather and poor airplane maintenance, midair collisions are a top concern because of the complex three-dimensional movement of aircraft in combination with limited cockpit visibility). Over the then-rural area of San Ramon, as we were approaching San Francisco Bay, the engine suddenly died. Our altitude was about 3,000 feet (my estimate from memory), and the ground elevation was approximately 500 ft. That left us with no more than a 2,500 ft. margin. Bob tried desperately to restart the engine, but to no avail. He pitched the nose of the plane downwards to avoid a catastrophic stall (which would have killed us all) and we descended stably but quickly towards the ground. Bob had to find a safe place to land with not much time to do so. Adroitly, he did, locating a farmer’s field that had been recently plowed bare. As whatever fate awaited us rapidly approached, the only sound in the cockpit was of the outside air rushing past the fuselage. No one said a word. We didn’t even look at each other. My knuckles turned pale from gripping something tight, but I remained calm. All of us had the same reaction because in that situation there is absolutely nothing one can do but wait for the inevitable outcome. Bob made a series of wide turns which aligned the plane with the field. We barely cleared the farmer’s white cottage and leveled out over the field (as airplanes near the ground, air pressure increases in between which temporarily gives the craft additional lift). Just a second or two before touchdown, I yelled to Bob from my right rear seat that the landing gear was still up (he had intentionally bypassed that step in the landing procedure in order to keep the plane from stalling)! He immediately activated the mechanical lever (located between the two front seats) at almost the split-second that the plane touched-down (rather roughly, I might add). The Mooney bounced briefly back up into the air before bouncing hard several more times. The plowed loose soil acted to slow the plane down much quicker than a normal runway landing. We came to a stop, and the sense of relief was overwhelming. When I stepped onto the field, my legs were shaking badly. The four of us stood there dazed outside the plane as the farmer and his wife ran up to see if anyone was hurt. We were all okay, as was the Mooney except for some minor denting to its undersides. A week later, after it was discovered that the engine had failed because the plane had run out of fuel, Bob had to fly the Mooney back to San Carlos airport and asked me to come along because he didn’t want to do it alone. I was apprehensive, but couldn’t refuse. We drove to San Ramon with some fuel and prepared the plane for takeoff. The farmer’s field wasn’t nearly as long as a typical runway and it was plowed-up soil instead of a hard flat surface. I don’t remember our reasoning at the time, but Bob decided to takeoff from the north end of the field southwards towards the cottage. This choice may have been made because the north end was bordered by a row of very tall trees which obviously posed a clearance hazard; however, taking off to the south meant violating a fundamental rule of flight – that is, to always takeoff or land against the wind because lift is increased and the necessary length of runway is reduced. Although I can’t recall what the specific wind direction was that day, I do remember the weather was sunny which typically meant prevailing westerlies (i.e. northwest to southeast) in the San Francisco Bay area. Regardless, we taxied the plane to the northern end and began accelerating down the field. The Mooney performed well, but it was slow to pick up speed. We started bouncing up and down progressively higher as the cottage was getting closer and closer. The farmer and his wife were watching from a safe distance outside their home while I had terrifying visions of crashing headlong into their living room (would my broken body land ironically upright on their sofa?). But, there was no chance of aborting takeoff now. We were committed. Then, just before we ran out of runway, the last bounce propelled the Mooney up into the air where its strong engine asserted itself and we headed westward towards the bay. I never flew in a small plane again and, as the years went by, I became increasingly averse to flying commercially. The last time I flew was 2007, and I intend it to be my last. Regarding the cause of the emergency landing, I never read any official report nor did I ask to. Bob told me that there were two fuel tanks in the Mooney, one inside each wing. Before departing for Lake Tahoe, the fuel gauge for one of the tanks (the left one, I think) was not working which apparently wasn’t a technical regulatory violation. However, Bob had filled-up both tanks which was more than enough fuel for our roundtrip. He used the right tank for the outbound leg and, after its fuel was exhausted, switched over to the left tank during the return leg. Since that gauge wasn’t working, Bob assumed that we still had sufficient fuel remaining when the engine died over San Ramon. Someone, and I don’t remember who that was, told me that a bullet-sized hole was found in the left wing tank after our arrival at San Carlos airport. Presumably, that caused the fuel to leak out which Bob wasn’t aware of because of the broken gauge. Did a crazed gunman shoot at our plane as we approached San Ramon? Or, did the hole result from something else? I just don’t know.