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My Fight for Life in the High Sierras
By Peter DeLeo

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: The Crash of Maule N5629J

November 27, 1994

Joshua Approach, Maule N5629-Juliet, over," I say.

Both of my passengers, who are wearing headphones, listen in with me. But all we hear is static.

"It's OK, Lloyd," I say. "They can't pick us up with these mountains obstructing our radio transmission. We usually make contact with them around Owens Valley."

I scan the instrument panel. The altimeter reads 12,000 feet above sea level, a safe altitude in this part of California's Sierra Nevada, even though the tallest peaks here rise to heights greater than 14,000 feet. Our airspeed is 145 mph, and our heading, as we fly toward the Inyo Mountains and Death Valley, is 020 degrees. Holding the plane straight, I adjust the elevator trim, a wheel on the floor that helps level the plane in flight, and Maule N5629-Juliet smooths out.

"Boy, it's cold up here," Lloyd mutters through chattering teeth. "But I love it," he adds with an ear-to-ear grin. It's clear by the look on his face that Lloyd Matsumoto, a fifty-seven-year-old drug and alcohol counselor for the city of Long Beach, is having the time of his life. It's his first trip and, captivated by all these awesome views, he is not sure what to photograph first, so he snaps photos at everything he sees.

Cold air is seeping into the cockpit, so I check the exterior air temperature gauge. It reads ten below zero. No wonder I feel chilled. I pull off a glove and zip up my jacket.

Also penetrating the cockpit is the deafening roar of the 235- horsepower engine and the chopping rhythm of the propeller. Fortunately, our headsets muffle most of this extraneous noise and the three of us can communicate easily through the onboard intercom system.

"Which way this time?" asks Waverly "Wave" Hatch from the seat behind me and Lloyd. Unlike Lloyd, Wave is an experienced flyer. He knows that from our present position, we can head over to Yosemite, the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, or Owens Valley. From Mount Whitney we can fly to Lee Vining, a small airport resting at an elevation of 6802 feet, slightly north of Mammoth on the shores of Mono Lake close to the Nevada state line.

"Why don't we head east and check out Mount Whitney and then go on to Owens Valley?" I suggest.

I scan the skies for other aircraft. Not one in sight. What an extraordinary view. Although Alaska can boast the sixteen highest peaks in the United States, including the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, California's Mount Whitney, rising to 14,494 feet, is the tallest peak in the lower forty-eight states. Discovered in 1864 by the American geologist Josiah Dwight Whitney, this towering peak rises at the eastern border of Sequoia National Park. Mount Whitney and the surrounding 13,000-foot peaks are magnets for climbers and hikers from all over the world. From the air, one can see the sides of Mount Whitney have been burnished by ancient glaciers that once flowed down to the valleys of the Kern and Owens rivers. These days no glaciers remain, but a ten-foot snow base, from recent snowstorms, now blankets the mountain.

Not more than a hundred miles from the lofty Mount Whitney is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, Death Valley, an area the size of Connecticut, and in the summer the hottest spot in North America. Tourists flock to be photographed alongside a sign on the desert floor that reads "BADWATER, 282 feet/66 meters below sea level." At the peak of the summer season, temperatures reach 125 degrees and more.

This remote area is brimming with wildlife. As we fly over the mountains and across the high desert floor, we can spot deer and coyote in the skag brush and in the ravines cut out of the earth by the hard rains that flood the desert floor. Mount Whitney's windswept summit is home to hardy flocks of rosy finches. When they are not looking for handouts from hikers, these tame little brown and pink birds devour the insects that have been blown up the slope from lower elevations or have become trapped in melting ice or frozen on the surface of the snowfields. More visible in and around the lakeshore are the sage grouse, palm warblers, tundra swans, hawks, owls, ducks, Western bluebirds, American pipits, and indigo buntings in an array of sizes and colors. As soon as they hear the roar of the plane over the lake, they flock together in tight formation and their movements suddenly become sharp, erratic, and ungraceful.

The Maule's reflection in Mono Lake below is calming and gives me a sense of inner peace. This is one of the true pleasures of flying. Framing the view are clouds of all shapes and sizes. I scan the instrument panel, paying special attention to our fuel consumption. With a piston-driven engine that has a carburetor instead of fuel injection, the pilot must adjust the fuel and air mixture to achieve maximum engine performance, using the Lean Mixture knob. When the knob is pulled out the fuel is reduced, making the mixture "leaner." Push the knob in and the mixture is enriched. If the flow of fuel is excessive, the engine underperforms, horsepower is reduced, and fuel is consumed unnecessarily.

The plane is equipped with three transparent doors, two up front and one in back. Most people who have flown in the Maule remember the "greenhouse" visibility these three Plexiglas doors provide. To some, the Maule is a flying glass-bottom boat.

What we see all around us is breathtaking. The majestic mountain peaks are covered with freshly fallen snow. The Spanish settlers named the Sierras for Spain's highest mountain range, the Sierra Nevada, which means "snowy range." Here and there, we can see giant sequoias rising a hundred feet or more above the white earth.

I follow the Kern River with its frozen waterfalls and gigantic pillars of ice. Every time I pass here I'm inspired again to take up ice climbing. Then, after I gaze across this staggering wilderness, so rugged and frozen, I'm glad to be flying up here at 12,000 feet where I am able to take the easy way out of this wilderness by a mere turn of the steering yoke. This section of the river is bounded by steep, rocky canyon walls. At the river's edge, huge boulders covered with snow and ice are positioned like sentinels guarding the rapids.

As I assimilate the mountainous landscape, I continually check for a place where I could turn the craft around, or ditch it should that be necessary. It would be a tough crash landing out here in this wilderness. I look for a clearing, a patch of white. Unknown to Lloyd and Wave, whenever I fly, I frequently scan for such a clearing, even though I am confident I'll never need one.

"OK, Wave," I say. "In fifteen minutes I'll switch tanks and start burning fuel from the other wing."

"We're right on schedule," says Wave.

In order to equalize the weight in the wings so that the plane will fly straight and level with little input from the controls, I have to burn off the fuel equally in each wing. This is accomplished by setting a stopwatch at one-hour marks, then switching the fuel petcock from wing to wing.

I am chilled to the bone. "These Maule heaters ain't worth shit," I shout out in frustration to no one in particular. Part of the problem is that the Maule's Plexiglas doors are not adequately sealed to prevent cold air from seeping into the cockpit. Moreover, I'm not adequately dressed for the cold. All I have on is a T-shirt, a hooded sweatshirt, a lightweight double-layer ski jacket, briefs, long johns, jeans, gym socks, and sneakers. Fortunately, I have my Gore-Tex ski gloves and sunglasses to protect my eyes from the intense sun rays. And for sentimental reasons, I have my personal Maule cap, a white baseball cap with a picture of a Maule embroidered on it.

"If you want, we can make that heater work a whole lot better," says Wave. He not only is a skilled pilot and professional aircraft mechanic, but is gifted at making and fixing anything. I yearn for the day when I can fly my Maule through cold country with the luxury of a good heater on board.

It is so cold in the cockpit that each of us exhales thick puffs of vapor with each breath. I pull up my sweatshirt hood. Within moments I feel a bit warmer. By contrast, the prop and engine love the cold. Colder air is denser, and the prop bites it better. I check the clock. It is only 10:25 A.M., an ideal time for mountain flying because the air is still dense, crisp, and cool. In just a few hours, the sun will start to warm the air and thin it out.

No matter the terrain, I always pay attention to the slightest change in atmospheric conditions. Trees swaying in the wind may be a sign of impending updrafts, downdrafts, and turbulence. The winds can grow so strong that they push the plane off course.

Being tossed around as a result of turbulence is an unpleasant experience. A small craft flying through turbulence is akin to a pebble being bounced around in a soda can. Planes have even been ripped apart and violently thrown to the ground. Wings have been torn off by wind shear, causing the plane to spiral helplessly to earth.

I also pay close attention to the color of the ground. Wherever I see a change on the terrain color, I anticipate turbulent air. This is due to the uneven heating and cooling of the earth's surfaces. Rocks, especially dark rocks and asphalt roads, absorb the heat from the sun's rays quickly, while dirt, trees, bushes, and water collect the heat more slowly. It's like when you buy a car. You may love the color black, but you know in the summer it's going to be intensely hot; a white car will reflect the heat, keeping the car cooler. Air masses rising at different rates from different types of terrain is one cause of turbulence.

"On the way back, why don't we go to Santa Barbara for dinner," Wave suggests.

"Great idea," I say and then turn to Lloyd. "You're going to love the setup in Santa Barbara."

Lloyd fiddles with his camera without comment. I can't see whether he's snapping pictures or just playing around. Finally, he asks, "What's in Santa Barbara?"

"When you fly in, a car picks you up and brings you to a restaurant that overlooks the ocean," I say. "Not only do they have great food, but while you are dining, you can watch other planes and helicopters swooping down and taking off. Then, when you're ready to leave, a car picks you up and drops you off at your plane."

Lloyd loves the idea and his excitement registers on his face. Meanwhile, Wave continues filming with his video camera and talking up a storm. As for me, I'm in heaven. I love the mountains. I love the Maule. I love the sound of its roaring engine. And then I begin thinking, Man, I can't wait to fly this thing to Alaska and then around the world.

Anticipating some turbulence, I tighten my seat belt and remind Lloyd and Wave to do so, too. The Maule is equipped with a basic seat belt -- one strap goes around the waist and the other across the chest and over the shoulder, very much like an auto seat belt.

"It's real ugly down there," I say. "Not a flat spot to be found. It would be hard even for a helicopter to land."

In general, mountain crashes are fatal. Very few people have lived to talk about the horrifying experience. Many times the planes are never found. It is not uncommon for a wreck to be discovered years later by a hunter or hiker. Since the Maule is able to fly at slow airspeeds, if it were to go down, the impact speed could be reduced, giving the passengers a better chance of surviving the crash.

Unfortunately, the odds do not favor the pilot and those passengers seated up front. They usually die because they are the first to encounter the impact of a crash. The motor, instrument panel, and yoke are apt to crush them so badly that they are not recognizable. Jagged pieces of metal tear through flesh. Vital organs can be punctured. If the victim survives the impact of the crash, he may soon choke to death on his own blood. Rescue teams have made grisly discoveries: fingers, limbs, pieces of flesh in nearby trees. I have thought about what would it be like to survive a crash, pinned in the wreckage, then die as the plane goes up in flames.

Lloyd spots a beautiful peak, and he raises his camera to his eye. I'm concentrating on flying, though I hear Wave say from the back of the plane, "Higher and higher into the high Sierras." It is time for another quick scan of the panel. Suddenly, in the midst of this check -- BAMM!

We have hit a sudden violent turbulent patch of air. The nose of the Maule is pounded down while the tail end is kicked up. We're cruising at about 145 mph. I quickly back off the throttle to reduce airspeed in an attempt to fly straight and level. Under turbulent conditions, the Maule must operate between 100 and 125 mph, or the plane may suffer severe airframe damage -- a twisted fuselage or bent wings. When this happens, the controls can jam, making flying virtually impossible. The plane is being tossed about, and her wings are bowing up and down.

I press the intercom. "Hold on, boys. Lloyd, don't touch the controls."

Fortunately, we are flying at a safe altitude, so we have time to recover. Another gust of turbulence hits us, and I feel weightless in my seat, a condition called zero gravity. As soon as I reduce the power, the sound of the engine shifts from a raging roar, with the prop chopping hard and fast, to a quiet motionless idle. The altitude and vertical airspeed indicators show a loss of altitude. I can hear all sorts of stuff being bounced around. I control the yoke with my left hand and with my right I grab hold of the crossbars above me. I'm afraid that if my head hits the metal crossbars hard enough, I will be knocked unconscious. I'm moving the foot pedals that control the rudder, trying to get her straight and level. Airspeed now indicates 115 to 120 mph, which is fine. I quickly scan the terrain for a clearing. The mountains, cliffs, and trees, which were majestic sights just moments ago, are now images of terror, straight from hell.

Finally she becomes straight and level, and I apply power to get her climbing again. The worst seems to be over. I scan the terrain to see how best to turn the craft around. The elevation of the mountains in front of us far exceeds our present altitude. In no time we lost about 3000 feet. There are only two ways out of this mess. Either we climb up and over the mountains or we turn around. If we turn, we are apt to lose altitude and possibly reenter the turbulent patch.

A slow climb at full throttle should put us safely over the mountains, I decide. I head into a steep climb and continue straight ahead. About forty-five seconds later, flying at full throttle, I sense the craft is not climbing fast enough to clear the mountains ahead. Seeing that the manifold pressure is low, I pull the throttle knob out and push it back in quickly, hoping that maybe the carburetor was not fully open. She comes back alive, but I know she is not popping as hard as she should.

"Hold on, guys, we have a problem." There is complete silence in the cockpit. The trees on the slopes ahead appear to be increasing in size.

"Brace yourselves in case we go down," I shout through the intercom just as I spot a few white patches along the way. "The plane ain't going to climb." I am convinced that if I try to turn now, we may go straight into the trees totally out of control. Worse, the craft might stall and crash upside down. If that should happen, we're sure to die.

"Hang on, we're going down! I'm going to try and float her into the trees and scrub some speed off."

We're gliding just above the treetops now. Everything now appears as a streak of blurred images. Instinctively I know I must slow her down and stretch out the flight in order to reach a clearing that I spot just ahead. It isn't much of a clearing -- perhaps large enough for a helicopter -- but it's our only chance.

Wave and Lloyd are quiet. We're short of the clearing when we make our first contact with the trees. I can hear them loudly stripping off parts of the plane. I try to assess the damage as it happens so that I can countersteer the craft with the remaining controls.

"Hang on! We're not quite there!" The engine roars. I pull back the yoke to raise the nose. The wings flare, acting like an air brake, slowing her down. I want to make the plane drop through the trees like a helicopter. I hear banging and booming as she brushes the treetops. We're moving as slowly as we can, but I'm being jostled so violently that I can't hold my hand steady enough to find the throttle in order to pull it back and cut the engine; I also can't reach the main circuit switch so that I can kill the power to prevent a fire from flying sparks. It feels like one of the ailerons and one side of the elevator have been destroyed. More parts of the craft are being ripped off. I don't want the wheels to get caught in the trees for fear that we will be yanked down and slammed to the ground.

The seconds rush past. As the Maule keeps striking the treetops, I imagine being impaled in my seat by a single branch penetrating the side of the plane. I wonder who's going to get it first. Wave, seated in back, is in the safest position; Lloyd and I are the most vulnerable. With the fuselage and tail of this lightweight Maule sheathed in fabric instead of aluminum, I imagine a tree limb driving through the belly of the craft and pinning my legs or waist, and then tearing my body in half as the plane dives forward.

We have no airspeed. We are about to drop like a rock, a hundred feet or so, into what appears to be a deep gorge.

Suddenly, I hear a monotone voice from over my left shoulder asking, "Am I going to die?" After a slight pause, which seems to stretch forever, a voice coming from my right answers, "No." There is a momentary silence following which I feel like I'm being lifted from the cockpit. For a split second I look down through the plane's cutaway roof and see the three of us hurtling toward death. Each of us is shrouded in dark shadows. The dense shadows in which I am cloaked brighten while those covering Wave lighten just a bit. But Lloyd remains covered in darkness.

Just managing to clear the hundred-foot sequoias, the Maule heads to its final resting place. The roar of the engine is still audible. The plane lurches, throwing me sideways despite my safety belt. I continue flying the craft, determined to wrestle it to a soft impact on the ground. It is our only chance for survival.

I grind my teeth, twist my mouth, and tell myself, Come on, you can do it. Again, as my body is being thrown about, I reach over and try to pull back the throttle. The final roar. And now the final pull of the prop.

I shout, "We're going to hit!"

Copyright © 2004 by Peter DeLeo



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