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One Scary Moment in my Airplane.
The R60/2 is Stolen.
A little bit of BIO.
Part 1. One Scary Moment in my Airplane
This was the ONLY scary moment I ever had in a civilian aircraft...(well, I had a couple of scares provided by my students over the years....hmmm)
I once owned a 1960 Piper Comanche 250. I purchased it from the Santa Monica based flying club where I was a member.
I was climbing the ego ladder; coincidently even the knowledge and experience ladder. I had advanced well beyond the private pilot certificate, and was sporting credentials listing Commercial Pilot, Instrument Pilot, Instructor, Advanced Instrument, Multi-Engine, and even Seaplane. Bragging rights based on those were found to have little use when in the presence of old graybeards with 15,000+ hours of piloting time, some of which were in REAL airplanes ...the BIG ones with ROUND engines ...and perhaps triple tails (Constellation). My several hundred hours, so hard-fought and paid-for, seemed inconsequential next to them.
I was flying quite a bit, and the hours were stacking up nicely. That is ...I was, when I was not out and about surfing, playing the piano in some dive ...or, heavens, studying or working ....or reminiscing, or hanging out with some of the Edwards (Muroc) Air Base guys ....
I would ride my motorcycle to a infamous bar in that area, and hoist a beer with these icons of the early test pilot era. I had done that so often that I had left a sleeping bag on a shelf in what was euphemistically called the men's room. I was also in college, and also actually WORKING ....in whatever spare hours I could find, at a local BMW motorcycle dealership. I had split my candle into several pieces, and was burning all ends at the same time.
One fine day I was returning home from a Northern California military base. I was flying in actual instruments (blind flying) weather. Somewhat south of Burbank airport, just barely over the Hollywood hills, my engine vacuum pump decided it was an appropriate time to die and go to Heaven (and potentially take ME with it, or, maybe send me the other direction) ...and then my piloting workload began to increase. The engine-driven vacuum pump ran two gyros ...'nice to have' instruments ...one was a directional indicator, the other gave information about the attitude of the aircraft. I dutifully notified Air Traffic Control (ATC) and kept flying on the official mapped route, which took me and the airplane I was attempting to competently pilot, towards the Century Towers; a necessary routing to enable an Instruments Landing at Santa Monica Airfield. Century Towers is another one of those things that Left-Coasters do, build tall buildings in earthquake-prone areas [this tidbit of information comes from someone who used to have a lot of fine glassware on several shelves above his condo wet-bar, which is almost directly over an earthquake fault in Palm Springs] ......and, they STUPIDLY build those buildings, sometimes, on instrument approaches to an airport.
The map of the airways showed a slight turn, a modest distance before the Towers area, so then I would then take up a new heading, which would shortly allow me to reduce altitude and track a radio navigation transmitting station at the far end of the Santa Monica Airport runway, so I could land. The turn was necessary to enable me to avoid crashing into the Towers. With the gyro compass being unusable, headings could be handled by the somewhat sloppy response of the old 'whiskey compass' which is filled, actually, with a type of kerosene. That compass has a lot of drawbacks in trying to pilot an airplane using it, when you cannot see the ground, nor horizon, nor anything but white cloud you are presently enjoying being inside-of. The problems in using such a compass are technical, no need to explain them here. BUT, it was all: "No Problem",....... I'd flown many hours in 'blind flying'.... I even instructed wannabe commercial and/or instrument pilots in such conditions. I wasn't much bothered, and was a bit slow and lazy about checking (we call it scanning) ALL the instruments.
There were a couple of minutes of flying between my last communications with Burbank Air Traffic Control, and my next report to them. At the appropriate clock time, I tried to contact them. I could not. I then tried contacting Los Angeles Approach Control, which should have a vastly stronger signal at that point of my travel. I could not get them on my aircraft radios.
I was now getting some strange readings or no readings on the radio navigation equipment. The one navigation instrument that was capable of displaying a red warning flag was doing just that. I cussed my old radios, and decided that I would just navigate by an old ADF (automatic direction finder, an old OLD technology) that was probably installed in the plane when it had been built by Piper Aircraft Co. Unfortunately, it was not working hardly at all.
At that moment my suspicion level suddenly rose greatly, and I took a longer look at the ammeter, a old zero center type; which I SHOULD have looked at sooner. The system in the Comanche, typical for old Piper Aircraft, was to use that meter differently than in a car, and the meter told very little, same as it had during the entire flight. Normally the meter stays at about zero. It does not show charging, ever, even in normal use. Yep, peculiar, ...but, that's how it was designed. I turned on the interior lights. DEAD. NADA. NOTHING. My battery was almost totally dead, and the engine driven electricity producer, the alternator (a conversion from the original D.C. Generator), wasn't producing. The near new Alternator, which I had paid BIG bucks for recently, since they were "SO MUCH BETTER" than the original old fashioned generator, had failed.
I was in the clouds, with only an old-style compass that was affected by all aircraft movements; but, of course, I still had three other instruments that DID work: airspeed, vertical speed and altimeter. I was also approaching, I was sure, those tall buildings. The pucker factor was now increasing. I had plenty of training in failure of various systems, but this was was the real thing...AND, it was multiple failures of major systems at the same time.
I was VERY careful to make all control movements exceptionally gently, and exactly on schedule, calculating airspeed, distance, known last winds, etc. This all had to be done very quickly.... and accurately.
I can assure you that I installed backup vacuum sources (some instruments, as noted, ran on vacuum), after this flight. I also had the FAA approve of some modifications: a REAL load/charge type ammeter AND a voltmeter. I also now had the only Comanche that I know of, that had an emergency air driven (tiny propeller) generator added to it ....a VERY old-fashioned thing to have. The alternator problem was fixed. However, these "improvements" happened well after my present predicament.
The good thing was that the 'instrument weather' was the typical springtime layer of stratus clouds that the West Coast seems to have rather often. It was thicker than average, but, that just extended the fun this fine day. It was because of Spring Stratus clouds that I originally decided to get my own instrument flight rating. Stratus seldom will deposit ice on the airplane ...which could have helped to make my day even more interesting ...if the pitot tube (that mechanically worked with the airspeed indicator) ....was iced up (Pitot tube was, of course!... ELECTRICALLY heated against icing). POSSIBLY BAD news if the airspeed indicator failed. I've had it happen a few times, usually due to wasps inside the pitot tube.
It is nice to know where you are, that the aircraft is right side up, what altitude, what speed, and to be able to communicate and to navigate properly, especially when you would like to reduce altitude at the correct position, in order to prepare for a landing. These things are particularly nice when you are navigating to land and to do so you need to be much lower than the tops of tall buildings in the vicinity of your proposed airport.
I, however, was now reduced to some very basic instrumentation, and my clock, to make estimates. These GUESStimates included the wind direction and speed. Wind estimates can vary greatly with altitude. I certainly would prefer to NOT be off any supposed compass course. I remember having a fleeting thought "What did Lindy do when crossing the Atlantic?" .....and realized he had a few 'extras' along with him.
Things went well, I did not nose the aircraft into the buildings, and I broke out of the clouds, and landed OK. If this sort of thing had happened now-a-days, I would have been thinking of 9-11, and would have had some modern and more reliable electricals.....but, of course, a generator or alternator AND battery failure, without noticing, is something that would never happen to me.....too many hours of experience now. I did have a somewhat sadistic flight instructor, when I took my IFR exam in a twin-engine aircraft... he could specifically cause failures...THAT was a fun day....but, a great day to learn, ever so long ago now.
Since that long ago cloudy day, I have, many more than a few times, flown some large aircraft ...and have also sat, sweating, in a flight simulator, while a sadistic flight check person manipulated that simulator to fail one thing after another, whilst trying to distract me from noticing. It's a lot cheaper to use a big fancy three-axis flight simulator, than a real big old airplane burning a huge amount of fuel per hour.
In any event, the landing at Santa Monica was totally uneventfull, after I broke out of the clouds a few hundred feet above ground.
I managed to put a lot of hours on that old Comanche before selling it. I've owned a number of airplanes since, and flown many more. I no longer own airplanes; they are a huge expense, particularly if not being used to generate income. On top of which, whenever I mention a flying trip in some airplane I would rent and pilot myself, Penny (my wife) always mentions that she has had her fill of flying in small airplanes; holding babies whilst traveling back and forth across the USA between military bases/assignments/etc. She does not wish to be flying in small airplanes, babies or not. I, of course, managed to have fun now and then, doing aerobatics in borrowed '$$$ toys'. I have done this more than a few times. She doesn't know. But, I've stopped. .... ........ I think.
Part 2. The R60 is stolen ...and, some bio on ...guess who
I parked the small trainer airplane, filled out and signed my student's logbook and the aircraft rental company's charge book, and went to my usual after-early-morning-flight cuppa at the airport café. I then walked to where I had left my beloved white R60/2. Unfortunately it was not there. I returned to the café and asked one of the usual cops there to accept my report of a stolen motorcycle, did the paperwork with him, and asked around the greasy spoon if anyone had noticed anything. No one had.
I did remember a conversation I had overheard at the same café counter not long ago, he had a BMW, not running as it had a bad engine. Being the suspicious type, and knowing that BMW's are almost never stolen, I asked around and after a bit of detective work on my part ...and some help from #1 girlfriend ...who worked for a certain state agency, ...I got the possible thief's home address. This took over a week.
He was not home, but his garage and a small rear window into that garage was available for my eyeballs. There were three motorcycles in that garage. One was a R50 with the engine removed. The second was a Harley. The third was a sight for sore eyes, my R60, with its engine being in the process of removal. It was obvious that an engine swap was in process. A fleeting thought was to get my large caliber revolver, and wait until the thief showed-up. Being of sound mind (for once), I went to the police station, filed the report, and made sure that they would send someone out NOW. I then went home, to await the police telephoning me.
Meanwhile, prior to finding the bike in that garage, I had been dealing with my insurance company. Since my motorcycle was my sole method of ground transportation, which also allowed me privileged parking when I needed it, I adamantly wanted a replacement. The insurance company did not want to provide anything but very inconvenient bus tickets ...and I should wait for 6 months or so, 'to see if it turns up'. This did not sit well with me, especially since there were no convenient buses to the Airport, nor to UCLA from my home. My father's business attorney had a chit chat with the insurance folks. The next day I was told that a check for the value of the bike was on its way. Before I actually received that check, I had found the bike.
NOW I had a problem. Well, three problems. #1 was that check. #2 was that I really wanted to keep the R60. #3 was that I had ordered a brand new R75/5 from where I worked part time, a BMW bike dealership. It was a R75/5.
The insurance company, upon my cashing of their check, would own the R60 'if it ever showed up'. I could offer to buy it back. Receiving some advice, I filed papers to sue the thief. The thief had no funds to speak of, but did, amazingly, own that other BMW, the R50. I made a deal (love that word) with the thief's attorney, approved by the prosecution side, that I would not push for the harshest sentence ...he got lots of jail time anyway ...the HARLEY was also stolen ...and I would get everything else in the garage (lots of nice tools too!), except the R60 of course; which the insurance company would get. This 'everything' included a a very expensive double commercial rollaway. None of these other things seemed, to the police, etc., to be stolen. YUMM! The frosting was that the R50 was legally his, and it was now mine! There is more to all this, but you get the idea. I cashed the insurance company check much later, as I was advised to do.
During this extended time period I was still playing with my own insurance company. They eventually sent an Insurance Adjustor to that garage, who looked at the R50, a rather messy ratty bike. With the engine out, he must have assumed it was my R60 that he was inspecting. My R60, and its engine, had been put in a police impound area, and neither the adjustor nor I knew that, and he mixed up the R50 and R60. I had simply assumed he had inspected the R60 at the impound lot. The insurance company certainly did not want to assemble a bike, and would sell it to a salvage yard. If I was willing to pay any amount more than the salvage yard, it was mine. IF I WAS WILLING ...OH YEAH! I re-purchased 'my' bike very cheaply. I think it was a buck over the formal salvage offer, which was NOT much. When the paperwork cleared, I now had MY R60, all the parts removed from it, and a R50 with a sour engine, ratty looking, but with some effort it could be a nice bike. All this is a summary of this part of the story and it probably is confusing you. At the time I really had no idea the insurance men wen were not at the thief's garage looking at my R60 ...in fact, the whole thing got very mixed up at the time. R50? R60? Engine out of what frame? what...where....what is what...etc. Anyway, all got straightened out, and I got my R60 back, which I quickly reassembled what he had started to remove. I now had transportation (the R75/5 was not yet mine from my dealership) and I got the R50, tools, etc. The thief stayed in jail. OH ...and the thief's landlord and I arranged for a new tenant through my aunt, who was a broker who sold and rented-out real estate, and a few other things. So,...it all came together pretty well.
I had trouble getting the R50 title. The title was supposedly in the safe of the thief's lawyer. He stalled on releasing it to me. This stalling went on and on; and there never seemed, to me, for any reason for it; ....and the R50 was already at my garage, yet I did nothing much to it, pending 'real' ownership; and, the registration expired, which means a fine if I tried to register and use it and got caught at this. My dad's lawyer sued (or whatever the paperwork was) the thief's lawyer, who ignored the paperwork AND the summons. The case went to court months later. By this time I was riding both the R60, and a new R75/5. The judge at the trial apparently had a grudge against this particular lawyer ...perhaps that is why my father's lawyer was so adamant about whose court the case should be heard in. :-).
The lawyer lost and was actually cited or threatened with Contempt, my father's lawyers' fees were zero, and I obtained the title, duly signed off. The title was messy, and I had to clear up the details, and I did so with DMV. I also received some money from that lawyer, mandated by the court. Guess the judge did not like the guy. I thought all these lawyers stuck together. The Dark Charcoal pin striped suit line, so-to-speak. My dad's lawyer refused to accept any money, which I had offered to him, explaining that the other lawyer problems with the judge had 'made his day' ....yep, I guess there was some sort of bad blood between them.
I soon finished the R50. The blown engine (so I'd been told) was actually not blown, very little was needed to finish everything. The bike, which looked so ratty, was actually not that bad, and cleaned up nicely.
Now I had 4 running road bikes, including my 4th, my BSA 500 single dirt bike. I soon had a new Jeep, I had an airplane I rented, then purchased, I had government and civilian jobs paying for my fun and games, and all at the same time. I also had two girlfriends, one of whom was a truly stunning fox; but the other I was rather flipped-out about. LIFE WAS GOOD! ...........I also was working for BMW as a West Coast Trouble-shooter....I won't get into this much, as it is well documented elsewhere's in this site (in my lengthy more formal....bio).
Viet Nam ...it had come earlier for some, but now it came for me. But, I was slowly collecting antique bikes and fixing them up (and keeping them), when I could. This continued for many years.
Being under the gun, so-to-speak (gads, that was another HORRIBLE pun!), and being of UNsound mind, I sold the R60, modifying it as the new owner desired. I sold the R50. Life was still good, I still had an almost new R75/5 and the BSA...and, was gathering Vincents. Except ...I had that Viet Nam thing coming up, and I was burning out in my job that was taking more and more time from my school studies and I was being offered some interesting Agency work if I hurried up my BS degree, and so on. The offer to get a free MSEE as Student X, at ALMOST ANY prestigious college THAT I WANTED TO GO TO ...was also a wee bit (LOTS MORE than a wee bit) enticing. I accepted the offer.
I found I had only months left before serious life changes. I endured.
Much later, it seems now, I moved to Tahoe to get out of the rat race that was Los Angeles. I kept a stock R75/5 road bike and a R75/5 supercharged monster), but also kept a number of antiques, a worn out Harley, and two 400 Husky dirt bikes, and one Vincent from the eight I once owned. I moved to Tahoe on the R75/5 Airhead, it had been purchased with a Avon Fairing and Bates bags, and I continued my very long time electronics repair business, taking on a chain store as my first customer. I got an employee, then another, then I left for periods of time, Service and/or Agency Work, off and on....and, early-on, that dangling MSEE needed to be dealt with. I was burning candles at both ends again, just not in so many pieces. Early on Wifey moved to Tahoe to become a nurse at the local hospital.
Within a few years I was a full-tilt-boogie Tahoe-ite. Wifey, whom I had put through Nurse's School (RN), decided she wanted to become a big time big city nursing supervisor of some sort, and we split up amicably ...she moved back to the L.A. area and went to work for the Santa Monica City Hospital ...taking her Burmese cats with her, thank you (which meant I could now get a dog, a Malamute ...).
Life was still good.
I started a charter flying service, doing charters, sightseeing, funeral ash drops. Life was REALLY good for awhile. I even had some Agency assignments again, and, once again, became a double dipper.
I was also doing BMW repairs and modifications; and had opened two more businesses. I was familiar with that type of work-load.
I met someone who had a collection of antique bikes and he wanted to sell the non-running ones. He also put me in touch with owners of other such bikes....and...and....and...I started collecting and repairing antique motorcycles in a MUCH BIGGER way, already having the mentioned modest collection. I got involved selling & installing new hangars at two airports, had a couple more businesses....and, sometimes working on special Agency projects for Dear Old Uncle Sam. I even acquired a rather decent machine shop and an interest in a gas station.
As the years went on, and I continued to procrastinate about leaving the now more rare part-time employment by The Agency, I started turning over more and more of my business operations to the employees, and spending more time having fun. I even sold some of those businesses. I even did one thing I swore I would never do: ski. At the age of ~40, I learned to ski. The first day is another story.
So, again, I had been WAY overdoing things. I recognized that. So, when the time was right, I would sell a business.
Then, the Government, once more, decided it needed my services....and was willing to pay for them.
I finally retired from any government involvements in 1991 ...well, I'd thought so ...another story, sometime. I slowly reduced my businesses and time spent working. During this time period I finally did what I had been promising myself...I closed the last major headache, the BMW custom work-shop business.My full bio, in too-much depth, is elsewhere's on this website: https://bmwmotorcycletech.info/whothehellissnowbum.htm
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Last check/edit: Saturday, June 04, 2022