Plane & Pilot
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Citizen Near Miss

An encounter with the past and the future

Pilots have a lot in common. They’re detail-oriented. They like direct routing and a good deal. But, most of all, they love adventure and the chance to go somewhere that few have gone before, especially in an airplane. I’ve often stared at the circled “R” on my charts and wondered what it takes to land at those special places. Such was the excitement I felt when I was invited to land at the Hearst Piedra Blanca Rancho airstrip in San Simeon, Calif.

I’ve flown over Hearst Castle many times, fantasizing about the golden age of Hollywood, when stars, politicians and other influential members of society were flown in for extravagant parties in DC-3s, and where famous aviators (such as Sir Charles Kingford-Smith, Howard Hughes, Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh) once touched down. The airstrip is still used by the Hearst Corporation and Hearst family, but it’s not open to public air traffic. I longed to descend for a closer look and to enter the downwind to the private runway, but it only seemed possible via a well-timed emergency.

I had been invited not only to land, but also to stay for the weekend—and more than once did I gaze down to see the Bonanza parked on the elite transient parking ramp. A week before the flight, I was contacted by the Hearst Corporation to sign an indemnity agreement and provide an insurance certificate. The agreement specified that, on the date of my visit, no landings or takeoffs shall be performed during times of reduced visibility, whether caused by darkness, inclement weather or otherwise. I felt as if I was about to conduct some important business by air with one of California’s most influential families. They sent me a hand-drawn airport data sheet with a diagram, landing instructions and latitude and longitude coordinates.

I arrived at Santa Monica Airport early on Saturday morning for a quick wash. The Bonanza needed to look sharp for this trip. The weather was perfect—a crisp spring morning, clear, blue and sunny. I made a right turn at the shoreline, pushed the direct-to button and entered my new user waypoint to San Simeon. I climbed to 8,500 feet, turned on the autopilot and settled in. It was gorgeous. The route took me over Santa Paula, Ojai and through the mountains to San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay.

Suddenly, out of nowhere and to my horror, 25 miles outside of Hunter (Hearst’s 4,300-foot paved airstrip is within the Hunter MOAs), my idyllic mission took a turn toward top secret as I saw what appeared to be a missile headed in my direction. Seconds later, a small aircraft screeched over me less than 50 feet away. Not a missile, but still shocking, was a small unmanned aircraft that passed so closely and so quickly that by the time I thought to react, it was gone. The UAV was stealth-looking with a fat forward section, slim body and no windows. The hum of the Continental pushed the Bonanza forward with no consciousness of the close encounter and returned me to the routine of monitoring engine gauges and the autopilot. As moments passed, the cold reality hit me that something speeding directly at my windshield at 200 knots had nearly ended up on my lap. For the remainder of the flight, I was on my traffic scan like a brand-new student pilot.

The flight ended as beautifully as it had begun as I descended into San Simeon. The sea reflected sparks of sunshine, and the rolling hills welcomed my arrival. The castle stood proudly on top of the enchanted hill, and I could see shuttle vans carrying guests to and from the visitor’s center. I felt privileged to be one of the few private pilots allowed to land there. I could imagine the talk in the vans: Who is that in the private airplane? It must be someone visiting on important business. James Bond, perhaps, narrowly escaping an aerial assault.

The runway aligned perfectly with my direct-to heading and I could see my hosts next to the hangar awaiting my arrival. I had timed the landing so their kids could watch. I lowered the landing gear and descended over Senator Hearst’s mansion on short final. The ranch stallions galloped along the fence just yards away from the airstrip as I touched down and rolled out. Thus began a wonderful weekend in a very special place with no further mention of the near miss.

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