The overcast wasn’t budging. That much was obvious. It had been there all morning, and there it seemed determined to stay. That cloud deck—maybe a thousand feet above us, no higher—was a little ragged but with no hints of blue or even brightness to suggest it might burn off. VFR was not in the cards for today, and yet Roger and I were still walking out to the Piper to go flying to pick up a plane in Banning.
I was a new pilot, barely 18 years old, with a still white and crisp Private Pilot’s certificate in my wallet. Like many private pilots, especially new ones, for me flying was strictly VFR. I’d done my training in the desert, where, we’d brag, we’d get around 350 calendar days a year of sunny VFR. Suffice it to say that I had limited experience scud running, which was both a bad and good thing, I suppose.
Even though I was green in some ways, I was wise beyond my years in others, which will happen when you grow up at the airport. Like so many other FBO kids, I did a little flying, washed some dishes, pumped some gas, removed a few inspection panels and pretty much helped out where help was needed. And as lucky as I was, I was unlucky, too, having seen in a few years more than a lifetime’s worth of fatal accidents—six of them, in fact, including crashes involving people I knew. One claimed the life of a close family friend and flight instructor. Like it or not, I knew at 18 that flying was an equal-opportunity killer, and no matter how much or how little experience you had, it could happen to you if you didn’t pay attention and sometimes even if you did.
So when the mission that overcast day was for me to go flying with Roger, and Roger seemed determined to make it work, well, I dutifully climbed in after him, buckled my seat belt and pulled the door shut, all of it done with a notable sense of...well, not of dread exactly but whatever it is that falls just short of dread while still allowing you to climb into an airplane.
Roger was a big guy with graying reddish hair thrown with a flip across his freckled forehead and a smile that was known to end disagreements without a word. He was the kind of guy who woke up every morning happy in the knowledge that he was alive and that he got to go flying that day. He drank coffee, but come on, he clearly didn’t need it. He was simply one of the nicest guys I’d met up to that point or, hell, since. We weren’t friends. Sheesh. He was a few years older than my parents! He was more like that wonderful uncle some of us are lucky to have.
He’d only been in town for a few weeks. He’d come out to help my folks with the operation, selling planes and giving instruction. He was experienced at both, too. I knew that he’d been teaching flying for a long time, that he’d owned his own airport on the East Coast and that he and my dad grew up together and had been flying together since before either one of them signed up to fly in the Navy. I respected him, and I didn’t automatically respect many people. But I adored Roger, I wasn’t alone in that sentiment.
What I didn’t know at the time, because Roger never talked about himself, is that he was an aviation legend in his parts. As a kid he’d met both Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, two of the most famous people on the planet, who on separate occasions had flown into the local airport he haunted and were gracious enough to say “hi” to the star-struck airport kid and pat him on the head. Lindy, the story goes, even apologized for his bounced landing, telling Roger he deserved better and he owed the kid a greaser next time. You might guess that meeting these stars got Roger hooked on aviation right then and there, but the truth is, he was smitten years before that.
More than a decade later, just after Pearl Harbor, Roger became the youngest commercial pilot in the United States, and while he wanted to go fly fighters in the Pacific, when that chance came, his talent as an instructor was so well known that the Navy brass decided he was more valuable as an instructor than as another fighter jock waiting until we had the chance to take the fight to Japan.
So Roger spent the war teaching cadets the ins and outs of slips and spins in Stearmans and Ryans, showing them how to use their feet, how to be in control of the plane, how to read the wind and, well, how to fly the plane instead of letting the plane fly you. He knew that the lessons he taught these kids, only a few years younger than he was, might save their lives someday soon, and I have no doubt that was the case again and again, though who would ever know that for sure.
For the most part, his students were like him, poor kids, many of them from the country, young men with some innate ability to fly to go along with their love of country and for the sky. Not all of them were unknown. One of his students was future baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who by the time Roger met him had hit .406 one year and won the Triple Crown the next. But when Williams climbed into the cockpit with Roger, it was Ted who was the rookie and Roger who was the star. He flew John F. Kennedy around the campaign trail and ferried Howard Hughes around the East Coast. There’s no doubt in my mind they liked Roger, too.
But 30 years down the line and 3,000 miles west from the Connecticut River Valley town where he taught flying, none of that mattered. Well, none of it mattered much. Our mission was simply to go pick up an airplane in Banning, a little airport just 40 miles to our south, but very inconveniently on the other side of the San Bernardino Mountains, you know, the ones you couldn’t see because of the overcast, those San Bernardino Mountains, with peaks rising to better than 10,000 feet and stretching 45 miles from the Cajon Pass on the west to Yucca Valley to the east.
Those peaks were not a new hazard to aviation, and by 1976 they had more than their fair share of mangled aluminum littering their slopes, pieces of fuselage, distorted prop blades and rusting seat frames, monuments all to pilots who didn’t respect the mountains enough or understand them sufficiently to not try their luck, to turn around and land somewhere and wait for a better day.
I grew up around those mountains. I never felt comfortable flying in and around them either, because I learned that feeling comfortable was your first mistake. Roger, on the other hand, was new to the west. How well did he know the lay of the land around here? The weather patterns, the high and low places, the spots where wires were strung across canyons, and those tight passes with no outlet where a pilot might be tempted to go on a final flight. I was skeptical.
And today the question was, do we try our luck or wait for a better day?
There was no direct path to Banning that day, not that a direct path made any sense even in clear weather. And it was the opposite of clear. Hell, the tops of the foothills just five miles south were poking up into the bottom of the clouds. There were other ways to get to get down to Banning, the shortest being through the Cajon Pass, though we could see from where we sat that that wasn’t going to happen. The pass, which was about a thousand feet higher and plainly visible 20 miles in the distance, was in the soup.
There was also the back way, through the desert valleys to the east, down through the Yucca and Morongo Valleys, but that was the long way around, and there was no guarantee that those tight and winding passes would be any clearer than the one just south of us.
Even as an 18-year-old kid, I knew all of this, but we didn’t speak about it. Roger was the captain of this flight, and even though I knew the neighborhood by heart, he was the boss, and I decided to accept that.
We took off heading south, climbing into the strong and surprisingly steady wind. I immediately started assessing Roger’s skill as a pilot. He didn’t seem very familiar with the Arrow, but he was clearly a guy who knew how to fly. We leveled off at 800 feet, just a bit under the bottom of the deck above. With the Arrow’s gear up, the flaps tucked and the power pulled back to 20 inches, Roger flew south for a bit before turning left along the backside of the range. Ahead of us the clouds were low along the highway, and it wasn’t clear that, even if we’d wanted to go the back way, we’d get to the little high desert settlements above Yucca Valley before having to turn back. More and more I was wondering what the point of this exercise was.
Then Roger did something that made me sit up straight in my seat and wonder if that would be my last flight. He turned to the south, toward the mountains. “Why?” shouted my brain. There was no pass where he was turning—nothing even close. He was flying us into a narrow, fast-rising mountain canyon that led to terrain four or five or six thousand feet higher than we were, and did he really think the clouds would part to make way for our little plane? On both sides of the Arrow the terrain rose, and the rocks and junipers loomed large. He pulled the nose up, and we climbed steeper and slower, a fool’s maneuver, an attempt to get higher faster against terrain that was already outclimbing us, and it would only get worse, and fast, too.
I wasted little time. I spoke up. “There’s no way through,” I said, short and sweet. “We need to turn around now.” And it was true. And I let it sit. My life, I realized, was now dependent on how Roger reacted. And I realized that I’d put him in a tough situation. Here I was, a kid with 60 hours in my logbook compared to his 16,000. If he felt as though he needed to show me how he knew better, well, then we were done. And he didn’t have much time to make that call. Seconds. I waited forever for him to respond, to say something, to do something, to save us.
I’d waited as long as I could and had just started to speak up when, without a word, Roger looked at me, smiled, slowed the airplane, made the smoothest right turn I’d ever felt, with terrain within a couple of hundred yards of us on all but one side, made that 180 without a worry on his brow, as though he did this kind of thing every day.
And we were saved. Roger pointed the nose down, staying just below the bottom of the deck, and we were on our way home. He didn’t try a different way about the mountains. He didn’t talk about trying later that day. We just went home. And parked.
And Roger said nothing. He just had nothing to say, I guess. He didn’t look spooked or chagrined. He was just done flying, and he was just hooking up the tie-down chains and filling out the .5 hours in the book.
Had my admonition to turn around saved our lives? If I’d have kept my mouth shut instead of telling this legend of an instructor that he needed to do something now, would he have kept the nose pointed toward the mountains until there was no way out, which was a matter of maybe another 20 seconds, at most? Or would he have turned the plane around at the exact same time he did if I hadn’t even said a word, even if I hadn’t even been onboard?
I had no idea. More than 40 years later, I still don’t.
I do know that I’m still alive, and Roger, well he isn’t. But he flew into his 80s and died at 88 of complications related to being 88 years old. Did my seeing something and saying something give Roger and his family another 38 years of his amazing smiles and corny jokes and flat-out happiness at being around? And did it give me all those years, too, and then some? Did it give me my life, my thousand flights, my family and my story?
Maybe. It’s an unsatisfying word, “maybe,” but sometimes it’s the best one we have. And in the end, that might be the most important lesson we’ll ever learn about flying or about life.