Too Busy to Be Scared

Two fighter pilots’ vacation in a Mooney turned into an unanticipated adventure.

Dick Anderson
The author and Dick Anderson (left and center in news clip) were trained to fly the F3H Demon, but it was a rented Mooney Mk-20A—one with an unreliable fuel gauge—that bedeviled them.

Subscribe to Air & Space Magazine Now

This story is a selection from the February/March issue of Air & Space magazine

In 1960 I was a Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade stationed with Fighter Squadron 21 flying the McDonnell F3H Demon out of the Naval Air Station Alameda, California. My squadron mate Dick Anderson had a private pilot license, and that December he and I decided to rent a private aircraft and fly it home for the Christmas holidays. I am from Springfield, Illinois. Dick was from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

We rented a Mooney Mk-20A, a single-engine, four-passenger aircraft located at the Hayward city airport, just south of Alameda. To defray costs we arranged to take two passengers, one a Navy dentist and the other an enlisted man in the squadron. The dentist lived in Milwaukee and the enlisted man lived in Ottumwa, Iowa.

Dick and I drove down to the Hayward airport a week before our scheduled departure and took an aircraft familiarization flight with the owner. Then, on December 18, we all met at the Hayward operations building at noon to file a Visual Flight Rules flight plan. Our destination was a fuel stop at Cheyenne, Wyoming regional airport. But there was a low ceiling that prevented us from leaving until shortly after 4 p.m.

Dick was in the left seat, I was in the copilot seat, and the dentist and the enlisted man sat in the two rear seats. Shortly after takeoff, it got very dark. We climbed to 12,000 feet and headed east toward the Rocky Mountains. My job, aside from occasionally relieving Dick at the controls, was to monitor our fuel consumption. The fuel gauge had a toggle switch that allowed me to check the quantity in the wing tanks and in the fuselage tank. I had a circular slide rule and a Federal Aviation Agency map that I used to calculate our fuel state.

As we were about to cross into Wyoming I became alarmed. According to my calculations, we did not have enough fuel to reach Cheyenne. We had just passed over Wendover Air Force Base in eastern Nevada. Wendover was no longer an active Air Force base, but because it was located beneath a major airway, it was staffed and lit at night as an emergency landing option. Deciding it was better to be safe than sorry, we turned back and landed at Wendover. 

When I saw how much fuel we took on at Wendover, I realized that the fuel gauge had under-reported our supply. We proceeded to Cheyenne and refueled again before continuing on to Ottumwa. At Ottumwa Regional Airport, we let our enlisted man off, then continued on to Springfield, my stop. Dick and the dentist flew on to Milwaukee.

On December 27, Dick arrived at Springfield to pick me up for our return to Alameda. Our fuel gauge episode had spooked our enlisted man: When I phoned to inform him of our estimated arrival time in Ottumwa, his mother told me he would be returning to Alameda by bus. But the dentist came along. The three of us departed Springfield for Grand Island, Nebraska. The weather was clear at first, but as we flew west over Iowa, the ceiling got lower and lower. It was below 1,000 feet when I looked out over the right wing and got a shock: I saw a B-52 next to a snow-covered revetment. We were flying in the restricted airspace directly over Strategic Air Command headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, just outside Omaha.

Dick and I were certain that when we landed at Grand Island, we would be arrested. But that did not happen. We later figured we were too low and too small to be detected on the base radar, and apparently the control tower personnel did not see us. While we refueled the weather worsened, and we had to wait an hour or so until it was clear enough to leave on a VFR flight plan. But shortly after takeoff the weather deteriorated to the point that we did what we should have done back in Iowa.

I contacted an air control center and requested an Instrument Flight Rules flight plan to Cheyenne. After the controller approved our IFR flight, Dick climbed into the cloud cover and leveled off at 8,000 feet.

I made a required report to an air traffic control facility over North Platte, Nebraska, and a few minutes later the engine coughed several times and began to sputter. We were losing power! I got out a Mayday report as we descended. We were still in the clouds, with the ground nowhere in sight. It occurred to me that this would be a dumb way for a couple of highly trained naval aviators to die.

Dick and I quickly debated whether to go in with the landing gear up or down. I prevailed, and just before we broke out of the overcast at 200 feet, I lowered the gear.

We touched down in the snow on the crest of a knoll—then bounced right back into the air. Dick realized that if he allowed the nose to drop we might crash into the next knoll, so he pulled back on the yoke and the Mooney fluttered on the edge of stall speed, eventually landing on the top of the next knoll.

As we rolled out toward a barbed wire fence, I heard the dentist cry out, “Look out for the fence!” We blew right through it, then struck a cow trail rut. The right landing gear collapsed and we jerked to a sudden, strangely quiet stop. Darkness fell quickly. Soon it was very cold in that cockpit.

After about 15 minutes, Dick spotted a faint light in the distance and announced he was going for help. I tried to dissuade him. I thought it best we stay put and wait for rescue. But he insisted. Off he went into the snowy darkness in pursuit of some tiny dim light, whatever it was. I thought there was a good chance we would never see Dick alive again.

After an eternity—probably an hour or so—I spotted another dim light. It seemed to be bobbing around and getting closer. Eventually it resolved into the shape of a tractor pulling a flatbed trailer. Dick had brought a farmer to retrieve us. We dragged ourselves onto the trailer and the tractor towed us all back to his house, leaving the Mooney in the field.

Once we were safe inside the farmer’s house, he told us he had been notified of a downed aircraft in the vicinity. Dick hadn’t quite reached his door when the farmer emerged in full winter gear to commence his search. I will never forget the feeling of relief and safety I experienced as we entered that farmhouse. I recall that just inside the front door, there was an old-fashioned telephone attached to the wall, with a crank on the side of the box and an large bell-shaped ear piece.

We were taken to a North Platte hotel, where a reporter from the North Platte Telegraph-Bulletin found us. The December 28 edition’s headline read “ ‘Too Busy To Be Scared’ Flyer Says.”

Later that day, an FAA investigator drove us back to the crash site. He got into the aircraft and started the engine. It ran smoothly.

He later concluded the engine had iced up at altitude. Dick and I had put the carburetor heat on full, but a crack in the engine input manifold had allowed the hot air to escape before it reached the carburetor throat.

Dick, the dentist, and I took the train back to Alameda sunshine and clear skies. Had we spent the night in Grand Island instead of pressing on, we would have had perfect weather for our flight to California and a great view of the Rockies during the crossing.

Before we departed North Platte, I sent a telegram to our commanding officer explaining why we would be late returning from leave. I signed it “Wiley Post.”

On the long overland journey back to California, Dick and I had plenty of time to prepare ourselves for the razzing we’d be in for once the rest of our squadron found out we’d returned by train.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.