In the spring I was noticing a great slowing effect on me. I would
drive to school for my 8:10 class and usually park in the lot below the faculty dining room. I would
then have a very short walk up a very small hill to get to E-29 in the old Science Building. The
total distance was probably less than 300 feet. But I found I was having to stop halfway up the hill
and rest and get my breath. I thought maybe I had a low grade flu or something so I went to my
internist, Don Smilovitz.
He gave me a sedentary (non-strenuous physical and said I was OK.
Later, that fall, probably October I went back and said, "I'm not OK. There is something wrong. You better put me on a treadmill." He said, "Good idea!" And so we did. I got on the treadmill when it was flat. I was doing OK but then he turned the slope up a notch. As I remember, within thirty seconds, I said, "I've got to get off this thing or I'm going to fall down." He turned it off and I stepped back and flopped on the bed for five or ten minutes to recover.
I think he had a pretty good idea of what was wrong at that time but wanted to do a thorough workup before he committed himself. First we did a lung check and they were OK. Next I carried a Holter Moniter for 24 hours to record my heart action. When the interpretation came back he said that he thought it was time for an angiogram.
The next step was French Hospital with Dr. Stephen Kulick. They had to keep me partially awake so I could cooperate and cough at the right time to send the sensor through the heart valve. I was somewhat aware but I was definitely in la-la land. If he had wanted to graft my left leg to my forehead, I would probably had said, "Go ahead, Doc, be my guest!"
That evening he came into my room with the heart surgeon (one of the best in the country!), Dr. Mazzei. They explained that at least three of my heart arteries were 80 to 90% closed and weren't functioning adequately under any stress. I needed a triple heart bypass at least.
I told them that I was in the middle of final exams but that I could be finished by Friday night. So they scheduled me for Monday, 13 December 1982.
Saturday night, 11 December, we decided to cut my hair. I had long hair to my shoulders and a small beard and a mustache. I looked like Buffalo Bill. I suspect I was trying to ingratiate this 60 year old so-and so with my young students. Go with the flow was the watchword. So first we took a picture of me with the long hair. Then I cut it off as I had done many years before and finished the front. Sauny took over and did the back. And we took another picture. They are here, on the left and on the right.
Sunday I entered the hospital. Late in the day a nurse came in and shaved me. They were going to insert the probe in my right groin so she proceeded to shave my "private parts" as they say. There was no embarrassment to me, I realised it was necessary. Then I believe they gave me a pill so I could wake up rested the next morning, at least briefly.
In the morning, more medication and then Dr. Mazzei and his team went to work.
She had a bit of a time with this. While she had confidence in the surgical team and the operation, there has to be a little niggling fear that something could go wrong. Her mother had had a bad result with an apparently successful operation.
She stayed at the hospital most of the time. She went out once, late at night, and couldn't get back in because things were locked up. But she did manage to get in, probably through the Emergency entrance. I don't know how I would fare if the situations were reversed. I like to think I would rise to the occasion.
I semi-woke up in Intensive Care. I was doped up and Sauny said I said some very strange things. The only thing I remember at all was our son Dan. He had just turned eighteen so they let him in to see me. I was a mess, obviously not lucid and tubes were sticking out all over. There was Dad looking like the wreck of the Hesperus. I know you don't like this Dan but it is part of the experience. I remember seeing his face at the end of the bed. And then it went down slowly, like the setting sun (no pun intended), all the way to the floor. He did it because he cared and Dad was looking rather terrible. Our daughter Marit was only ten. I don't know what she went through. Maybe she'll tell me.
The next day I was out on the floor. I had a cute little pillow ( a folded small blanket?) with a heart with a crack and a bandaid on the front. This was to be held against my chest when I coughed. And cough I had to! I was warned that there would be lots of phlegm and that it had to be gotten out or it could lead to pneumonia. The pillow was to be held against the chest because it hurt to cough. My chest had just received a massive "insult" and it did hurt and made coughing very painful.
To make matters worse some sadist had invented a device that one had to blow into and raise some balls. This helped in the inflation of the lungs and raising the phlegm. So I worked on it although I felt very depleted. I believed in it enough to work all night coughing and getting out the phlegm. By the next day that phase was pretty much over and I came back like a rocket.
They got me on my feet the next day and made me walk down the hall, slowly. I encountered our children's pediatrician, Dr. Tedone, who was often considered the Dean of Doctors in this area, in the hall and he walked with me for a bit. He told me that if he lived in San Francisco and needed the operation, he would come here to Dr. Mazzei. That was good to hear. But I already knew they were rated as one of the top teams in the country.
I went home in eight days, Sauny loaded down with medications and instructions. She made sure I followed everything precisely. Frankly it was nice to have someone else take care of all that!
I had a T-shirt with the various organs printed on it. So Sauny got some red fabric paint and put the bypasses on it in an anatomically correct way.
One of the instructions was to walk a certain distance several times a day. It was the latter half of December and it was cold and rainy. So I had to do it inside. No colds or pneumonia for me. I measured the distance from the TV set to the furthest corner in the back bedroom and calculated how many times I would have to do this. I proceed to do it as ordered, back and forth, checking my pulse.
Probably the worst part for me was having to sleep on my back. I am a forever 3/4 stomach sleeper but with a chest like mine, that was impossible. It even hurt to try to turn on my side. But I did it. The next most difficult thing for me was the months of physical therapy. I did it because I wanted the best possible result for my family. I had scared them enough for one year! I did OK on the PT but I can't say that I enjoyed it the way some people do. Probably the worst one for me was the arm machine, round and round, like the sprocket on a bicycle. I've forgotten the name of it because I called it Torquemada (The big honcho of the Inquisition). It seemed appropriate because we were using torque to help our shoulders and chest. But I have to admit, I hated it.
I have always felt that I could have been a poster child for the operation. I was just over 60 years old. I was back in business. Dr. Kulick has checked me every year since and after fifteen years or so I had to make occasional use of nitroglycerin tablets when I felt what I interpreted as a heart difficulty.
There were two college colleagues in there getting the operation at the same time I was. Being the first to get operated on and doing as well as I was, I went a number of times to visit them. I hoped to impress them with how well I was doing and that they could too if they followed orders. I had a good upbeat attitude and I feel that is one of the reasons I did so well. One of the others had a sour attitude and I don't feel he ever really recovered. He had kind of mentally given up and did die several years later.
A new Head doctor took over about a bit later and I got my license back for a year. But the idiots couldn't have a intelligent doctor in charge so they eased him out and grounded me again.
My friend and fellow member of the Faculty Flying Club, Dr. Richard Nelson had built a Vari-eze. He had been flying the club airplane, a Cessna 170B, N8245A. I don't know what other flying experience he had or how much time he had in the Cessna.
He flew his Vari-eze to a fly-in at Merced CA on 7 June 1986. I went to one at Watsonville in 45A once and was amazed about what passed for a landing pattern. No downwind, no base leg, it was a daisy chain of planes extending out in the boondocks with no particular pattern at all. It was a kind of snakedance.
I would expect it was similar at Merced. But this would then present a problem for Dick. The Vari-eze pattern speed was probably about ten mph higher than the usual speed for the common light planes. This means he would be flying ten mph below his usual safe pattern speed and would be uncomfortably close to the stalling speed of the aircraft. But being a nice guy, unlike me, he tried to stay with them. With a pattern like this it isn't as easy to set one's power just right and sometimes one has to add a burst of power as one approaches the end of the runway. This leaves a spot of turbulence for the airplane behind.
I think this is what happened to him. They had a bunch of light stanchions on the approach end of the runway. There was a series of t-shaped light standards in a line just barely to the right of the flight path. As he got down to around ten feet I believe he hit the propwash of the plane ahead, and being close to the stalling speed it made his right wing dip. He hooked one of the light standards with that little piece sticking down under the right wingtip and he probably overcorrected. The airplane stalled and lurched into the ground in a left bank just to the left of the end of the runway.
The aircraft was destroyed. The front disintegrated back to about his knees. Both ankles were badly broken and one ear was taken off. He was unconcious for several days and when he woke up he couldn't talk and had badly damaged cognitive abilities. I don't remember how long he was in the hospital but it was several weeks at least.
He gradually recovered and when it came time for him to come back home to San Luis Obispo his wife had a problem. She told me the ground ambulance would be around $1400 and an air ambulance would be $1500. I suspect it would have been considerably higher however. So I suggested that she check with his doctor, who I found out later was also a pilot, and see if we could bring him back in the Cessna. The rear seat was already out for upholstery and the co-pilot seat could be removed leaving an extensive floor with a seat belt. She did that and he said yes, it could be done. So the day came. I flew to Merced with his son in the co-pilot's seat. He was going to drive his mother back to San Luis Obispo. We took out the co-pilot's seat and he brought it back in the car. I had stopped by an uphosterer friend, told him the story and he loaned me a six foot, about 30 inch wide piece of six inch foam.
The ambulance arrived and the personnel loaded him in on the foam and fastened the front seat belt around his chest. The doctor was carefully observing the whole process. This picture shows the doctor standing there, observing, with Dick's wife, Enid.
I started the engine, called the tower for instructions, taxied out to the runway and took off going north. As I got into the air I realized I had not filed a flight plan. I called the tower to file one while airborne. The tower operator knew what was going on and was the one on duty when the crash occurred so he had a special interest in the proceedings. He called back and told me that he already had me covered and to call a certain frequency that would follow me back. I thanked him and switched to what turned out to be Castle Air Force Base. They were aware of what I was doing and were very cordial. I banked gently to the left until I was going a bit east of south, down the Central Valley. I told them that they might have a little trouble following me because I wasn't going up very high because I had no idea what his ears could take. I told them I was going to stay at 1500 feet. They acknowledged it.
I had prepared several 3 x 5 cards with words on them like, "ears hurt", "cold" etc. in case he showed signs of distress. He never did!
After a bit they handed me off to Lemoore Naval Air Station. They followed me down and handed me off to Avenal Flight Service Station. When I got to Avenal I turned west to follow Highway 46 over to Paso Robles. They handed me off to Los Angeles. Los Angeles has a lot of "heavy" traffic and are usually very busy and had no interest in little flivvers like me but they were very nice to me. I explained that I wanted to follow the highways so if he showed any real distress I would have a place to get down in an emergency. I wanted access in case an ambulance was needed. He had his eyes closed and never showed any kind of activity. But I assumed no news was good news and that getting to San Luis Obispo was the priority. They followed me and were very nice about it.
When I got to Paso Robles I turned south on Highway 101. Some pilot wags have commented that Highway 101 was the longest runway in the world. I think it goes all the way from Alaska to Argentina! I finally broke over the ridge at Cuesta Grade and had the airport in view. So I called Los Angeles and terminated the following. I thanked them for their help, that I had the airport in view. As I recall it was now dark. I made a slow descent in a wide circle to make it as gentle as possble, what we used to call an airline approach. I touched down very gently, the tail came down and I coasted up and off the runway toward the waiting ambulance at the tower. I stopped the engine and coasted up and gently stopped.
I got out and watched as they lifted him onto a high gurney. As he passed I walked by it for a bit. He roused somewhat, lifted his arm, grabbed mine and said, "You did good, Charlie!". And that was that!
I visited him every evening about 7 PM and stayed for an hour or two, talking and trying to talk him out of his strong depression. I poured some cement on their front stoop so the wheelchair could go out. This went on for a long time, more than a month, maybe even two. He gradually recovered and eventually went back to teaching at Cal Poly.
Sometime later he retired and moved over to the Valley. He didn't even say goodbye.
So much for that.
A man was rebuilding a Stearman PT-17 in a hangar right across the
taxiway from where our Cessna was parked. I went over a number of times to see what was going on. I
told him I had flown them in 1942 in WWII. I even brought out my log book one time and showed it to
He finally finished and started to fly it. I saw it in the air, going straight and level, put-putting away! I thought at the time, "What a waste of a good Stearman!".
One day I was out there when he was putting it away for the night after a flight. It turns out he was selling it but the new owner was requiring that it have twenty hours on it before he would take possession. I said to him, "It sure is good to see it in the air!". And he said, "If you're out here tomorrow morning, I'll let you fly it!" Wow. Is there any doubt where I was the next morning?
I was out in the morning, he gave me a helmet, parachute and goggles and I got in the front seat. I figured he would take it up and let me have the stick for awhile.
He started the engine. There was a narrow passage between two hangars and he taxied it through. Then he stopped and said, "OK. It's yours!" I hadn't expected such good fortune! I taxied down to the end of runway 29. I zigzagged as is required because forward visibility is nonexistent. I stopped at the yellow line, ran up the engine and checked the mags. I called the tower and got permission to take off. I did not pull out on the runway and stop and then takeoff. I don't believe in using a runway any longer than absolutely necessary. That's the way we were trained. I just taxied out on the runway gradually increasing the throttle and when I was lined up I gave it the whole nine yards, got the tail up and took off,
He didn't want me to turn it upside down so I just zigzagged, steeper and steeper to get the kinks out of my shoulders. I kept on with the Lazy Eight kind of flying for two and a half hours! When I looked in the mirror on the strut I could see he had a grin from ear to ear. While I don't completely remember, I suspect I at least did some chandelles, a steep climbing 180 degree turn. We did a low pass at Oceano and headed back to San Luis Obispo.
I wasn't sure how much gas we had so I went back to land. The float sticking out of the wing didn't tell me anything. I got into the pattern, came down the approach and made a beautiful three point landing, and taxied off the runway. He took over then and taxied back and parked it. I had my camera and someone snapped the above picture in front of it.
What a wonderful flight. When the subject of the landing came up, he said that he hadn't even dared try to make a three point. I said that it didn't occur to me to do it any other way. That was the way we were taught!
I think he really enjoyed the flight. I certainly know that I did. When I asked if he remembered that I told him I hadn't flown one for 45 years, he said it was just like I'd been flying them yesterday. What a wonderful comment to make me feel good!
So to you old pilots, let me reassure you, YOU NEVER FORGET!