Mysterious Island: Ghost pilot?

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Not that I feel constrained to limit ghost stories to certain, appropriate times of the year, but I have another little such tale I would like to “pass on” (pun intended) to you before we completely leave Halloween week.

You may recall an earlier column I wrote many moons ago titled “The Ghost in the Grumman Goose” wherein a Grumman Goose seaplane on its way to Catalina in 1947 with a plane full of happy passengers got lost in cloud cover near the Island.  

Not that I feel constrained to limit ghost stories to certain, appropriate times of the year, but I have another little such tale I would like to “pass on” (pun intended) to you before we completely leave Halloween week.

You may recall an earlier column I wrote many moons ago titled “The Ghost in the Grumman Goose” wherein a Grumman Goose seaplane on its way to Catalina in 1947 with a plane full of happy passengers got lost in cloud cover near the Island.  

To compound the zero-visibility problem, ice build-up had also taken out the plane’s radio antenna, leaving the pilot completely unaware of his location and unable to communicate with the facilities on the ground.

Suddenly, over the headphones of the supposedly defunct radio, came a voice ordering the pilot to “turn to nine-zero degrees. Turn now!”

The pilot did as instructed and the plane immediately exited the cloud cover.  

To the pilot’s horror (and that of his passengers as well) they had just narrowly missed slamming into the 2,000-foot peak of Mt. Orizaba in the Island’s interior.  

The origins of this mysterious “voice” were never fully explained.

That pilot was none other than our venerable early seaplane pilot Robert “Bob” Hanley who for many years flew Gooses for Amphibian Air Transport, Avalon Air Transport/Catalina Air Lines and his own airline, Catalina Channel Airline, which he started up in 1959.

I fielded that harrowing story from an excellent book titled “Ghosts of the Air:  True Stories of Aerial Hauntings” (Fall River Press, 1991), written by a profoundly experienced airman and author by the name of Martin Cadin.  And from that same book comes this week’s mystery …

In the late 1940s, before Hanley started flying for Amphibian Air, Hanley found himself captaining Douglas DC-4 passenger airliners for an unnamed airline.  (The DC-4 was one of the workhorse airliners of the day.  

The next time you see Catalina Flying Boats’ Douglas DC-3 fly over Avalon, just picture a slightly larger plane with four engines instead of two).

On one memorable night flight from Chicago to Oakland with a full load of passengers, Hanley and his crew were enjoying the spectacular view as they flew their ship high above the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies.  That snow was there for a reason, for there was a tremendous amount of very ugly weather far below them.  But high above the maelstrom,  they marveled at the moonlit landscape below.

“We didn’t seem to be moving,” wrote Hanley.  “We were suspended in night space, and the earth rolled slowly toward and beneath a nearly full moon.”  It was a sight that Hanley described as “not afforded to many mortals.”

Then, straight out of an Arthur Hailey screenplay, the conflict component of the story began.  It seems one of Hanley’s passengers, described as a “very pregnant” young Chinese woman, began to go into labor.

There were, of course, no doctors on board so Hanley and the stewardesses stretched the now-unconscious young woman in the cabin’s aisle and began feeding her bottled oxygen at the 11,000-foot altitude.

They radioed their situation to the flight station at Fort Bridger, Wyo., and were given the depressing news that they would need to descend into the awful weather and land at Salt Lake City where they could get the poor woman to a hospital.

To get there, they would have to descend into a blizzardy Diablo Canyon (that’s “Devil’s Canyon” in English) on their approach to Salt Lake, flying only by the highest tech navigation instruments of the time, namely twin radio signals that when properly aligned theoretically placed the aircraft right where it was supposed to be.

Unfortunately, as Hanley describes in the book, heavy snowstorms can often distort the radio beams and in the narrows of Diablo Canyon that could prove fatal to one and all.  

However, without being able to see anything in the stormy night, Hanley had no other choice than to align the two beams into a single beam and hope there wasn’t too much distortion going on.

“We were hanging on to that beam like a drowning man clutches a plank,” wrote Hanley.  That was when the beam started to “weave” forcing Hanley to try to chase it back to its “null” position.

This is where things really got weird.  It was at this point that Hanley says a “voice appeared to emanate from over my shoulder.”  Someone, said Hanley, was behind him and speaking to him.  “Bob, get over to the left,” commanded the voice.

Hanley then looked to his left to see who was giving this perilous command.  That was when Hanley said he felt he had been stuck “a terrible blow.”

“An old pilot friend stood by my side,” he wrote.  “A man I had spent many hours training to fly flying boats.”

It was “unmistakable,” said Hanley, that the man was his friend Harold Tucker.  “We’d flown together too many hours not to notice every detail of his face.”

Problem was, said Hanley, “Harold Tucker had been dead for many years.”

The apparition spoke once again, this time with greater authority.  “Get over to the left,” yelled “Harold.”

Having then evidently dispatched his other-worldly duties, the specter then vanished, leaving Hanley “ice cold.”  But Hanley did as instructed and drifted the plane to the left of the beam much to the astonishment of the co-pilot who apparently hadn’t been privy to the ethereal vision.

Now at the bottom of Diablo Canyon, the plane suddenly emerged from the clouds where Hanley noted the right wing of his plane was “barely a few feet from the rocky wall of the canyon.”  Within minutes, the DC-4 was skidding to a stop on the icy runway at Salt Lake City.  They had landed safely.

There are two epilogues to this story, one tragic and one happy.  

Since I prefer leaving off on a happy note we’ll start with the sad ending:  a DC-3 cargo plane that came in to land after Hanley’s plane was faithfully following the deceptive radio beacon signal and flew straight into a mountain, killing the entire crew.

The happy ending is that the Chinese woman not only survived, but successfully gave birth at a local hospital.  She and her relatives were delighted with Hanley’s heroics and, yes, they named the baby after him.

Jim Watson is the author of “Mysterious Island: Catalina,” available at Amazon, Kindle and in stores all over Avalon.

Mysterious Island: Ghost pilot?