Santa Monica Omni 

Internet Version 2.0

Copyright © 2012 by Paul Niquette.  All rights reserved.


"Are you all right, Roy?"


His gaze is fixed on the clouds ahead of us.  The engine labors into a climb.  Our little plane is banking to the left.


"Roy, are you sick or what!"


He was pale before take-off, now ashen.  Roy seems to be holding himself up with the control wheel, staring, eyes glazed.  He turns toward me, his lips are the color of bruises.  "Paul."


"Come on, Roy. You gotta fly this thing!"


He nods grimly.  The plane banks more, still climbing.  All at once, Roy lets go of the control wheel and slumps to the side.


"What's wrong with Roy?" his wife asks from the back seat.


Continuing to turn left, we heave forward toward the ground two miles below, speed increasing.  The wheel in front of me jerks toward the control panel.  Grab it with both hands and pull back.  "Whoa, goddam it!"  The engine growls.  I feel heavy in the seat. 


"I think he passed out, Mildred." 


The clouds ahead make a crazy angle with the sky.  A quick glance at Roy.  His head is pressing against the side window.  Now the plane is nose-heavy.  I see why:  Roy's wife has leaned forward, reaching over the front seat, shaking Roy’s shoulder. 


"Sit back, Mildred!  Please!"


"Maybe it’s his heart, Paul.  We need to get him to a doctor."  


This is not how the flight was supposed to be!  Roy passed out and next thing I know I am holding the control wheel.  As Mildred moves back into her seat, I can feel the plane coming into balance again.  Bring the nose up. 


"Can I just put his sweater over him?" 


“Not now.  Let me get this thing straightened out.”


My wife is sitting beside Mildred.  She must be frightened.  To see her face, I have to turn around in my seat.  Annie looks worried more than scared.  Facing forward again, I see the plane is banked to the left.  Why the hell does it keep wanting to do that?   My hands seem to be fighting each other. 


"Okay, Mildred.  But take it easy with the sweater."



"Las Vegas?  Sounds great, Roy."


"Don't work for you anymore," he said over the phone.  "Let's celebrate."  It was April 1963. 


Roy was in his late fifties, twice my age, skinny and drawn, never smiles, hardly any hair.  He was not happy that the company hired me to be his boss.  I was the project engineer; he was my chief technician.  Without telling each other so, we decided early on to make a joke of it all. 


At work, I had told Roy about my own first flying lessons a half-dozen years earlier in a Cessna 140. 


“Tail dragger,” Roy grumped. “My 172 is a square-tail, 1956 model.”


“Tricycle gear,” I mused. 


We set a time to meet at the Santa Monica Airport that Saturday morning.  "Don't bring any luggage," Roy said.


"Any?" I asked.


"One toothbrush per couple.” 


I chuckled.  "You can’t get much of an aeroplane with boxtops."


"Look, if you want to bring a bunch of crap, buy a ticket on a DC-3."


Roy Barnes was at his best dealing out scorn.  I remember how he kept our engineering team amused in the lab.  Roy chain-smoked filter cigarettes, a different brand every day.  "Don't want any bad habits," he would say.  Roy was often sick.  Ulcers, I think.  "They carved out half of my stomach," Roy complained.


"Hell of a way to lose weight," I had commented.


When I told my wife about the invitation, she reminded me of Roy's health problems. 


“Don’t worry, Annie," said I.  "If anything goes wrong, I'll take over.”  That seemed funny at the time.  


My wife shook her head.  “We should update our wills before Saturday.”


“Back in 1957, at Hawthorne, I actually soloed, remember?”


“A five-minute hop at the airport,” she said.  “That’s hardly the same as piloting a plane across the Mojave Desert.”



Roy took his place in the left seat of the plane and handed me a map.  "Don't call that a map," he said.  "It's a chart." 


Our wives were seated behind us, getting acquainted. Roy and I had never socialized before.  He frowned at the gauges and started the engine.  I examined Roy's marks on the chart.  He must have laid out a dozen ‘check-points' along our flight path from Santa Monica, California to Las Vegas, Nevada.   I watched Roy steer the plane with the rudder-pedals as we taxied to the side of the runway.  He exercised the engine, then mumbled something into the microphone.  The control tower answered prompt­ly.  "Eight-Three Charlie, cleared for take-off."


Roy pushed in the throttle, a round knob in the center of the control panel.  The engine took up the challenge and began pulling our little plane along the runway.  Roy eased back on the control wheel and the concrete fell away.  While climbing over the city of Santa Monica, Roy banked the plane to the right.   At the shoreline, I turned around in my seat and pointed out Pacific Ocean Park to my wife.  I heard her tell Mildred that we had taken the kids there only a week ago.


Roy's wife was something of a surprise to me. Mildred smiled easily and spoke with precision.  Quite a contrast to her husband.  Roy told me that he never “bothered with no colleges.”  He said his wife had enough education for the two of them.


The engine filled our little cabin with hearty sounds of combustion.  I was curious about various items in the cockpit.  Roy shouted patronizing answers to my queries.  I noticed that he kept his feet flat on the floor.  “Rudder pedals are for sissies,” he explained.  From time to time, we threw barbs at each other. The fun might last all the way across the desert.  While lighting up a filter-tip, Roy gestured for me to take the control wheel in front of me.  I shook my head and pointed at the chart.  "Are we lost or what?" I asked.


"Apple Valley Airport down there," said Roy.


"Nice runway, Roy.  Why do you suppose somebody painted `Barstow-Daggett' on it?"


He banked the plane and squinted downward.


"Did you leave your glasses home?" I asked.


"Don’t need ‘em until I start taking lessons."


A meter-like instrument on the control panel made me curious.  Roy saw my quizzical expression.  "Omni," he hollered.  "For navigating."


"Do you know how to use it?" I asked.


"Too complicated."


Roy looked at his watch and checked off a point on our course.  Realizing he had an audience, he frowned at the ground below then back at his chart.  I grinned at my wife in the back seat. 


"Roy is a fine pilot, Annie.  He's going to use his omni to figure out where we are."


"Not in front of the girls."


Roy changed heading slightly, and we flew on without talking.  I noticed the needle on the omni had come alive.  There was a knob on the instrument, and I wondered what it did.  I resisted the temptation to touch anything.  Roy was watching me.  "Be my guest," he said.


I turned the knob and the needle moved off scale; back again and the needle centered.  Next time I caught Roy's eye, I gestured at the omni and shrugged.  Roy pointed at a blue circle on the chart.  "Omni station," he said.


Around the rim of the blue circle were a set of numbers.  Examining the omni on the panel, I saw numbers just like them.  They were printed on a dial that moved when the knob was turned.  I gazed at the desert below and thought for awhile.


All at once, I got it:  The numbers match the chart.  When the needle is centered, the location of the plane is given by that dial.  As we flew along, the needle appeared to drift off center.  By re-centering it with the knob, I could take a new reading from the dial.  I noticed that Roy had previously drawn lines on the chart from the center of the blue circle, like spokes on a wheel.  These pencil marks intersected our course line and gave us our position.


While we were just cruising along, I was able to figure out how the omni worked.  The thing is quite intuitive.  Now, I was hardly qualified as an airplane navigator, but I had just learned something mighty interesting.  I had no idea how useful this knowledge would be.  The very next day.


"You're right, Roy," I said, turning away.  "It's too complicated."



This is not the story about a Saturday in Las Vegas.  I faintly recall a swim in the hotel pool and the dinner show.  Al Hurt, Pete Fountain, and a fellow named Vaughn Meader doing impressions of our President. Events in the sky the following day all but scoured my memory. 



Roy barely touched his dinner.  He chain-smoked and complained that his stomach was acting up again.  Sunday morning, my wife and I met Mildred for a brunch in the hotel.  She told us that Roy had not been able to sleep and was upstairs in their room.  Annie and I exchanged glances.  Later, Roy Barnes, pale and gaunt, joined us in the lobby.


"Them places," he said, nodding toward the casino, "stay open all night."


The weather had changed.  It was cloudy when we arrived back at the Las Vegas airport that Sunday afternoon.  Roy went to a phone booth to talk with the weather people.  He was frowning more than usual when he returned, muttering disagreeably about headwinds and low clouds in the Los Angeles Basin. 


My wife smiled at Roy. “Why don’t we stay another night?” she said. “We can just call up the sitter.” 


Roy shook his head and took a long drag on his cigarette.  "Las Vegas is a bad place to get stuck in."


The four of us took our places in the plane without speaking.  The little Cessna swerved along the taxiway.  After take-off, the plane seemed to be barely climbing.  Our flight path ran parallel to a highway.  Cars and trucks were passing us.  I razzed Roy about that but got nothing in return.  He allowed the plane to bank then jerked it back upright, first this way then that.


"Do you have any idea which way Santa Monica is from here?" I asked, just to get something go­ing.


Roy crushed out a cigarette, his second since take-off.  "Downdrafts," he grunted.


The air was smooth but murky, not clear like the day before.  After the better part of an hour, Roy announced that we had reached 6,000 feet.  He turned the plane toward the hills southwest of Las Vegas.  By this time the ground below us had become a brownish blur.  We could see clouds everywhere.  Rocky peaks stood above them. 


Our wives settled into conversation.  There was something unsettling about this flight so far.  Not a bump in the air, yet the plane felt like it was meandering all over the sky.  


Roy's chart was still folded up in his lap.  I reached over and took it, half expecting him to object.  He did not even notice.  I examined the course line we had followed the previous day.  It was not hard to figure out the general direction we should be flying.  I pointed to the compass above the windshield.  Roy looked up and squinted.  Surprised, he banked the plane into a turn.   When we reached a southwesterly heading, I made a straight-ahead gesture with my hand.  Once again, I expected something from Roy to the effect that I didn't know anything about this business.  Instead, he stared off into space, as if he were waiting for further instructions.


The sun shone through the windshield chasing shadows across the panel whenever the plane turned.  I noticed we were still climbing.  Our altimeter read 9,000 feet.  I asked Roy how high he had planned to climb.  His eyes closed and opened twice.  Suddenly, he pushed the nose over, making us catch our breath.  If I didn't know better, I would say Roy was intoxicated. 


Roy's hand trembled noticeably when he reached for the trim control.  I thought of the omni.


The needle was moving, so I centered it with the knob and read the dial.  I looked at the chart and saw those blue omni circles.  I had not learned the day before how to tune in different omni stations.  One blue circle on the chart had an angle that looked reasonable for what I guessed was our location.  Beside its name, Boulder City, was a box with the numerals 116.7.  Sure enough, they corresponded to a set of digits that appeared on the face of the omni instrument.  Without my noticing, Roy must have tuned in Boulder City the day before.  That number, 116.7, had to be the frequency of the omni station on the ground.  I began to think that it would be a good idea to keep track of our progress – and not just to pass the time, either.  We could not see the ground at all.


Constant droning of the engine and the propeller blast made it difficult to hear the conversation in the back seat.  The sky had become a pure blue canopy above the clouds.  The ride was utterly smooth.  It was as if the four of us were merely spectators to a cloudy scene projected outside our window.


Roy looks worse by the minute.  Questions begin parading through my mind.  Could it be the altitude?   Should I suggest we turn back?  Even if we do that, could Roy find the airport in all these clouds?  How might I broach the subject of returning?  Roy seems strangely docile right now.


We are climbing again.  And banking left. 


"Are you all right, Roy?"


No more questions.  Get the plane level.  See to Roy in a minute.  Try to feel the controls.  "Whoa, goddam it!"  Now pull.  Hands tightening on the control wheel.


There had been warnings.  Only they were not real enough.  The emergency even now is not quite real.  No physical pain.  We are neither freezing nor burning up.  No gunshots or explosions.  No threats from predators.  If this is real, nature is no help.  Yet the four of us are surely going to die.


Maybe it's already over for Roy. 


"How are you doing, Paul?" my wife asked.


Her question is oddly reassuring.  I want to answer, but there are crucial things to do here.  What are they?  Get the wings level.  Push down.  Find the airport.  What direction?  Get to a doctor for Roy. Look for a hole in the clouds.  What airport, for crying out loud?  Get control first.  Mountains down there.  Climbing again, dammit!  Any airport.  What if he is dead?  I won't look at Roy again.


"Trying to get the hang of it, Annie."


Now a pain begins.  I'm almost grateful.  Fibers in my stomach.  Not a sound from the back seat.  Stay level.  With each passing minute, the fibers get tighter. 


It's real. 



The handful of flying lessons that I had taken back in 1957 were from the left seat, with my left hand on the control wheel.  In retrospect, that might not seem to be significant, but it was.  Trying to take over from the right seat six years later, I found that what little tactile memory remained was firmly committed to my left hand, and my right hand became useless – or worse.



Why are my hands fighting each other?  Maybe if I let go with my right hand.  That’s better.  I remember something Roy told me yesterday: the elevator forces in the control wheel ‑‑ I can balance them out with the trim control.  But I have to let go with my left hand to reach it.  Adjusting up – no down.  Grab the control wheel again.  Level the wings.


Let's see, when did we take off?  Was it 1:30 or 2:30?  Trim some more. Wipe my left hand on my trouser-leg.  Where was I?  The time.


"What time is it?" I asked over my shoulder. 


The fibers are tightening.  I do have a watch on my left wrist, but I do not want to take my eyes off those clouds ahead.


"Quarter after three."


Annie's voice is calm.  I am not ready for arithmetic.  Suffice it for now that we have been up here for more than an hour.  It took us two hours to get to Las Vegas yesterday.  We must be near the half-way point.  We will not go back.  I need help, though.  Maybe the radio.  First, trim.


"Mildred, can you reach the chart for me?"


It had fallen on the floor.  She folded it to show the desert area southwest of Las Vegas.  As she handed it forward to me, I thanked her.  I was able to take a quick look into her eyes.  Mildred was crying.  This is craziness!  Where do I come off thinking I can pilot this goddam airplane.  With a corpse on board.  So this is what panic feels like.  The two women in the back seat ‑‑ they must be paralyzed with panic.  It's all over but the screaming.  And the crash­ing.


Yet, no screaming, except from inside me.  Am I the only one with stomach knotted up and pulling tight?  Don't they know what the hell predicament we're in? 


Mildred knows.  Real tears.  She handed me the chart, though, as if it were the morning newspaper.  Sadness, grief, but no screaming.  Annie must know.  If I can see Mildred's tears, so can she.  With Roy gone, what hope do we have?  Still, when I asked my wife for the time, she answered with no more concern than if we were tardy to a dinner party.  One of them ought to be up here in the front seat instead of me.


No screaming ‑‑ and there is no crashing going on here either.  If those women are not going to panic, maybe I won't either.  It's craziness, all right, but I'm going to fly Roy's one seventy‑two.  Thanks, Ladies.  Let go, fibers.


The plane is level; now we must get pointed in the right direction.  Only short glimpses at the chart.  Looks like a heading of about 200 degrees should get us into the Los Angeles Basin.  The compass above the windshield is indicating “W.”  That would be 270 degrees.  So we turn left, and ‑‑ oh, for crying out loud, why is the compass swinging around that way?   The turn is stopped, but the compass is still swinging.  Obviously you can't read that thing while the plane is turning.  I must nurse it around a few degrees at a time using the sun as a guide.


"Figure we ought to head about two hundred degrees."  I called back over my shoulder, trying to sound confident.  I can use all the help I can get.  Mildred has flown with Roy and must know quite a lot.  "What do you think, Mildred?"


Probably should be worried about altitude, too.  Some long time has passed since I tried to read the altimeter.  To do so, I have to look over to the left, by Roy's knee.  I do not want to stir up those panicky fibers.  Looking over there is like peering into a coffin.  Right this minute, I wish I could just go off and think about our situation for a while. 


Coming around to a heading of 220 degrees, I leveled the wings.  Close enough.  When I hand the chart back to Mildred, I'll just take one look at the altimeter. Over 10,000 feet.  Plenty high.  That settles it.  I won't think about altitude for now.


The radio.  Here’s the microphone, but what do I say?  Better know where we are first.  Back to the omni.  I need to find the next omni station that might help us?  The name in the circle is Daggett. The frequency is 113.2. 


Mildred handed me the chart again.  "Paul, I'd say that 210 degrees is the right direction."


Just have to let that go for now.  I want to tune in Daggett.  Set the frequency digits like so.  "Hey, what happened?" I can't help shouting.  On the face of the omni, there's a red flag that says OFF. 


"Something wrong?" my wife asks.


"Plenty wrong!" 


I wish I were able to hold things in better.  I’m going to guess: when we are too far away from the omni station, the OFF flag appears.  We are not as far along as I thought -- and we have swung around toward the sun.  Get back on course.  The situation has improved.  The plane at least is level.  I don't care to think what we would do if there were even the slightest turbulence.  Thanks to Mildred, we are on some kind of a course.  Sooner or later, we shall be close enough to Daggett to use the omni. 


Roy Barnes is never far from my mind.  His face was ghastly, last time I looked.  The women have succeeded in calming me down, though.  My grip on the control wheel is starting to relax.


"What's that mountain up ahead?” my wife asks, pointing through the windshield. “Above the clouds, there.” She must think I really can fly this thing.  I never told her the whole story about my solo flight six years ago.  It was a near disaster.


"San Bernardino range, Annie."  It was a guess.


"Better stay away from Ontario, Paul."  Mildred's voice is wavering but strong.   "Roy told me once that a lot of airliners come in over Ontario, on their way to Los Angeles International." 


Mildred's words, "Roy told me once" sounds like something you might hear at a funeral.  Whether intended or not, she has set our priorities.  No more thoughts about getting him to a doctor.  Our own survival is all that counts now. 


The engine is running steadily with its own kind of confidence.  If that really is the San Bernardino range and we are still northeast of Barstow, then we can see hundreds of miles up here above the clouds.  We won't run into any mountains.


"We're pretty far north of Ontario, Mildred." 


I forced myself to study the altimeter.  How curious, we have climbed to over twelve thousand feet. 



My knowledge of aviation that Sunday was elementary, mostly learned from books.  Hypoxia produces physical symptoms that include headache, nausea, and shortness of breath.  Most subtle – and probably worst for the safe conduct of flight – is euphoria. 



The OFF flag on the omni has disappeared sometime while I was not looking.  It is replaced by a flag that says TO.  Center the needle with the knob and read the dial.  Look at the chart.  Compare.  Something is wrong.  We cannot possibly be where that dial says we are -- beyond Daggett.  We have been in the air two hours, long enough to be over the ocean.  Look down.  Nothing but clouds.  San Bernardino Mountains?  Shit!  Those are the islands off Santa Barbara! 


Look at the chart.  There is an omni station at Ontario, tune in that one.  It is 112.2 on the frequency digits.  Turn the knob, the needle centers, and the flag . . . the flag says FROM.  The dial reads 20 degrees, which does put us northeast of Ontario.  And over land.  I took a deep breath.  That must be the answer.  The flag must say FROM.  Otherwise the dial lies to you.  Probably not the whole story, but it will do for now.  Problem solved. 


Annie is consoling Mildred.  They are talking in low tones.  I have no time for grieving.  Most important for now, I have to keep the plane pointed on its course of 210 degrees.  Roy went out, doing what he loved best.  Hell, flying an airplane is something I have always dreamed of doing, and here I am doing it. 


Seems I have figured out the FROM flag on Roy's omni.  Hooray for that.  Tune in Daggett again.  Twist the knob all the way around until the FROM flag appears.  There we are:  East and north of Daggett.  Don't know how far, but I know more about omnis than I did yesterday.  Actually, we have not even come to Daggett yet.  Glad I was able to keep that nonsense about being over the ocean to myself.  We are not even half-way there.  I forgot about that long, slow climb and those "downdrafts."  


Mildred is sobbing.  Wish I could help her as much as she has helped me.  Not possible.  Annie is doing her part.


If Roy had a heart attack or stroke, we should have tried to take him to a hospital immediately.  Now that I realize how slow our progress has been, I see that it would have been better to turn back right after I got control of the plane.  The authorities will probably scold me for not turning back.  It may not make sense to worry about what anybody thinks.  I can't help it, though.  Thing is, I thought we were farther along.  That ghastly look on Roy's face ‑‑ he was a goner.  I shall have to live with the decision not to turn back for the rest of my life.  How long will that be anyway?


Two hours now, or maybe longer: I wonder how much gas we have left.  They will want to know on the radio.   I noticed the fuel gauges yesterday.  They are near the top of the cabin on either side of the cockpit.  The one here on the right indicates less than half full.  The one on the left reads… the same.  Another prob­lem.


When I ease my grip on the control wheel, the plane almost flies itself.  Finally we have passed Daggett and the town of Barstow somewhere down there below the clouds.  The air is still smooth.  Better take another reading from the omni station at Ontario.  The desert is behind us. 


According to the chart, there are several airports nearby:  San Bernardino, Riverside.  But to get to them, we would have to be "talked down" like in the movies.  Meanwhile, I am sitting up there at 12,000 feet solving problems all by myself.



At the time of the flight, radar was one of my technical specialties, dating back to research for the FAA in the earliest applications of surveillance radar in air traffic control.  Something I knew well: ‘radar rooms’ were primitive as hell in the early sixties. As incompetent as I was as a pilot, I did not welcome the idea of anybody in a radar room trying to rescue us.



Studying the chart, I concluded that we would soon be over the "Cucamonga Wilderness Area."  If we are going to get talked down, why not wait until we get to Santa Monica?  After all, Santa Monica was where we parked our cars.


Our main worry must be mountains.  On the chart, they are all around us.  The ocean looks much more inviting.  What about a landing into the ocean?  I had pleasant visions of flying off the edge of the coast into the blue part of the chart and letting down gradually to a soft splash.  Like diving into a pool.  Annie is a strong swimmer and so am I.  We could both help Mildred keep afloat if necessary.  And it doesn't matter about Roy.  The water will not even be cold, was my thought.


Through no effort that I can remember, the plane has been drifting down to lower altitudes.  Nearing the San Fernando Valley, now, and flying at about 9,000 feet.  The engine is tending to business, keeping up its steady drone all the way.


While my eyes are fixed on some parcel of clouds on the horizon, my mind's eye gives substance to the coming scene: blind descent through the overcast, violence of the water landing as the wheels slam into the waves, sound of metal crunching ‑‑ not like diving into a pool at all.  With the renewal of that clutching, fibrous pain in my stomach, I know that reality is close at hand.  “Diving into a pool”?  No more wishful thinking, thank you.  Our problem is not running into a mountain, it will be getting trapped inside a sinking airplane. 


Even up here in the clear air, it has been a constant workout trying to keep us going straight.  To avoid letting the plane bank itself into a turn when you cannot see beyond the propeller, must be a bitch!  You surely do not trust that stupid magnetic compass.   What can you trust, “the seat of your pants”?  Not according to the book I read.



Aviation books explain that for stable flight inside a cloud, the pilot must rely on gyroscopic indicators.  Roy’s panel had only one, the most rudimentary gyro-instrument, Needle-and-Ball, which was a subject not covered in my flying lessons six years earlier.



"There's a hole in the clouds!"  My shout breaks a long silence.  "See it?"  Not a hole, actually.  It’s the top of a mountain sticking up.  Something is glinting in the sun.  According to the last measurement I took on the omni dial, we should be north of Pomona.  Seems like nearly another hour has gone by since Daggett.   "Mount Wilson!  There’s the observatory?"


That means we are quite far north of where we ought to be. After probably three hours, I have yet to try and contact anybody on the ground.  I might be able to do that now, since I know exactly where we are.  They will ask me how much gasoline we have left.  Yesterday we flew for about two hours.  Per agreement with Roy, I picked up the tab for refilling the tanks in Las Vegas.  They were about half full.  So maybe we took off with enough fuel to fly for about four hours.  So, I must tell people in the radar room that we have an hour's worth of fuel left.  Our altitude ‑‑ they will want to know that too ‑‑ is about 6,000 feet.  Been doing some more descending, I see. 


OK, radar room, I'm ready to talk.  I picked up the microphone.  Better listen first.  The cabin speaker is over on the left-hand side of the plane.  Turn the volume control up.  Coming from the Ontario omni station is the voice of a man reading a weather report.  I can barely understand his words.  Wind directions, cloud conditions, temperatures, dew-points.  Then, "Long Beach closed; Torrance closed; Hawthorne closed; Los Angeles closed; Santa Monica closed."


"Santa Monica is closed!"  The words explode out of my mouth.  We have to go into the ocean.  We have to.


I hung up the microphone and tuned in the Santa Monica omni station.  That's 110.8 on the frequency digits.  The FROM flag pops right up.  A clatter on the speaker.  Now, a recorded voice. 


" . . . Santa Monica Omni . . . Santa Monica Omni . . . "


The dial reading from Santa Monica is 30 degrees.  The fuel gauges now read "NO TAKE-OFF," less than quarter tanks. 


" . . . Santa Monica Omni . . . Santa Monica Omni . . . " 


Can't talk to a goddam recording.


Suddenly Annie cries out, "There's a big airplane down there!"


Looking back over my right shoulder, I can see Annie looking down.  From her shout, you might think we were about to have a mid-air collision.  Banking the plane to the right, I can see a break in the clouds.  Big airplane, all right, but it is not flying.  It’s a Lockheed Constellation parked on the ground. 


Level the wings.  Let that compass settle down again.  Quick look at the chart.


"That has to be the Lockheed-Burbank Airport!"


For the second time, I have a confirmation of our location.  Bless you, omni!   Should I turn back and try to make it through that hole?  Tilt right, look again.  Gone.  The hole in the cloud has vanished.


" . . . Santa Monica Omni . . . Santa Monica Omni . . . "


If I live to be a hundred years old, I shall always remember the exact sound of a flat, recorded voice, repeating those words over and over as our little airplane cruised above the clouds on a Sunday afternoon in April, 1963.


Soon I must push the control wheel forward to point us down into those clouds.  The sun is shining up here, and I do not want to leave this clear blue sky.  No way to put it off, though.   Since we are north of where we ought to be, I must angle to the left.  Altimeter now shows 5,000 feet.  Not much fuel left.  Got to hurry.  The hardest part is yet to come.  The fibers are back.


The hills north of Santa Monica are still ahead.  Our only hope is to head for the coastline and let down over the water.  I need a "marker," something to tell me when we are actually over the water.  One more look at the chart.  The omni again ‑‑ set up the omni dial to read 270 degrees from Santa Monica.  That marks the coastline near Malibu.  When the omni needle comes to the middle, I will know ‑‑ this time for sure ‑‑ we have passed the shoreline, even though I can't see it.  Then I must simply force myself to take us down through the clouds.


" . . . Santa Monica Omni . . . Santa Monica Omni . . . "


"Got your safety belts fastened back there?"


It is happening.  The omni needle is moving toward the center.  The decision is made.  Push the nose down.


"Hang on.  We are going down."


The plane is not banking around like it did when I first took over.  If I can just relax a little and hold absolutely still…    Picking up speed.  The control wheel is getting stiff.  Some turbulence as we sink into the tops of the clouds.  The pitch of the engine is increasing.  I want to pull back.


" . . . Santa Monica Omni . . . Santa Monica Omni . . . "


Suddenly, the horizon is gone!  For a moment I am stunned, continuing to stare straight ahead.  It is like barreling along inside a milk bottle.  Cannot allow the plane to tilt over into a turn.  Cannot allow myself to think about anything else.


" . . . Santa Monica Omni . . . Santa Monica Omni . . . "


"Where's the airport?"


"Don't talk to me now, Annie." 


Banking left ‑‑ I feel it all through my body.  Turn the control wheel to the right.  Back to the middle.  Now to the left again.  A few bumps in the air.  Outside it is becoming steadily darker.   Seems like the plane is turning right.  The compass says we are not turning at all.  God, but it feels like we are turning right!  Believe the compass.  Can't.  Move wheel to left, tighten my grip.  No, now we are definitely turning left.  The compass has gone berserk.  Bring it back to the right again. 


The sky is getting darker.  A glance at the altimeter.  Zero thousands ‑‑ 500 feet!  Only 500 feet above sea level.   Now blue-dark from below.  The ocean!  I can see the water!  Right under us.  Rolling waves.


" . . . Santa Monica Omni . . . "


I feel like letting out a war whoop.  Me and this old one seventy-two ‑‑ we know each other.  I can see ahead and to the right.  The shoreline should be on the left.  There it is, bank to the left.  We did do some turning in the clouds.  Pull up.  Not going to dive into that water yet if I can help it.  Low on gas, but we can make it to the beach.  Looks like a mile away.


Something is out of place!  My mind is racing.  What?  Going down again, pull back.  No lower or we'll hit the water.


" . . . Santa Monica Omni . . . "


In all this frantic activity, as we came through the clouds, I was so totally consumed, fighting the turns.  Something sure as hell is out of place.


It’s Roy.  He moved!


Can't look at him right now.  Got to watch the shoreline.  Approaching at an angle to our flight path.  Maybe one quick look.  No shit. He is struggling to sit up.


"Roy!  You son of a bitch!  You’re alive?"


With a gasp, Mildred reaches forward for Roy.  Looking out ahead, I see some big structures.  Nose heavy again.  "Take it easy, Mildred!" 


Mildred is holding Roy's head with both hands.


"He must have passed out back there," I exclaimed. 


The structures at the shoreline – that’s Pacific Ocean Park.  Just like yesterday ‑‑ except we are a damn sight lower now. Sobbing from behind me; Annie is crying now.  Finally.


Got to know if Roy can take over. "How is he, Mildred?" 


"Better get him to a doctor." 


That means it’s still up to me.  My old friends, the gut fibers, are coming back in full force.   Pacific Ocean Park is passing just below us.  Heading inland now over downtown Santa Monica.  Forget the gasoline; I think I'm going to find the airport.  Sit there and watch, Roy, damn you!


" . . . Santa Monica Omni . . . "


Houses and buildings.  Power poles and palm trees.  Too close, pull up.  Mist on the windshield.  Can't go any higher or we'll be back in those clouds again.  The runway suddenly appears dead ahead. 


"There's your airport, Annie!"


We're almost on top of it.  Turn slightly.  I see the control tower.  Too fast!  How do we slow this thing down?   The beginning of the runway is right in front of us.  We're at an angle.  Push down and turn.  Almost lined up.   Really low now.


" . . . Santa Monica Omni . . . "


Damn it, I can't reach the throttle with my right hand without messing us up!


"Roy, cut the power!"


He struggles forward with Mildred's help.  Roy's hand closes slowly on the throttle.


"Now, Roy!"


For hours, that little engine has roared faithfully for us.  Suddenly, except for mild sputtering, it is quiet.  Roy has collapsed again back into his seat.


Here comes the runway.  This is going to be interesting.  Some faint memory from more than six years ago has me heave back on the control wheel.  The forces get weaker as the plane slows down.  We sink suddenly, quiet­ly.


Bang!  The wheels hit the pavement with a squeal and we bounced.  The sunvisor drops in front of my eyes.  Push it up.  The plane has gone crooked.  Turn ‑‑ but the control wheel is useless.  The front wheel hits the ground and shudders.  A short stab at a rudder pedal.  Veering to the right.  Other pedal!  A cheer from the back seat.  Slowing, slowing.  Off the runway.  Stopped.


" . . . Santa Monica Omni . . . Santa Monica Omni . . . "





Nearly fifty years have flown by since that day.  My great-grandchildren are now older than the “kids” mentioned in “Santa Monica Omni.”  In a half-century marked by more than a few career changes and geographical moves, the events in the sky have returned again and again to my mind.  During those decades, I became an instrument rated pilot and accumulated thousands of hours aloft, experiencing many adventures.  Several of my favorite flying stories have been published in magazines and are collected here as Chapters in the Sky.  But one especially intense, life-changing narrative has never been published anywhere.  Until now.


Every word in “Santa Monica Omni” is true.  The original story was drafted in longhand based on contemporaneous notes.  I have offered first serial rights to several publications and collected a stack of rejection notices.  There was one exception: In 1973, an editor at Playboy liked the drama and suspense but insisted on several changes.  He told me to delete the technical passages and any mention of my own elementary knowledge of aviation prior to the flight.  The editor also wanted to cut out the ending altogether and use the title, “Corpse in the Cockpit.”  Whereas the alliteration was tempting, that title is misleading.  Besides, star billing belongs to the omni for its life-saving role. 


Several computers ago, I copied “Santa Monica Omni” from a handful of floppies, and the text files have been spinning on hard drives ever since.  Following my move to France in 2012, I came across the manuscript on my laptop and decided to publish the Internet Version.  Readers can decide for themselves whether I made the right decision to reject the offer from Playboy.




Notes and Illustrations


The word ‘omni’ is short for ‘omnirange’.  It refers to a radio navigation system called VOR for “Very high frequency OmniRange.  Omnirange navigation became standard for commercial airliners in the 1950s, but the omni instrument was considered an expensive luxury for general aviation aircraft in the early 1960s.  Prior to getting into Roy’s plane, I had never even seen an omni.  My inflight learning was incomplete, as evidenced by the tense confusion over “FROM” and “TO” indications, which could have become fatal but for a chance discovery aloft.  


The “V” in VOR is also significant in the story.  Very High Frequency” (VHF) radios for both navigating and communicating were just coming into use, with their digitized frequency selectors.  My primitive experience six years earlier was limited to a simple “Low Frequency” (LF) receiver with its ‘coffee grinder’ for tuning.   Aircraft shared a ‘party line’ for transmitting on 400 kilocycles (decades before the unit ‘hertz’ came into currency).  Accordingly, I did not know that an emergency frequency existed, let along how to tune it up.


As described in the narrative, sitting in the right seat of Roy’s airplane, I suffered strange difficulties with the flight controls.  Seems I may be exceptionally lateralized, such that a skill learned for one hand in 1957 did not get transferred to the other hand in 1963.  For me, that issue has never gone away – even after thousands of hours in the sky. 


The hardest lessons for me to learn in 1957 was how to use rudder pedals to steer.  Here’s why.  As a child I built an orange-crate vehicle equipped with skate wheels, in which the front axle was steered with my feet.  To avoid calamity in down-hill runs, I got plenty of practice turning right with my left foot and vice versa.  That’s exactly opposite to how rudder pedals work.  Fortunately, I did not need to use those pedals in Roy’s plane.  Until we got on the ground. 


Modern aviation weather recitations over the radio would never say, “Santa Monica Closed.”  Instead, the pilot listens for two key metrics, ceiling and visibility, thus “500 and ½” means a cloud cover at 500 feet above the airport and a visibility of one-half mile along the runway.  Depending on whether the flight is being conducted under “visual flight rules” or “instrument flight rules,” such measurements may not meet the so-called “landing minimums,” which is tantamount to the airport being “closed.” 


Our emergency flight was conducted in total violation of all flight rules.  Readers will surely notice, for example, that no contact was established with the airport control tower.  Indeed, the landing actually took place in the opposite direction from Runway 21, which would have been most likely the runway in use at the Santa Monica Airport – if the airport were not “closed.”


Santa Monica VOR ground station was one of the earliest.  In addition to its navigation signaling, which was continuously decoded by the omni instrument, a voice channel repeated the name of the station by recorded voice (“Santa Monica Omni”).  Pilots of today will hear the station identifier only in Morse Code on that channel (“SMO”).


Readers will probably have other questions about “Santa Monica Omni,” including, “What happened to Roy Barnes?”  

Omni Instrument



Cessna 140 "Tail-Dragger"


Daggett Omni Station

Los Angeles Sectional


Pacific Ocean Park


Santa Monica Airport






The plane came to a stop on pavement beside the runway.  I turned off the ignition.  Mildred continued to support Roy’s head from behind his seat.  I opened the door on the right side of the plane, climbed out, and held the door for my wife.  She jumped to the ground and flagged down a passing fuel truck and told the driver to call an ambulance.  I stood under the wing and helped Mildred with Roy.  We laid him across the front seat.  

In a matter of minutes, we heard the siren approaching the airport.  Paramedics loaded Roy onto a stretcher and lifted him into the ambulance with Mildred by his side.  His face was covered by an oxygen mask.  That was the last time I would ever see Roy Barnes.  Or so I thought. 


My wife learned from Mildred that Roy was in the hospital for several days.  The diagnosis was hypoglycemia.  His condition was aggravated by hypoxia and anemia, but his heart was fine.  Weeks later, Mildred told us that their son lived in Carlsbad near San Diego.  She had a new job there, and Roy was talking about setting up a TV repair shop in Oceanside. 


With each passing day, I intended to call Roy but felt too awkward.  That Sunday was an immense experience for me, comparable perhaps to survival in mortal combat.  I figured Roy would be embarrassed if not apologetic.  More than once I picked up the phone, thinking to ease the tension with a wise crack, “Thanks for letting me fly your plane, Roy.”  But I never dialed his number.  Then one evening the phone rang.  The voice was familiar enough.


“Got a gift for you, Paul.”


“Bet I know what it is.”


Back when we were working together, Roy bragged about his charter subscription for Playboy.  “Got all twenty-four issues,” he had said.  “Arlene Dahl, Sophia Loren – starting with the December 1953 issue with Marilyn Monroe on the cover.”  On the phone Roy told me that he had found the collection while packing for his move to Carlsbad.


“Hell, you need them magazines more than I do,” he said.


We set a time and I dropped by his house in Culver City.  Roy was waiting for me in the front yard.  I shook his hand firmly and looked long into his eyes.  He seemed quite robust, but I made no comments about his health.  I noticed he was not smoking.  We exchanged small talk, with no mention of flying, until Roy told me that he had sold Eight-Three Charlie to a flying club.  I said that I was looking for a plane to buy, “With two omnis in it.” He nodded without smiling. 


Taking the gift from Roy seemed like the best thing for both of us.  I thanked him, then made an excuse for quick departure.  We loaded the box in the trunk of my car and I started the engine.


Roy leaned into my open side window and frowned.  “That was the worst goddam landing I ever seen.” 




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