Editor’s introduction: Bob Lane was a highly skilled pilot and instructor who operated the West Bay Aviation flight school at San Carlos Airport in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Steve Olsen is a pilot and certified flight instructor who was mentored by Bob and went on to a long career in the airlines. His reminiscences of Bob’s handling of several emergencies follows.
I was with Bob Lane when he landed Stearman N1852M shown in the above image in Foster City before it was complete. At the time the street and sidewalks were in and the future building sites in the southern portion of the city were smooth lots. I am pretty sure this occurred on 1/17/69. Normally we were only up on flight for about 1.0 hours but this day my log book shows 1.4 hours.
Bob came up to me one day and said that for some reason the engine on the Stearman was acting up after about one hour of flight. He was taking it up to try to figure out the problem. Did I want to come along. Well, YA!
After all, how much trouble could one get in with Bob in a Stearman. He had been flying them almost 30 years. We went up and took turns doing some aerobatics and nothing had happened by an hour in the air so Bob indicated he wanted to fly home. We had been over Crystal Springs Reservoir, this is before the FAA informed us that that would no longer be tolerated. We headed back and as we crossed El Camino or Bayshore the engine suddenly STOPPED. There was no warning or hesitation, it just stopped.
Bob immediately indicated he had the controls and did all the things that might bring the engine back to life without effect. We were not in position to land at San Carlos so Bob headed for the one of the clear areas of Foster City. Bob picked a long area as I could see he was about to line up on it. At the far end I could see a large pile of very large pipes. I was still quite new to the Stearman and not being fully aware of it’s sink rate was sure we would run into the pipes on our rollout.
Bob continued the approach, made a beautiful landing that seemed a mile short of the pile of pipes. We got out and discussed the situation. Bob was dumbfounded. I mentioned that it seemed like we “just ran out of gas”! Bob’s face lit up in recognition and he ran over to the aircraft, jumped up on the lower wing and reached up to the gas cap on the upper wing. As he opened it, even from my distance I could hear a sucking noise.
It seems that when the airplane was restored, after years in the rafters of some barn or hangar, no one had blown out the vent pipe for the gas tank. As gravity took the gas down to the carburetor and the tank became less full and a vacuum developed in the tank preventing the gas from draining.
Soon after that discovery a police car arrived and shortly thereafter Rodger Hims, our Chief of Maintenance and Board Member. He worked full time as a lead Mechanic at United at SFO. He must have gone to the office and heard of our plight and driven over and found us. When Bob told him of the problem he disconnected the line and we were ready to go.
Bob told our story to the police officer and he seemed at a loss of what to do with us. Roger stepped in and made a fantastic presentation to the officer with his mechanics credentials, as only Roger could. He impressed upon the officer that he was a representative of the FAA and gave us authority to take off from the field and fly back to SQL. The officer bought it and we were gone, I think he was just glad to be done with us.
We took the Stearman to the maintenance shop, had the vent line blown our and reattached and that was the end of that problem.
The other emergency could have been a lot worse. Bob was instructing Ray Stern in competition Aerobatics. Ray was a champion wrestler, body builder and owner of several gyms. He had decided to try his hand at competition aerobatics and bought a two place Zlin that was competitive and at the same time could be used for instruction.
They had just taken off to the north west when the engine stopped. Bob took over and unsuccessfully attempted to restart the engine with a backup fuel pump. At the time there was a dump to the right and Bob lined up on a road heading north east. Everything looked good till they got a little lower and he realized there was a barbed wire fence along one side of the road. Because of their low altitude they had to land straight ahead. As they landed, the barbed wire fence tangled in the gear and around the wing and about the same time the gear hit a concrete anchor. The wing and gear were a mess but the two occupants were not hurt. They got out, surveyed the damage and prepared for another day. The plane was repaired and they continued training in it until Ray bought a single place Pitt Special. That plane was later sold to a lady who took some lessons before crashing because of her medication. I believe it turned out she had a prognosis of being terminal and on very strong meds. She should not have been in an aircraft.
As the newspaper clipping on the right indicates, Bob had a serious illness. I was working at Buchanan Field in Concord at the time and my wife and I visited Bob and Gladys at Sequoia Hospital during his short stay there. He had been diagnosed as terminal and it was very hard to see Bob in such a condition.
The original indication occurred very unexpectedly as it was relayed to me by friends.
Bob and the owner of another Stearman decided they would take a Stearman to the Flying Lady airport and restaurant by Morgan Hill. Bob was to fly the south bound leg and the owner would bring the plane back to San Carlos. As Bob was landing the aircraft it left the runway, went though a orchard and in the process the wings and tail were stripped off the aircraft. Once again the two occupants were not hurt. The owner, in the front seat, turned around and looked at Bob and Bob was laughing. This was so out of character for Bob.
When they got home he was taken to a doctor where he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It was in his lungs and brain and I guess throughout his body
Several of his close friends felt bad for not relating some of the strange things that Bob had been doing recently. One of the things was that Bob couldn’t remember the combination on a hanger lock that he had known for years.
Bob went West on November 25, 1973.