I am certain most pilots have experienced strange things happening during their flying days, so let me share one of mine.
In April of 1964, we took five Huey helicopters from Fort Bragg, North Carolina to Needles, California to support the largest military training exercise since WWII, something called “Operation Desert Strike.” The maneuver area covered most of the Mojave Desert stretching east to west from Kingman, Arizona to Barstow, California and north to south from near Las Vegas to near the Mexican border. One afternoon, it was probably 115 degrees outside and I was sweltering in our operations tent when one of our enlisted men walked in and said “Sir, there’s two Navy guys here who want to talk with you.” I responded by saying “The ocean is 500 miles away! What the hell are they doing here?” He said, “I don’t know, but they want to talk with you.”
I told him to bring them in and, instead of Navy, two Coast Guard officers came in dressed in blue uniforms. They explained they were responsible for covering the nearby Colorado River and that some guy was hoping to break the world’s water speed record on Lake Havasu the next day. They said they had two Coast Guard boats to clear the way for his run, but discovered we had several medevac helicopters and asked us to be there in case something happened. Since Lake Havasu was only about 40 miles south of Needles, we agreed.
The next morning, I flew there and found a beautiful lake formed in a bend of the Colorado River. It was about 25 miles long and perhaps a mile or so wide. We learned the Army had built a hospital there during WWII to treat patients with tuberculosis and the concrete foundations from the old wooden buildings were still visible, but the only other signs of life was a fishing camp and bar by the lake. I understand the London Bridge was moved there some years later and the area is now covered with luxury houses, but in 1964 it was still barren desert. As we were landing, we saw a WWII era P-51 fighter plane landing on a dirt strip ahead of us and were told later that it belonged to the owner of Harvey Aluminum Company from Los Angeles who also owned the racing boat. We walked down to the water’s edge where several people were gathered around what looked like a missile with its J-79 jet engine out of a Navy fighter plane strapped to a narrow hull. We were introduced to Mr. Harvey and to a fellow named Lee Taylor who would be driving the boat. I distinctly remember the chief engineer speaking emphatically to Taylor by saying “Now listen, Lee, when we made the run yesterday, there was some surface flaking off the bottom. We have repaired those spots, but for this run, I do not want you to use more than 85 percent power and then we will examine the bottom again before you go for the record!”
A few minutes later, another boat escorted Taylor to the far end of the lake. We watched as he fired up the engine and began coming our way. There was an enormous wake of water spraying out from both sides and it was obvious that he was moving quite fast. The chief engineer was hovering over his monitoring equipment and I heard him scream “Damn, he’s going for 100 percent power!”
By that time, the boat was not far from us and showed no signs of slowing. About a mile or so past us, the river made a sharp 90 degree turn to the right and it was obvious that, at the speed he was going, he could not stop or negotiate the turn. At the bend, there was a rock wall at least 300 feet high and he was headed straight for it. My co-pilot and I made a mad dash for our helicopter and just as I pulled the start trigger, I saw the boat ricochet off the shoreline and go airborne before crashing into the rocks about 40-50 feet above the waterline. We rushed there and found the boat precariously lodged in a rock formation high off the water. I got as close to it as I could and our crew chief exclaimed “Sir, there’s no one in the boat!” We began hovering around to see if Taylor had been ejected during the crash and was lodged in the rocks somewhere else when the medic spoke up “One of the Coast Guard boats is in the middle of the river about a half mile behind us and it looks like they are waving for us to come there!” We immediately flew to their location and saw they had Taylor in the boat and were headed for the nearest shore.
Later, we found out what happened. He had apparently advanced the throttle to 100 percent power and was hoping to break the speed record when he realized he could not stop or make the turn in the river, so he apparently blew his canopy and jumped from the boat. Unfortunately, he was passing over a narrow rocky shoal at the time and the water was only about two or three feet deep. His high rate of speed drove him into the bottom resulting in massive head and upper body injuries. We flew Taylor to the nearest major hospital which was the newly built Sunrise Hospital in Las Vegas some 150 miles away. About three weeks later, we took a soldier there who had been injured in the training exercise and walked into the emergency room to get some water. One of the doctors came over and asked whether he could take a look at our helicopter since the Huey was fairly new in those days. It turned out that he had treated Lee Taylor when we brought him in earlier. We asked how he was doing and the prognosis was grim. The doctor told us they had barely saved him and were not sure what his cognitive situation would be in the future. In other words, it was bleak.
Now, fast forward four years. I had gone from the desert to Vietnam and then my wife and I were stationed at Camp Zama, Japan between Vietnam tours. One weekend, we went to a movie on the military installation where they always showed stateside news and human interest stories before the main feature, so we were sitting there when a short segment came on. It was about a severely injured American who was recuperating by driving a small van around the California countryside sharpening kitchen knives and scissors. It was a rather heartwarming story because it was obvious that he was significantly handicapped. Then came a surprise! They said his name was Lee Taylor and that he had been injured while trying to break the world’s water speed record at Lake Havasu and was hoping to get well enough to begin racing again if he could find a sponsor.
A few months later, it was back to Vietnam for a second tour followed by several other assignments around the country until we arrived at Fort Lewis, Washington in 1979. Then in November of 1980 or nearly 17 years after the Lake Havasu incident, my commanding general told me he had been tasked to send a team of officers to Camp Roberts, California to evaluate a large California National Guard training exercise. He asked me to head the team and let us use his U-8F (Beech King Air) to fly there. I think there were six of us on the team and we were admiring all of the beautiful sights while flying down the Cascade mountain range at about 10,000 feet. As we neared Lake Tahoe, I told everyone to take a look because that lake is so spectacular from the air. One of the guys in the back was reading a newspaper and spoke up “Hey Sir, it looks like someone is going to try to break the world’s water speed record on Tahoe today!” When I asked what time, his response was “Right now, at 12 o’clock.” All of us began looking down but could see nothing resembling a racing boat. I then asked if the newspaper gave the racer’s name and I almost fell out of the airplane when he said it was Lee Taylor.
After landing at Paso Robles, California, we stopped at a local restaurant before proceeding onto Camp Roberts. After the meal, we were walking out when one of my officers noticed a young fellow placing newspapers in a nearby vending machine so he purchased one. We had just seated ourselves in the van when he spoke up and said, “You are not going to believe this! That boat racer was killed at 12 o’clock today. He apparently lost control and crashed. His boat sank to the bottom of Lake Tahoe and, as of now, his body has not been recovered.”
I guess the moral of this story is that you should not hang around Doug Moore or something awful might happen!!