Today’s big aviation news concerns a small solar-powered Swiss airplane that has now successfully completed the first leg of a round-the-world flight. Last Friday, though, the scuttlebutt in SoCal was all about actor Harrison Ford, who’d been injured while crash-landing his vintage aircraft on a public golf course. Ford had taken off on Thursday from Santa Monica Airport, not far from my home. When his tiny World War II-era Ryan PT-22 Recruit developed engine trouble soon into the flight, he tried to head back to the airport, then realized he wouldn’t make it. A veteran pilot, he was clear-headed enough to pick Venice’s Penmar Golf Course for his emergency landing site. In so doing, he won the praise of flying professionals, one of whom was quoted as saying, ““I think he did the best thing he could’ve done, and he did the thing I’ve feared having to do every time I depart from there in a single-engine airplane.”
Ford’s grace under pressure is certainly something to admire. His mishap, though, added more fuel to the debate over the future of Santa Monica Airport, which caters to the needs of private pilots, movie stars, and the occasional U.S. president. The airport is located in a densely populated urban area. Since 1982, there have been 42 crashes in the vicinity. Some planes have gone down at busy intersections, and even in local backyards. Fortunately, no one on the ground has been killed or seriously injured, but it’s understandable that a lot of folks want to shut down the airport for good.
I won’t get into that contentious debate, which has riled Santa Monica residents for quite a while. Suffice it to say that air travel has not always been kind to Hollywood’s rich and famous. I’m sure I’m leaving out someone, but I’ve quickly compiled quite a long list of celebrity actors and singers whose lives have ended in the crashes of small planes. Way back in 1935 there was actor-humorist Will Rogers, a great believer in the future of aviation, who died near Point Barrow, Alaska, while jaunting with flyer Wiley Post. In 1942, the wonderful screwball comedienne Carole Lombard (who had recently wed Clark Gable) died in Nevada while flying home from a war bond rally. Two years later, the small plane carrying band leader Glenn Miller was lost over the English Channel: he was heading for Paris to entertain the Allied troops.
Country singer Patsy Cline died in Tennessee in her manager’s small plane in 1963. Folksinger and actor John Denver, himself an enthusiastic amateur pilot and the composer of “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane,” died in Monterey Bay in the cockpit of an experimental aircraft in 1997. In 2001, pop singer Aaliyah and eight others were killed in the Bahamas after shooting a music video. (It turned out their pilot was unlicensed, and had traces of both alcohol and cocaine in his system.) But of course the most remembered crash of all took place on February 3, 1959, when Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper went down over Iowa after a concert appearance. The event was immortalized in Don McLean’s “American Pie” as “The Day the Music Died.”
Fortunately for all of us, Kirk Douglas survived a serious helicopter crash in 1991. And fortunately Han Solo managed to walk away from the wreckage of his plane last week. But he’ll probably continue to fly, becomes he loves the “combination of freedom and responsibility” he gets from piloting his own craft. As he told Playboy in 2002, “It’s anonymity. I’m not Harrison Ford. I’m November II28 Sierra.”