By Fred “Crash” Blechman
You never know who you’ll meet at a book signing. That’s where I met Steve Danz, a soft-spoken lawyer who owns a pressurized, air-conditioned six-place twin-turboprop Cessna 340. He flies it about 300 hours a year for business and also for a charitable flight organization. Danz is a qualified volunteer command pilot for Angel Flight West, which provides free non-emergency airlifts in response to medical needs. The organization also provides services for other compelling human needs, such as relocating survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
I was helping a former Douglas AD Skyraider pilot, Navy Commander “Tex” Atkinson, at Barnes & Noble. He was signing his new book, “From the Cockpit–Coming of Age in the Korean War,” when Steve came in with Gregory, his 5-year-old son. He asked about my replica Navy fighter pilot flight jacket. When I discovered he owned an airplane, I told him I was known as “The Flying Hobo,” and that I bummed rides to places about which I could write. He invited me to join him on a flight to Palm Springs.
I arrived early at the large Million Air facility at the north end of Van Nuys Airport. I was alone in the comfortable pilot’s lounge waiting for Steve when a young man, who looked about 18, came in and asked if I was Fred. He said he was Daniel, and would be the copilot on the flight.
While we waited for Steve, we strolled out to the plane, which was parked in a sheltered area. A little concerned about his youthful appearance, I asked Daniel about his flying experience. I was amazed at his qualifications: CFII, multi-engine instructor, and endorsed for high-altitude, high performance complex aircraft! Wow! When I asked his age, he told me he was 23. I became more comfortable when I realized that at his age, I was an instrument-rated Navy fighter pilot, flying 2,000+ horsepower F4U-5 Corsairs off aircraft carriers!
I was really impressed when we arrived at the beautiful Cessna 340. Steve drove up in his Jaguar with Gregory and his wife, Marge, who would be joining us on this flight. We boarded through a drop-down step-ladder cabin door on the left rear of the airplane and strapped ourselves in. Steve was in the left command-pilot seat, Daniel in the copilot seat, Marge and Gregory were behind the pilots in two rear-facing seats and I was in a forward-facing seat near the rear. Circular windows provided an excellent view.
The Cessna 340 isn’t a small aircraft. At over 34 feet in length, it has a wingspan of over 38 feet, an empty weight of about 4,100 pounds and a useful load of almost 1,900 pounds. More than 200 gallons of fuel can be carried to power the two 310-hp Continental turboprop engines to above 20,000 feet, with the air-conditioned cabin pressure kept at 8,000 feet. This is no Piper Cub.
The Cessna 340 wasn’t Steve’s first airplane. Flying since 1974, he has logged over 5,000 hours on previously owned planes, including a Cessna 172 RG Cutlass, a Mooney M20J and a Beech B-36 Turbo Bonanza. He bought the Cessna three years ago. For safety reasons, he prefers to have a qualified multi-engine copilot in the right seat, at least for takeoffs. Even on clear days, he usually flies on instrument flight rules just for practice. This day wasn’t particularly clear.
I listened on my headset as the pilots went through the various check-off lists. They started the engines, contacted the Van Nuys tower, went though filing an IFR flight plan to Palm Springs and then took off from Runway 16R.
Taking off with 2,800 revolutions per minute and 36 inches of manifold pressure, we rotated at 110 knots and climbed at 130 knots, using 2,600 rpm and 32 inches mp. The IFR assigned flight level was 10,000 feet. As we churned upward through considerable ground haze, we followed a direct heading to Palm Springs International Airport and came into blue sky at about 5,000 feet.
Since the weather had cleared, I wanted some time at the controls. Steve cancelled the IFR clearance, went to visual flight rules and flight following, and climbed to 7,500 feet. Daniel and I swapped seats. Now in the right seat, I took the controls, but they hardly moved! Steve had engaged the automatic pilot, an expensive add-on to the standard Cessna 340, and it worked like a charm. The gauges were frozen on heading and altitude.
The large color global positioning system display showed a red line between Van Nuys Airport and Palm Springs International Airport, and all I had to do was maintain altitude and keep a small, moving plane symbol on the GPS red line. Steve disabled the autopilot so I could get some time behind the yoke. I made some shallow turns, and then got back on course. Using only 75 percent power, we cruised along at 2,500 rpm and 26 inches mp at a true air speed of 180 knots (207 miles per hour), with a total fuel consumption of almost 40 gallons per hour. To avoid having to climb higher to get over the mountains directly ahead, I turned slightly north to fly through the Banning Pass, a notch between mountain peaks that heads directly into Palm Springs.
The Palm Springs area was clear, and Steve took over for the approach and landing. He dropped the tricycle gear and flaps, reduced descent power to 2,000 rpm and 20 inches mp, and then greased it onto Runway 31R at about 110 knots. The flight had taken about 45 minutes.
As we taxied to the Atlantic tarmac, I was surprised to see a rental car drive up. Steve had radioed ahead. Nice service. The car had been rented for the drive to Thermal, about 20 miles to the southeast of Palm Springs. There we would see the “Thunder Over the Desert” air show at Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport, which was closed to air traffic for the show.
Steve drove, and I had my chance to find out more about him. He married, passed the bar, and earned his law degree and private pilot’s license, all in the summer of 1974. He began his private practice in personal injury and medical malpractice in Sausalito, Calif., and often commuted to Los Angeles.
“In 1994, Karl Gerber applied to work as an associate in my LA office, and did that very successfully. In 1996, when I moved to Los Angeles, we formed a partnership,” he explained. Danz & Gerber, with offices in Sherman Oaks, San Diego, Sacramento and San Francisco, now specializes in employment disputes.
Steve is also on the board of directors of Angel Flight West, which operates in 11 western states. He flew about 80 flights in each of the last four years, and has been named “Distinguished Pilot of the Year” for the past three years. Now 60, Steve says he’s living his dream.
“I have a law practice that has grown to where I can take a step back from the day-to-day grind, and I’m so fortunate to have a family that doesn’t complain when I’m not home because of Angel Flight,” he said. “If I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it!”
His son, Ryan Danz, can be seen on “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.” Little Gregory is wildly interested in airplanes.
“We met Gregory in a Ukraine orphanage, and he was ours!” Steve said.
The air show was excellent, and we left about an hour later, with Gregory and Steve both loaded down with airplane models and aviation paraphernalia purchased from various vendors. We drove back to Palm Springs, boarded the plane and filed IFR. By the time we took off for Van Nuys Airport, it was twilight. We cruised at 6,000 feet, and flew west into the beautiful sunset. We could see the ground lights begin to turn on below. I peered out the cabin window at the landscape crawling under us. Soon we were over the highly populated suburbs of Los Angeles, and in the darkness, the lights below became a glittering moving carpet.
Steve and Daniel flew IFR all the way back, with the many necessary radio contacts. We entered the clear and brightly lit San Fernando Valley. Following the IFR flight plan, the pilots made an instrument landing system approach to Van Nuys Airport. A smooth landing on 16R ended a very interesting day.
For information on Angel Flight West call 888-426-2643, or visit [http://www.angelflight.org]. To reach the law firm of Danz & Gerber, call 818-783-7300 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.