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By Bill Mead 

Recalling the Famous 'Battle of Palmdale'

The Overall Picture


Today, We Honor The Overall Man Classic Bill Mead

Reprinted with permission from Tehachapi News, November 4, 2007 issue.

I have taken it upon myself to appoint Dan Ingram the Clown Prince of Tehachapi.

I mean that as a compliment. Several times a week Betty and I receive humorous and heart-warming messages from Dan that never fail to brighten our days. Last week he recalled the epic Battle of Palmdale which most people are too young to remember and which I had nearly forgotten.

This episode began on an otherwise tranquil day in 1956 when Navy scientists at Pt. Magu sent up a drone airplane, a World War II surplus Hellcat fighter which the Navy had used to turn the tide of the Pacific War in our favor little more than a decade earlier. Much to everybody’s consternation, radio communications between the Hellcat and the ground controllers quickly ceased, leaving the propeller-driven Hellcat on its own.

Ground controllers said it was no time to panic, because the plane was safely headed out to sea. Then the unthinkable happened. The unguided drone did a perfect 180 and headed straight for Los Angeles. At that point the controllers agreed it was now time to panic. So they called the Air Force at Oxnard to send up a couple of their super duper new jets to shoot down the Hellcat as soon as it cleared populated areas. Tensions rapidly mounted because, for reasons that still defy logic, the elderly Hellcat seemed to enjoy its freedom and did repeated course changes over LA and nearby cities.

Everybody was relieved when it finally headed for the Mojave Desert. Then the jet pilots discovered that their fancy shmancy automatic rocket firing systems didn’t work. Not to worry. They quickly switched to manual firing. The results were sensational, setting hundreds of acres of mountain brush on fire, turning an oilfield sump into a flaming torch and nearly wiping out an explosives factory.

The ineffective firing continued as the Hellcat reached downtown Palmdale. This brought about a hail of shrapnel on folks below. The Hellcat wasn’t hit but one missile wrecked a station wagon ambling down Palmdale Boulevard. Miraculously, the occupants emerged unscathed except for severe emotional trauma. While the air battle was raging, 500 firefighters were already turning out for what proved to be two days of fighting assorted missilecaused fires on the ground.

Unperturbed by what was happening behind it, the Hellcat flew east until its fuel was exhausted. As if an unseen hand were at the controls, the old warhorse picked a desolate, unpopulated piece of desert along Avenue P to end its flying career. In a final act of defiance it took out a bunch of Southern California Edison power lines just before it shattered on the desert floor, having successfully evaded exactly 208 air-to-air missiles.

At the time, the Battle of Palmdale tickled the funnybones of newspeople everywhere. However, I still remember that one of them foresaw a morale-boosting effect. He said Americans could henceforth sleep soundly in the knowledge that if the godless communists attacked us in station wagons by way of Palmdale Boulevard, our deadly Air Force would send them packing.

If you don’t know Bill: Bill Mead was the longtime publisher of the Tehachapi News, along with Betty Mead, his wife and partner of more than 50 years. Known for his keen wit, which could be gentle or scathing or somewhere in between but was often self-deprecatory, Bill’s writing won him a wide following among News readers. His column “The Overall Picture” ran in the News for more than 25 years, and in 1999 he published a collection of his columns in a volume entitled The Napa Valley Outhouse War. His book is currently available for sale at the Tehachapi Museum for $10.

Bill had a remarkable mind and because of his intelligence, humor and appearance he was regarded by many as Tehachapi’s Mark Twain. As Betty used to remind him, he was “older than the oldest Model A Ford” and his wealth of life experiences and rural upbringing allowed him to bring a thoroughly American, 20th century perspective to his reflections and musings on the everyday. Bill passed away in 2008 but his writing lives on.

[Publisher’s note: I read Bill’s articles during the from the 1980s to the 2000s and I am grateful to share them now with our current readers. I hope you enjoy this touch of nostalgia as much as I do.]


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