It was a day that Lyon Air Museum Docent Larry Liguori will never forget. Sitting in the left seat as Captain of a United Airlines 747-400, the massive jumbo jet had just lifted off the runway from Los Angeles International Airport (KLAX) enroute to Sydney, Australia (YSSY). Just minutes after departure the number four (right outboard) engine experienced a catastrophic uncontained failure and fire, leaving the engine shut down and hanging precariously from the pylon with a 30° downward tilt. Immediately declaring an emergency, the damaged jet flew a racetrack holding pattern off the coast of Los Angeles, dumping fuel until the plane became light enough to attempt a landing. After several tense hours, with hundreds of lives hanging in the balance, Captain Liguori brought the plane back to KLAX safely, with no injuries or loss of life.
Growing up in the Los Angeles area, aviation was destined to be a big part of Larry’s life from a young age. “As a kid I built model airplanes and gliders, and when I got a bit older I started building larger, radio-controlled aircraft. When I was 14 my best friend told me about a glider school in El Mirage. I had a paper route at the time, and saved all my money for lessons. Learning to fly in a glider was a great experience. Not only did I learn invaluable stick-and-rudder skills, but also momentum and inertia management, which served me well when I started piloting powered aircraft.”
After graduating from San Gabriel High School, Larry attended Mt. San Antonio Junior College (Mt. SAC). While studying there, he worked the flight line at a local airport. “I made a deal with my employers that instead of paying me in money, I would get paid in flight lessons. After I was done with my work for the day a flight instructor and I would go up, and I loved it. It was then I knew that I wanted to fly as a career.”
Larry eventually transferred to San Jose State University (SJSU) where he continued his aviation studies and flying lessons, including time flying a P-51 Mustang under the tutelage of an experienced flight instructor who was a friend from his days as a student at Mt. SAC. While at SJSU he also signed up for the Naval Cadet (NAVCAD) program, which gave him a pathway to becoming a naval aviator once he graduated from college.
His first stop on the long road to earning the coveted wings of a Naval Aviator after graduating college was Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola in Florida, where his first flight lesson came to define the intense rigors of military aviation training. As Larry remembers “We were flying a Beechcraft T-34 Mentor, with the flight instructor in the back seat and myself in the front seat. After we landed and shut down, he told me that for the next lesson he wanted a bullseye painted on the back of my helmet. When I asked him why, he replied that he needed a target to throw his kneeboard at every time I screwed up!”
After basic flight training at Pensacola, Larry headed to NAS Corpus Christi in Texas where he earned his wings flying the supersonic Vought F-8 Crusader fighter, often referred to as the last gunfighting fighter jet. He was then assigned to Navy squadron VF-174 Hellrazors, based at NAS Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico. Over the next several years Larry flew from bases and aircraft carriers around the world, including a tour of duty in the escalating Vietnam conflict.
It was also during this time that Larry sadly lost a close friend from his youth, Lieutenant Commander (O-4) James K. Patterson, a Naval Academy graduate and bombardier-navigator on an A-6 Intruder of Navy attack squadron VA-35 Black Panthers. Taking off from the USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) for a bombing mission over Hanoi, North Vietnam on May 19, 1967 his aircraft was hit by a surface-to-air missile (SAM). Ejecting from their Intruder, the pilot Eugene “Red” McDaniel survived and was captured, spending the next six years in a North Vietnam Prisoner of War (POW) camp. James Patterson badly broke his leg on ejection, and spent three days evading capture, communicating by radio with US forces in the area. Sadly, communication with James was lost on May 22. He was just 26 years old at the time of his disappearance. “James was the friend who told me about that glider school in El Mirage when I was 14 years old” Larry remembers. “His loss really hit me hard, and still does to this day.”
After seven years flying for the Navy, married with a wife and children, Larry left the service as a Lieutenant Commander and joined United Airlines (UAL), initially as a Flight Engineer. His career at UAL lasted for over thirty years, culminating in his retirement as a Captain in 2001. During his time with UAL Larry flew just about every aircraft in their inventory, including the Boeing 727, 737, 747, 777 and Douglas Corporation DC-10.
Larry remembers one of his greatest experiences flying jumbo jets around the world - landing on Runway 13 at old Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport (VHHH). The landing was both infamous and revered amongst pilots, and required special training on their part. After flying a base leg straight towards checkered orange and white markers atop a hill, the pilot would then have to make a precisely-timed, unusually steep turn to final approach. Once on final, the surrounding apartment buildings were so close to the airplane that one could look out a window and see families having dinner in their kitchens or hanging laundry on their terraces. “Every time we would fly by the buildings, the laundry hanging on the terraces would twist around in our wake. It was surreal!” Larry recalls with a laugh.
Captain Liguori during his career with United Airlines
He also recalls one particular incident flying the 777 that justifiably brings him a great deal of pride. Just a few months prior to retirement, Larry was scheduled to captain a 777 flight from Los Angeles to London Heathrow (ELHR). When he arrived at the UAL Flight Operations Center at KLAX, he found his two first officers gleefully reviewing the weather charts. As it turns out, the jet stream that day was producing a particularly strong westerly tailwind, and their flight path would closely parallel it. Up to that point many airline pilots had attempted to break the Los Angeles-London speed record held by British Airways (BA) of nine hours and five minutes, but none had ever succeeded. Larry seized upon the opportunity and ordered an additional 5,000 pounds (735 gallons) of fuel on the aircraft. While Operations initially questioned his order, they quickly acquiesced once he explained the reason. With the throttles open and flying a carefully calculated flight plan, Larry and his crew beat the BA record by eight minutes, with a flight time of eight hours and fifty-seven minutes. The record time, which would go unchallenged for many years, was recognized by the International Aeronautics Federation. A crowning achievement to a long and illustrious career.
Upon his retirement from UAL Larry had accumulated over 15,000 military and commercial flight hours in dozens of aircraft types. His legacy of flight continues with his son, who currently pilots Gulfstream jets around the world for corporate clients.
Larry is a greatly valued asset to Lyon Air Museum, where his vast knowledge and experience has enchanted countless guests. We are indeed fortunate to have him as part of our team, and will be forever grateful for his selfless service to his country and containing contributions to veterans causes.
Article Written by Dan Heller