I stared through the windshield in hopes of seeing the ground before I hit. It would be the last thing I would see, and I became mesmerized with trying to get a last look at where I would end my life. I had a TV set on the back seat, right behind me, and the thought of where it would end up crossed my mind. "No matter … it will happen so fast at this speed that I will not feel a thing!
"Why haven't I hit the ground yet? Where is it? I was only 100 feet above the ground when I lost sight of it. Let's get it over with!"
Finally, I came to my senses. "You're not dead yet. Do what you were trained to do!" It takes a while to transition from flying visually to orienting yourself on instruments. I had pulled up and into a turn before I had even looked at the instrument panel. No wonder I had no idea what my position was! I stopped staring out the windshield and settled my eyes on the instrument panel.
"Scan the instruments in a pattern, clockwise. Need to view them all to determine my position." After the first sweep of the panel, I realized that I was in a flat spiral to the right, the very maneuver the inspector put me through when I had my flight test. I knew how to get out of it. "Relax back pressure, left rudder, then ease back on the control column." My thoughts were finally organized!
I still thought that I might hit the ground; after all, this started with higher ground on either side of me. When you are in a cloud, the lights from the aircraft reflect all around you like when driving in fog with a car. As the aircraft came around to 090 degrees, I leveled off, the reflected light disappeared and outside the aircraft it became dark. In front of me was Mojave. I had turned 180 degrees since I last saw the ground and was still between the mountains. "What luck! I had made it!
I saw an airplane taking off from the airport, using Runway 20, so I made a right base for that runway. As I settled down to the runway, the rain was pouring down and the wind was blowing fiercely. I was shaking from my escapade, and I bounced the aircraft on the runway twice while laughing out loud. I should have been in a pile of smashed aluminum up in the mountains but was bouncing down the runway instead. "Careful now: You could still crash on the runway if you don't stop bouncing," I reminded myself.
As I taxied to the ramp, the attendant came out to meet me. When I got out, he asked me if I wanted to gas up. "No way! Not now," I said. I just wanted to get away from the airplane. He helped me tie it down, and we then went back to the office to get out of the rain.
After making plans to meet my brother in a cafe named Reno's in the town of Mojave, I asked the attendant how to get there. "You walk in that direction for about a mile," he told me. So I started out walking in the pouring rain, without a raincoat. The cool rain on my face felt very good. I was getting absolutely soaked but didn't care. I looked up to the sky and savored every raindrop that hit my face.
One week passed before we returned to Mojave to pick up the airplane. As we passed Tehachapi, I found out why I hadn't hit the mountains: When I lost sight of the ground I was just past the mountains, so when I lost control I was in a valley; when I regained control I was heading right for the pass between the mountains.
Another week passed before the empty feeling in my stomach subsided, along with a strange feeling that I didn't belong here. Years have passed since this happened, and I have had a lot of time to reflect on what happened and why. It taught me respect for following safety procedures designed by people with much more experience than I have. This happened because I ignored safety precautions, but I am fortunate to be alive to have learned from my mistakes.
To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go to barryrossart.com.