The event happened in the middle of March, when the weather consists of winter storms and unsettled conditions. Weather, the nemesis for all pilots, almost became the leading contributor to what should have been the last day of my life.
I lived in Salt Lake City at the time, and I was just about to start my vacation with a trip to Bakersfield, California, to visit my family and attend some hockey games in Los Angeles. My brother and I are avid hockey fans, and we had tickets for a game that evening between the LA Kings and the Buffalo Sabres. I had to get to that game, or so I thought, and this was the cause of the forthcoming incident.
The start of my scheduled four-hour flight in my Cessna 182 was delayed by radio problems. "Of all the things to have happen now," I thought to myself as I waited for repairs at the radio shop. Finally, the radio was repaired, and I quickly got into the air to make up lost time.
The weather was getting worse, with many areas yielding to snow showers and poor visibility. "No problem," I thought as I skimmed the tops of hills, squeezing under the dark clouds.
As I started down the mountain ridge into the Las Vegas basin, again trying to squeeze under the weather, the clouds seemed to be solid right to the ground. "Quickly, turn to the right, more space there, climb, fast." The thoughts raced through my mind as I tried to get out of there. At 150 mph, things closed in fast. "More power, must climb fast. Prop to fine pitch. Power settings above the green," I thought. "No matter, even if it is hard on the engine. The rocks below would be even worse. Pull the nose up, airspeed falling, 80 mph, good, climbing fast." The peak ahead was still higher than the aircraft, but at 80 mph it was not approaching quite as fast as before. Finally, the peak passed below and I was back into the upper valley. "Wow, that was a close call," I sighed to myself. "Well, I guess the only way left is back to Cedar City, Utah, and down to St. George. Rats, that will take at least 30 minutes. Oh, well, at least I should be able to get through," I rationalized.
The pass into St. George was clear enough to get under the clouds, and I made it into the valley. As I got closer to Las Vegas, I was lower than I would have liked to be, 100 feet above the freeway and getting lower. "The decision has been made," I decided. "I must land in North Las Vegas."
Microphone in hand, I was about to press the button and ask for landing instructions. "Wait," I thought. "Look to the northwest — sunshine, up toward Indian Springs. If I can get up there, I might make it yet."
After getting into better weather at Indian Springs, I turned southwest to Death Valley. "No radio navigation to use in this area. Use the map. Keep my finger on it so I won't get lost," I reasoned. Weaving around the mountains and thunderstorms, I made it to Trona, California. "OK, put the map up. I know this area real well. I drove a truck around here for nine years," was the comforting thought in my mind. I now turned left toward Randsburg as I flew down a narrow corridor with military restricted areas on both sides. "Right turn now and head for Bakersfield, just over the mountains ahead," I reassured myself. "But look, there are clouds right down to the mountaintops," I said to myself. Worse yet, due to all the delays and unplanned side trips, darkness was approaching, fast. I looked at the time and realized that I had been in the air for five hours.
When I got to Highway 95, it was totally dark. There was Mojave to the left. The runway lights looked inviting. I looked to the right and saw a steady stream of headlights coming from the pass. "Tehachapi is only 15 miles through the pass," I thought. "If I can get there, I might see the lights of Bakersfield. If I can't, I can land at the airport that is right beside the highway." That was my mistaken idea.
As I started through the canyon, I saw that the road below was well lit with headlights. I thought, "Easy to follow. Must stay low. Too dark to see the clouds above." The sobering thoughts in my head said, "Turn tighter. Stay right over the highway. Mountains on both sides that are higher than I am. Don't drift toward them."
Then it happened: The line of headlights below disappeared instantly. I flew into a cloud, totally losing sight of the ground. I thought, "Quick, pull up. The mountains on both sides are higher than I am. Turn right to get back in sight of the ground. Watch it, the airspeed is falling fast. The nose is too high. Don't stall! Damn, where is the horizon?" The airspeed was now building fast, too fast! The sound of the wind around the doors was roaring loud. I guessed the airspeed was near 200 mph — right toward the ground! "The ground? Where is the ground?" I pulled the nose up and had no effect on the airspeed. I pulled back more on the control column and still nothing! I wondered if I was upside down since I had no idea what my attitude was; I had not scanned the instrument panel. "Now look at what you have done. You've gone and killed yourself!" An empty, sick, hollow feeling grabbed at me in the pit of my stomach. "It isn't time to go; I have more to do in life. Not yet!" I would have liked to have said goodbyes and told everyone it's OK, but I couldn't.