I am particularly horrified by the memories of one November experience many years ago, but most of all by the poor choices I made. My daughter and I were returning home to Albuquerque one winter evening. We refuelled the Tri-Pacer at Santa Rosa and checked the weather. Clouds were down to the tops of the mountain ranges and the only possible way home was through a pass at the south end of the Manzano Mountains. I had a case of get-home-it is that induced me to attempt that homecoming, in the dark.
As we preceded westward, the clouds lowered, forcing us to an altitude where our VOR navigation was useless and visibility soon became nil. It was pitch black with no lights to be seen on the ground below and no moon or stars visible in the sky above. It seemed that we flew on and on with no apparent progress, as if suspended in time. Soon the snow began to fall and the sky filled with a million flakes at every hypnotizing flash of the airplane’s strobe light. A tower drifted past below the right wing tip with its red lights seemingly suspended in space, flashing out a warning. I realized I did not know exactly where we were or the elevation of the terrain below us. I was quickly convinced that if we continued, we would never live to make it through the mountain pass ahead.
Coming to my senses, I belatedly but wisely made a one eighty and headed back towards Santa Rosa. I called the Flight Service Station to report my change of plans and the concern in their voices as they instantly responded told me that I had made a huge mistake and put the lives of myself and my precious daughter in grave danger. As I remember, at least one other aircraft was lost in the same area on that night. After turning, the headwind became a tailwind and in a few short minutes we had backtracked the miles that had seemingly taken hours to fly, like returning from another dimension. The glittering lights of Santa Rosa on the desolate horizon were never more welcome.
In subsequent investigation, I discovered that two of three risk factors are present in nearly every cross-country aviation accident. (1) Darkness, (2) mountains, and (3) marginal weather. Any one of these factors alone may be manageable and even enjoyable to experience, but I had foolishly exposed us to a combination of all three. I quickly made it a personal rule to never again combine even two of those elements. Some 20 years later, that rule has kept me from ever getting into such a dire situation again.