So last week you had a bit too much fun while supposedly hurrying down from wave and got yourself caught on top. Up here the sun is only now setting, but below it’s already dusk. You face a blind cloud descent, and in a glider there’s only one ‘safe’ way to accomplish that: BENIGN SPIRAL. Full spoilers, stick and rudder dead neutral while you WAIT for… something good to happen.
This is not like standing on a rock screwing up your courage to leap thirty feet down into ice water. You lack the luxury of wimping out. Time’s up. You need to act NOW!
As the mists rise around, you remember hearing of a stone-age method to at least delay loss of orientation when entering cloud. While you can still see, freeze your head like a statue, allowing the fluid in your inner ears to settle. Lock your vision on whatever outside reference you can see until it disappears, and then do not move your head again, until… much much later.
“Nothing to lose,” crows the cheery angel on your shoulder. Ironic, huh?
Suddenly it’s DARK, and then quickly DARKER. Surprisingly easy to hold your head still (as on a guillotine, perhaps), because there’s nothing to distract you except what’s rumbling inside it. Being sightless however, makes even a sluggish mind run supersuperfast…
You stiffen your neck and, like that portrait on the wall of a mahogany paneled parlor in whodunit spoofs, compulsively roll your eyes to the instruments, dreading what they might say. Speed, the important one, is up but holding steady. Whew.
Altitude? Fact is you forgot to check before sinking into the cloud. Dumbass. It’s comforting to know that even the highest peaks were well below cloudbase – when you saw them last. But what if the cloud has lowered as it thickened? That does happen. Meanwhile, at the moment, even with full spoilers your descent has all but stopped, which implies you’ve drifted into the rising part of the wave. Danged lift! Think of all the times you’ve gritted your teeth and prayed for a mere hint of energy like this! Tonight though, if you emerge below unscathed but have drifted too far, there’s nothing downwind of the local ridge but rolling forest with no landing possibilities you know of. The thing to do now is keep those spoilers full out and continue waiting absolutely as fast as you can.
How long will this last? Vertical distance from that lowest point in the cloud’s surface straight down to its base should be only a few hundred feet, maybe a thousand. Right? That’s if any of your other assumptions are correct. Who knows, maybe this is exactly why you chose to never have kids and get married.
You realize you’ve been forgetting to breathe. One deep inhalation causes slight movement of the head and makes you woozy. So now it’s vertigo and airsickness.
Another hour rushes by. You breathe again but it hardly helps. The air in here is the color of wet concrete. Heavy sweat while shivering from cold becomes quaking in fright and blindness makes every little jounce feel like a speed bump. Some neuropathic bias screams you’re banking too steep. Before reacting you glance again at the panel. Still normal, except the compass has become a roulette wheel. Makes you feel like a kickball at recess, so don’t look. Surely some of these rushing perceptions are subjective, but which? G force seems to be increasing. Yes and there’s nothing to do about that either, so be patient. It’s the only thing you can do, so do it!
And now (not your imagination) the speed bumps intensify and Gs begin slowly to fluctuate… A scene comes to mind from CATCH 22, where the youthful Snowdon had lamented being cold as he bled out onto the B-25’s flight deck. One crewman mourns, “He was so young!” And another answers, “He’s dead. You can’t get any older than that.”
You wretch once but nothing comes up. Out loud and with conviction you declare the obvious to everyone within earshot, “Okay, I’m scared.” It feels right to admit it, even if only to yourself, though not as therapeutic as one might wish. As in response to your confession the engulfing gloom becomes greenish. A dash of SOMEthing* rips past, causing you to tense, but your eyes were focused elsewhere. Getting really loud in here. Is the gray greening because you’re THIS close to trees?
You hear someone whimpering – or is it a giggle? It’s that ornery devil on your other shoulder, always harder to ignore than the angel. Another eon of purgatory elapses, rougher now, as the two phantoms glower at each other through your earholes. You recall being a tike on a trike, careening down a hill waaay too fast and OUT OF CONTROL. Those angry pedals bloodied your shins so you pulled your feet up and prepared to crash. Even a three-year old knows that.
Suddenly despite it’s being an only certainty, the last thing you thought could happen does. Dark and threatening – and beside you – the earth APPEARS. You flinch as from a blow to the face, reflexively yank the stick in no particular direction, interrupting whatever semi-inverted aerobatic fail you were in, and ZOOM odd angled back up into the cloud.
You’d only a moment to see, but enough to confirm that hard ground was still well below. Freed of that worry, excess airspeed is now the main concern.
Soon you emerge from the ceiling cockeyed as before, but with spoilers continually choking energy, this time you’re down to stay. You level out and slow up, shocked how dark it is. Every next second will be darker. No surface features look familiar… Eyes grasp everywhere, frantic for recognizable detail. Then a peculiar sensation of the cosmos clicking into place, like tripping the lock in a dungeon door (beneath the parlor of rolling eyes?). Turns out you’re not far from where you hoped to be, over the same farms and roads you see every day, but your brain had gotten turned around by more than a hundred degrees! And surprise surprise, there a few miles away is the airport, right where you left it.
All that night (and to this day, honestly) antithetical thoughts swirl and twine like colored strands of smoke between your earholes: ‘I’ll never do that again,’ and ‘Can’t wait to do that again.’ Ultimately sleep finds you wondering which of these voices is the good one.
If you live long enough you’ll learn they’re both good and both bad, because both are named Janus.
* The ‘dash of SOMEthing’ that ripped past was not an object inside the cloud, it was a glimpse of our very biggest object, mother earth peeking through some roiled crevise in the cloud’s bottom.