In 1962 I was seven. I stood on the ramp at NAS Moffett Field watching the Blue Angels. I was mesmerized. I knew I needed to do what they were doing. In 1971 I was in high school and discovered JLS. His message to me was to have the courage to follow your heart and I held that thought close. In 1983 I was earning enough to take flying lessons. By 1986 I was earning a living flying (barely.) I towed banners, gliders, gave rides and flew skydivers. By 1991 I started flying freight but I still had not accomplished my primary goal. Doing aerobatics.
About 1993 I was preflighting my Cessna 208 freighter when I met Richard Bach. He was picking up his C-337 from the avionics shop in Santa Maria, Ca. I told him that I had read JLS and some of his other work and it had inspired me to follow my dream of aerobatics, but akro was the one thing I really hadn't had the opportunity to do. He encouraged me to just "do it," but it wasn't until 2005 that I could afford a Pitts Special.
I had been flying the GIV for a couple of years and could finally afford a beautiful Pitts S1T. It was a factory built airplane that Judy Phile had flown on the US Aerobatic team in 1986. The Pitts was in the autumn of being a world class aerobatic mount and the monoplanes were literally bursting on to the scene. Leo Loudenslager and Patti Wagstaff were amazing everyone. But the little Pitts was still carrying the flag. I was very proud to have inherited a little piece of aviation history.
I taught myself basic aerobatics and managed to scare myself a little bit along the way. I was having a blast with my little plane. I couldn't wait to fly it every chance I got and spent many hours just polishing it. I joined the International Aerobatic Club and flew in sportsman level contests. I met a lot of wonderful people who I could tell came at flying from the same perspective as me. It wasn't about going in a straight line. It was about loops, rolls, straight up and straight down with snaps in the middle. I was JLS.
One day when I practiced my sequence and had a few minutes of extra gas left I decided to try a lomcevak. I hadn't done any yet but I had done the component maneuvers. Knife edge to outside snap, hold the snap input and keep the power in. Wait for the inverted flat spin. Chop the power. When the nose drops recover from a basic inverted spin. Piece of cake.
Everything went as planned except that when I tried to recover from the inverted spin the airplane would not recover. Everything I did seemed to aggravate the spin (make it spin faster). It didn't occur to me that I wouldn't recover and I wasn't scared. I was simply perplexed that no matter what I tried the airplane would not recover. I finally just let go of the controls knowing that the airplane would probably recover on its own with no input from me.
Unlike more modern aerobatic aircraft like the Extra 300 which will pop right out of a spin and practically have to be held in by force, the Pitts can take quite a few turns to come out of a spin by itself. My little Pitts was really warped up in this spin and was taking quite a while to come out. When I used to fly skydivers, they talked about ground rush. It's a phenomenon that occurs when you are hurtling toward the ground and your depth perception kicks in. Above about 2000' feet your brain cannot compute how high you are. As you fall through about 1500 to 2000 feet your depth perception starts to work and the ground literally rushes up to meet you. Ground Rush. It's the last thing a parachutist sees if his/her parachute does not open.
As I watched the world spinning around the nose of my Pitts I experienced ground rush. I knew in that moment that my life was seconds from ending. There was a primal urge in my gut to survive and without a second thought I jettisoned the canopy, undid my harness, stood up in the cockpit, leaned down over the top wing and pulled my D-ring.
I was thinking "I hope this thing works" when I exploded out of the cockpit. It was like the hand of God snatching me roughly from the clutches of eternity. My head snapped down as the parachute opened and I saw my Pitts for a nanosecond as she flashed out of sight. I looked up to check my parachute lines and they were clear and straight. I immediately heard what sounded like an old metal trash can that was thrown from the roof of a house. It was my Pitts hitting the ground.
I looked straight down and saw the Santa Clara riverbed rush up to meet me. I had been under the canopy for less than 10 seconds. When I spoke to the manufacturer of the parachute (Paraphernalia) he told me that a person my size descends at about 14 feet per second under the canopy I had. 10 seconds would have been an opening at about 140'. I estimated my descent to be something less than 10 seconds. Closer to seven or eight.
I hiked out of the riverbed on a severely sprained ankle. It was about a mile hike to a road and I'll never forget how intensely gratifying it felt to be alive. It was very quiet and I could hear songbirds chirping. I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I cried for along time.
The date was July 11, 2005. Curtis Pitts, my airplane's designer had died the day before. I'll never stop thinking he was watching over me that day, the first day of the rest of my life. That's my JSL story.