I have a friend who uses a GPS unit everywhere he flies. One day his GPS told him that the distance from Memphis to Nashville was 1,928 nautical miles on a heading of 280 degrees. He double-checked that he had put in the proper identifiers. He had put in the correct letters, there was just something going wrong with his system. Fortunately he had not become so dependent on his GPS that he could not see the obvious error. But pilots still do get lost, sometimes with or even because of new technology.
Defense: Make a good plan and stick to it. The ‘old fashion’ skills of chart reading and course calculation still cannot be beat. But eventually, even the best-laid plans do not work out. So, when you do get lost, remember the three C’s…
Gaining altitude should be your first move for two reasons. First, if you do not know where you are, you do not know where higher terrain might be. Second, the higher you climb the better radio reception you will have.
You will not get into trouble for confessing that you are lost. FSS and ATC personnel will be glad to help. In fact, controllers can win a cash prize from the FAA for helping pilots and preventing accidents … so, they may be extra helpful. Admitting you’re lost is hard — but it’s much harder when you’ve run out of daylight and fuel. For every second that you wait to get help, the problem gets worse. Don’t wait!
After initial radio contact is made, the controller will ask you to squawk a transponder code. Translation: Soon you will be radar identified and your position confirmed. When this happens you are officially ‘un-lost.’ Continue communications by getting a vector heading back on your course, direct to your destination airport, or an intermediate airport.
BEST: Before your next cross country flight look in the Airport/Facility Directory and write down the Air Route Traffic Control Center’s frequencies that cover your route of flight. This way you will already have the frequencies handy for someone who can help or give flight-following services. If you do not have the ARTCC frequencies, just call Flight Watch on 122.0. The Flight Watch briefer is also at the Center and can quickly give you the frequency you need.
The Bottom Line
Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. There is no punishment for seeking help. The quickest way to become un-lost is to Climb, Confess, and Communicate.
Another interesting fact: The FAA has a plan to pay pilots a cash prize when they offer exceptional assistance to other pilots in need.