Getting Lost

Get Lost! Think about how many times you have heard that in your life (alright, some of us more than others). When looking at this from the perspective of a student pilot, getting lost while in the air is somewhat scary, and the fear of getting lost is one of the key issues that ends future pilots when they obsess about that fear.

UH, IT HAPPENS. Getting lost in an airplane doesn’t happen very often, but it can happen. IN FACT, IT HAPPENED TO ME, years ago when I was a student pilot, on a simple cross-country to a controlled airport. This was in the days before GPS receivers and moving map displays, and the airport I was headed to had no published nav aids on the field. You got there by pilotage — for you young whippersnappers that means, flying by ground references.

I had already taken the trip once with an instructor, but now it was my turn — time for the solo, short cross-country trip. I carefully planned out the trip in the Cessna 152 that I was to fly, using great care to call out fixes on the ground, and to calculate the time in flight and how much fuel I expected to use. I had the flight plan wired, and it passed muster with my instructor.

With the preflight completed, I launched towards the skies. I quickly took up the correct course, and applied the right wind correction. Since I was flying by pilotage, I flew by ground references. Specifically, I was looking for the huge Caterpillar plant, that was located southeast of the Aurora airport. If I was flying in the right direction, the plant should appear under my right wing as I went by. I held my course, but then noticed that I was off my heading, so I turned to get back on heading.

Things seemed to be going on smoothly, and the time was right for Caterpillar to be passing under my right wing. The time came and went. I looked around, but flying by ground reference was difficult — due to the recent snowfall, everything that I was looking for was pretty well covered. While I missed the fix, I continued to look for the airport. After my time passed for the airport without finding it, I started looking for landmarks. Hopefully I would get reoriented.

I was on a FAA flight plan, and I was overdue. I had managed to find a water tower, and started circling it to read the words. The words didn’t make any sense to me, as they were for a major subdivision — not a city. Then I heard the voice of the controller, calling in the blind for me on the tower frequency, because I was overdue.

I pretty much knew at this point I was lost, so I confessed my predicament to the controller. The controller asked me what I had on board in terms of fuel and souls, and for my best guess of where I was. I gave him the name off the water tower, but he didn’t recognize it either. From there, the controller assigned me a squawk code, and asked me to climb to 2500 feet for ATC to identify me. I followed his instructions, and ATC informed him that I was about 5 miles northeast of the airport. The controller called me, and provided me with a vector to get back to Aurora airport, where I was able to land, somewhat shaken by the experience.

Where did I go wrong? They say hindsight is 20-20, so let me count the ways…

  1. It was partially the winds aloft. Unfortunately for me, they weren’t blowing as advertised — they were stronger. This pushed me east of my original course, and knocked me off my previously rehearsed track. While I was looking for Caterpillar to pass under my right wing, the factory was passing under my left wing, some five miles distant.
  2. I wasn’t looking EVERYWHERE for the factory, I was looking under the right wing. Thus, I missed the chance to see it, and correct my mistake earlier in the flight. My focus in flight was too narrow, and I missed my expected fix because of it.
  3. The factory? It was most of my flight plan. Honestly, I think I had been pre-conditioned to this by the instructor, who correctly noted that if I could find Caterpillar, I’d be able to find the airport. If I had planned better, I would have had many more fixes, so that I could identify the drift problem earlier.
  4. Who called first? ATC did — I missed my opportunity. I should have called them when I reached my ETA plus 5 minutes, and confessed that I was lost. Instead, the tower called me, and had to provide me with help.
  5. Navaids you say? This was before I was schooled in the VOR system. For this first solo cross country, the flight was to be made by pilotage — so theoretically I shouldn’t have needed them anyway, but it would have helped if I knew how to tune and figure out which radials of what two VORs I was on.

A PERFECT FLIGHT? In some respects yes … in some no. The No respects are fairly obvious, but the positive portions of the flight are also noteworthy. The plane landed safely, and I learned a whole lot about flying cross-country. Needless to say, on the return trip, I upgraded my flight planning with a better review of the map, the fixes I expected to pass, and more importantly, the crosswind component.

BOTTOM LINE: If you get lost, help is available. It can be found from ATC, from Flight Service, from Flight Watch, and from other pilots. IF YOU THINK YOU ARE LOST, CALL FOR HELP. When you are lost, it is a simple fact that you will only be able to get the help you need by pushing the button on the mic and talking to someone with the tools to bring you home safely.