September 2007Departments

Learning Experiences

A real emergency

Simulations aren't the same

While on my long-distance solo cross-country, I was deviated by air traffic control (ATC) to a different route than I had intended. I was to fly a Cessna 152 from Hollywood, Florida, out west to the "training area" and head north to Pahokee, Florida--a simple, easy flight.

Yet it was neither simple nor easy as air traffic control routed me, on my return flight, over Florida's east coast instead of my planned western track. I didn't know I could refuse the direction offered--no one told me. I figured, "The air traffic controllers must know what they are doing."

After being deviated down the coast, nothing on my charts matched up. I was lost. At this point I was just starting to panic, but I noticed a string of airports beneath me. I knew the South Florida coast has a whole slew of airports, and "after all, it's only 50 miles, how bad can it be?" Little did I guess that I was about to find out.

As I was frantically searching for a way to locate my position (Had I tried asking ATC? No), I noticed the low voltage light was on. Wait a second, I remember something about that--it means the plane is losing voltage and the systems are running on the battery instead of the alternator. I think, No problem, I'm only 50 miles away, the battery should last at least that long, right? If only I could remember about the battery life on discharge.

Air Traffic Control Light Signals

A student on a solo cross-country flight with a low voltage light and I'm lost. Can anything get worse? In that second, radio silence--dead, empty air that just a second before was a busy frequency. I look at my communications stack, and it is completely black! I frantically try all the buttons, the switches, the knobs... nothing; deader than a doornail. Oh no, I think, I just lost all my radios, my avionics, my VOR, and my one source of help, ATC. That red low voltage light is still solidly on. This time, at least I have the presence of mind to notice that my alternator is discharging...and I know it's supposed to be in the positive. I feverishly search my checklists on my kneeboard, and there is absolutely nothing I can find to help. Now what? I think, I have to get down, and I have to get down now.

I looked down at that "string of airports" just beneath me as I flew over the South Florida coastline, but I could not call anyone. How do I enter a traffic pattern when I have no radios? I practiced at a Class D airport with a tower. If I pick an airport with a tower like mine, I will mess everything up!

What about those light gun signals? What were they, how do they work? I remembered they were "in the book." OK, fellow students: Can you remember all the signals, in a real emergency? I could not, but at least I remembered that green is good!

I flew to the nearest airport and circled way above the pattern altitude at 2,000 feet; I rocked my wings and kept circling. Eventually, after the third lap or so, I saw a bright solid green light coming at me from the tower! I entered the pattern of airplanes I saw circling beneath me. I quickly landed and as I did, I noticed the tower had a green light pointed at me. I taxied off as quickly as possible and pulled up in front of a fire station that was directly adjacent to the runway. No radios, and I didn't even know what airport I landed at, but I did have my trusty cell phone; I pulled out my Airport/Facility Directory and called the airport at which I thought I might have landed.

My conversation was more comedic than catastrophic: "Hi, tower, I just landed, can you tell me where I am?" After explaining I was in front of the fire station, they advised I might be at an airport a few miles from them, and gave me the number. After calling this new tower on my cell, and explaining the situation, they asked, "Could I follow the light gun signals to the FBO?"

I responded, "Right now, I'm lucky to speak English, and I'm American!" After a brief chuckle by ATC, they gave me instructions through my cell phone to the local FBO.

When the tech examined my airplane, he immediately noticed that I had inadvertently switched off one side of the master switch, and did not catch it during the flight. He cycled it on, and sure enough, the airplane was good as new.

Of course, I was in no such shape! After waiting an hour or so to calm down, and calling my flight school, I decided to chance flying home. This time, however, I knew exactly where I was--and I really examined the light gun signals.

I took off and landed uneventfully at my home airport. Now I needed to learn what happened on this flight so I that would never again have this type of situation. I now use this list for emergencies:

Systems: I needed to learn more about the airplane's systems and use the checklist. If I had used the emergency checklist I would have seen: airspeed, fuel, fuses, mixture, carb heat, master switch, ignition primer; I could have caught it then.

Light guns: If you ask ATC, they will give you a "light gun" demonstration. Just ask! Why didn't any of my instructors ever tell me that ATC would be happy to show me what each one actually looks like in real life? Just ask a tower controller to see a light gun demo!

GPS: Now, in case of a real emergency, I carry an inexpensive aviation GPS. Emergencies can and do happen, and personally I never intend to get lost while flying again. For the $200 I paid for the aviation GPS, it is well worth its price and it runs right on my PDA cell phone. Standalone basic GPSs are available for a little more.

Simulator time: I practice flights on a simulator, where I can figure it out at my own pace, instead of in the air. Microsoft Flight Simulator X Deluxe Edition lets me practice each flight with a precision very similar to my actual flying; it also has the same airspace and ground references, ATC controllers (yes, a game with controllers!), and airplane configurations.

Now, I try to fly much more often. For me, getting lost was excessively traumatic, and flying is just too much fun for trauma.

"Learning Experiences" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for students and pilots to learn from the experiences of others. It is intended to provoke thought and discussion, acknowledging that actions taken by the authors were not necessarily the best choices under the circumstances. We encourage you to discuss any questions you have about a particular scenario with your flight instructor.