Lost and unhappy

It can happen more easily than you might think

By Alton K. Marsh

Months of drilling students on instrument approaches had taken its toll. As a line from the rock song "All I Wanna Do" says, all the flight instructor wanted to do was "have some fun." It was time for an afternoon of itinerant VFR exploration of new towns, restaurants, and FBOs. The only thing the instructor did correctly was to top off his Cessna 172 prior to takeoff.

After that, the mission went downhill. In search of simpler times and old-fashioned flying, he turned off the nav radio, stowed the map, opened a soft-drink can, and sat back to enjoy the view. After 15 years of flying the area, it was as familiar as his home airport traffic pattern, right? It promised to be an easy flight; just drift south along the bank of a river. No hassling with estimation, orientation, navigation, computation -- all those boring things. What's to worry about? Well, OK, an Air Force base on the route has a flock of C-5s up today; a few minutes of talking to the Air Force approach control will solve the flight's only airspace complication.

But beyond lay a patch of ground fog 15 miles wide and only 100 feet high. It was clear above at the aircraft's scenic touring altitude of 2,500 feet. It wasn't smart, of course, to cross 15 miles of ground fog; any landing would be IMC during the final 100 feet. He traced a scalloped ground track around the edge of the fog, assuming it followed the river, but the compass indicated otherwise. First it showed a more easterly course than expected, and finally a northerly course. Strange. That raised an alarm, but not enough of one for our intrepid traveler. The NDB near the destination airport got fainter instead of stronger. Then the VOR several miles west couldn't be received. Finally, by dumb luck, the joyriding instructor ran across an airport -- not the right one, of course.

Turns out the fog extended not along the shoreline, but across the river and through the woods, so to speak, back north. He circled the unknown airport until identifying it on the sectional. At that point the instructor finally gave up on old-time aviation, deciding to plan the flight and fly the plan.

Tuning in the VOR nearest Cape May, New Jersey, he determined a course to an airport to the west. Of course, without a writing surface to use, he ripped the map with the ballpoint a few times, but he finally drew the course line. Overconfidence (What? Me worry? I'm an instructor!) led to disorientation, which led to getting lost, despite his ratings.

Student pilots do better; their flights are usually better planned than those of certificated pilots, and the plans are checked by an instructor. But students are still not immune to getting lost. At least one student on a cross-country flight in Maryland was run off course by a controller. His instructor had drilled the student on lost procedures, such as circling a prominent feature until locating it on the sectional, calling a nearby radar ATC facility (the student had written the frequency on the chart prior to takeoff), and taking "From" readings off two nearby VORs to cross-reference his position. (The reason the instructor has his students circle a prominent landmark can be found in the FAA's Flight Training Handbook. The handbook warns that a natural reaction when lost is to fly to where it is assumed the missing checkpoint is located. On arriving and not finding it, the pilot assumes a second position and flies farther off course.)

The instructor had also mentioned calling flight service for a Direction Finder (DF) steer. Students learning to fly 20 years ago knew that all flight service stations had DF steer (heading) capability. But request a DF steer today and you may hear one of these two replies: "Sorry, that equipment was not transferred when we consolidated flight service stations," or "Sorry, you didn't get lost in the correct sector for our equipment to work properly." There are still 88 in service around the nation. And the FAA has more than 100 new DF steering computers in its warehouse, awaiting installation, but only in areas not covered by radar. The FAA, in other words, expects lost pilots to call the nearest radar facility.

That doesn't mean you should avoid calling the FSS when lost. The FSS can tell you the frequency of the nearest radar controller and can advise as to whether a DF steer is available.

Unlike pilots in many parts of the West, our student in the Baltimore area had the luxury of radar coverage. The plan for the final leg called for contacting a nearby approach control in order to avoid restricted areas, a sound plan.

Once past restricted areas, the student planned to use a VFR corridor under Class B airspace along the route. The controller, instead, directed the student north of course to wait until cleared into the Class B airspace. The student accepted the new plan, perhaps because he thought he would get vectors the rest of the way home. But the controller changed his mind, telling the student to navigate the VFR corridor after all. The student simply turned to the heading on his flight log, a heading which now paralleled his planned course, and nicked the edge of the Class B airspace in the process. ATC had no trouble identifying the violator; he used the transponder code previously assigned. He later told his flight instructor that he found his checkpoints, but not under his flight path. Had the student corrected his position immediately upon sighting the first checkpoint, he would have stayed in the corridor.

The student has been told to expect a letter from the FAA, but fortunately he had not received one weeks after the flight. That particular VFR corridor, by the way, is difficult to navigate, even for experienced pilots. What could the student have done? He might have asked for vectors to the center of the VFR corridor.

Whether the pilot is experienced or inexperienced, disorientation is an easy disease to catch. Preparation is the best cure; in today's environment that means knowing the frequency of the nearest approach or center ATC facility.