Do you ever worry about getting lost while flying, either locally or on a cross country flight? Sure we do. Beginning pilots are always worried about that. I remember some of my first flights as a student, wondering where we were and how we were going to get back to the airport. Many of my new students are lost as soon as we leave the traffic pattern of the airport. That is part of learning to fly; learning how to find your way around in the sky.

On the ground, we have road maps. Aviation has Sectionals. Remember those? Of course, now we have GPS in our cell phones and can get directions to almost anywhere, and it’s the same with aviation. We have GPS in panel displays or even on iPads. Air Traffic Controllers are telling us that since GPS there are fewer lost pilots, but those that are lost are really lost.

I have always had a good sense of direction and knowing where I was. My flight instructor was fond of trying to get me lost. He would take the plane and make a series of turns, and then give the controls back to me as ask me to get him back to the airport. I did that easily. On one particular flight, going north from Pittsburgh to Erie, he asked,

“Do you know where you are?” I said “Sure, we are coming up on Butler, PA.” He followed up with, “How do you know?” I pointed to a large steel plant and said, “That’s the Armco Steel Plant, just south of Butler.” He said that I knew the landmarks, but that he would get me lost later in the flight.

getting lost sea of green trees

We flew north toward Erie. That part of Pennsylvania is totally forested. Looking down from a few thousand feet, all you can see is a sea of green trees. He took the controls and flew the plane down low. We made a low pass to a grass airfield that if you didn’t know it was there, it would be very difficult to find. After flying a valley for a few minutes, he gave the controls back to me and said to climb up to 3500 feet. I climbed and was back looking at an ocean of green. He said, “OK, get me back to Allegheny County Airport; your sectional just blew out of the window, and your radios don’t work anymore. What are you going to do?”

At that altitude everything looked the same, but we were on a northwest heading. So, I said that we flew north to get here, so I’m going to fly south. I knew that we had done several maneuvers and course changes and were not in the same position as when arriving in the area. My instructor was sure that he had me lost. After about 15 minutes he asked, “Do you know where you are?”

I looked around and saw no towns, or roads buried in the forest, “No, not yet,” was my reply. My instructor said, “So what are you going to do?” I replied, “Well, we crossed over Interstate 80 on the way up here and that was easy to see, so I’m looking for that.” Interstate 80 crosses east and west across close to the center of Pennsylvania.
He said, “I-80 goes east and west, what are you going to do when we get to it?”

getting lost

“When we get to I-80, I will follow it east.”

“Why east?”

“I-80 crosses over the Allegheny River, and when we get to the river I’ll follow it south; since it will take me to downtown Pittsburgh, I know I can find Allegheny County Airport from there.”

After that, my instructor gave up on getting me lost. Actually, I did not know exactly where I was while over the large forest of northwestern PA, but at least I had a plan for finding my way back. The Interstate highway and the river gave me all of the guidance I needed to find my way back.

I don’t try to get students lost, but I do try to teach them the things they will need to know to find their way around. One hundred years ago, pilots had to rely on ground features to find their way. Many followed the rail roads and used rivers and other features to find their path. As aviation became more popular, better navigational aids were available, but some were nothing more than a concrete pad with an arrow painted on it. As crude as they were, at least it was a beginning.

After becoming an instrument instructor, I took a student/friend on a business trip that I had headed to Buffalo, NY. It was an IFR morning, so I flew left seat on the way to Buffalo. We landed at the non towered airport south of the Buffalo Niagara International airport. After I finished with the business I had to take care of, the weather had cleared up and I suggested that he fly left seat on the way back to AGC. We took off VFR with no flight plan intending to fly direct to AGC, a heading of southwest. I was enjoying the ride and the scenery of western New York. The Piper Archer had a Loran. After about 15 minutes, I put AGC into the Loran and got the distance. After one minute, the distance was a mile further away, not closer. I realized that we were not on the course for AGC. I quickly looked at the heading indicator and compass. They didn’t agree.

getting lost piper

I asked Tom, “Wasn’t there a large lake (Lake Erie) on our left side when we flew up here this morning?” He said, “Yes, Lake Erie.” I replied, “Have you seen a lake since we took off?” “Nope.” What had happened was the directional gyro was not reset to the compass heading before we departed. So looking at the DG it would seem that we were heading southwest, but we were heading more southeast, and moving farther away from our intended goal. It was a nice afternoon and we had plenty of fuel, so the problem turned into a lesson: Where exactly are we? I asked Tom if he could figure out where we were. I helped him a little by getting the radials from two VOR’s and showing him how the lines crossed to show exactly where we were. It was easy to plot a course to AGC after that.

If we had been on an IFR flight, or even getting flight following from ATC, they would have quizzed us about our heading shortly after departure or even in route. It took us a few minutes longer to get back to AGC, but at least it was a nice day, and an error turned into a lesson on navigation and lost procedures.

Arizona is a great place to fly, and your ARIZONA PILOTS ASSOCIATION has a safety seminar somewhere in the State every month. Why not navigate to a WINGS safety seminar in your area, or fly to one somewhere else in Arizona? And, don’t forget to “Bring Your Wingman.”


Please login to add a comment.