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The Day I Was Lost In the Air

by Aabid Niazi

in Aviation Blog, Aviation Stories

I was a student pilot then and was going through my initial flying training. We were based at an airport that was quite busy, and therefore getting the runway and circuit for training flying was quite a task. We were a batch of six student pilots who had started the training together. The non-availability of the runway for training was such that we all were lagging behind the schedule fixed for our flying completion. Then came the rainy season, and whatever few time slots were earlier available for our flying became rarer and rarer, since the airliners would also utilize the patches of good weather available in between the adverse weather to take off and land at that airport.

It became quite evident that at that pace there was no way we could complete our flying in time. Our CFI (Chief Flying Instructor) was a seasoned pilot with many thousands of instructional hours to his credit, he in consultation with the other two instructors assigned to our batch decided to temporarily relocate to an airfield that was about 200 nautical miles due North of our present location. This airfield was not a commercial airport and had virtually no traffic at all, and was always available to us for flying, barring bad weather days. That new airfield was located in a remote area with no other airport nearby, and hence no radar coverage anywhere near it. We were happy to move there and get on with our flying at a much better pace. Since it was a new location, we did not know the area and ground features that well. We all flew a mission or two to familiarize ourselves with the area and pick up prominent ground features to help us with navigating around the field. About a week or so into relocation, I had flown ten or twelve sorties at the new place.

GPS (Global Positioning System), VOR, and ILS etc were either nonexistent or a rarity in those days. The best radio navigation aid on the new field was an old-fashioned NDB; you could tune in the frequency and after identifying the Morse code that it continuously transmitted, home on to the field. I was scheduled to fly an area solo mission at a designated training area north of the airfield. The weather was cloudy, but otherwise fit for flying, so I was allowed to go solo to the training area. I was excited to go solo to that training area, since we had been to a friend’s farm, which was located close to that area and I planned to fly over his farmhouse. Therefore, I called my friend and told him that I would be flying over his farmhouse. I was young and thrilled that I would impress my friend by flying over his farm.

I took off and went to the training area, the clouds seemed to be thickening, but I did not care. After flying for ten to fifteen minutes in the training area and doing some assigned exercises, I decided it was time to pay visit to my friend’s farmhouse. I set course for his farmhouse on an approximate heading since I had not marked the position of the farm on map, and had not done any time, fuel, or distance calculations. The cloud cover had increased by then and the ground was only visible in patches. After leaving the training area my idea was that I would reach his farm in five to seven minutes, I flew for ten to fifteen minutes or so but was unable to pick up his farmhouse. The ground was hardly visible by then because of the clouds, I saw no point in wasting more time to pick visual with the farmhouse and decided to head back to the airfield.

I gave call to the ATC requesting joining back but there was no reply, I was not alarmed since in that hilly terrain sometimes the radio did not receive any signals and it was quite normal not to have a radio contact from that distance. The terrain was mountainous and at times, you had to either climb up or get closer to the field in order to make a radio contact. I kept flying in the direction of the field, meanwhile trying to tune in the NDB, since the clouds were thicker now and I could not pick any visual reference on the ground. I could not tune into the NDB, despite rechecking several times that I had the correct frequency fed into the system.

I kept giving calls but still could not make contact with the tower, the ground was hardly visible and that too intermittently through the clouds. I flew for more than half an hour but still there was no contact with the tower and neither could I tune into the NDB. As per my calculations, I should have reached near the airfield and picked visual with the city area around the airport, but I could see through the few opportunities that the clouds allowed me to pick visual with the ground that I was flying over wilderness. We had been briefed about the local lost procedure and were not supposed to cross a river further north of that training area, but since my friend’s farmhouse was across the river, I had crossed that river. On my way back I had not picked visual with the river, but ignored this fact since because of the clouds most of the ground was anyway not visible.

I started to get worried, there was no R/T contact, and the NDB also seemed off the air. The only instrument I had was the DI, so I kept following the DI. I was supposed to land back within an hour of my takeoff and was already well past that time. I had enough fuel to fly for another two hours or so, but with nowhere to land; I was getting worried. Another ten minutes or so passed and still no radio contact with the ground, and no visual contact with the city and other ground features. The NDB also seemed dead, and I concluded that I was lost.

Therefore, I decided to give calls on guard frequency. My mayday calls also went unanswered initially, and then suddenly a radar controller replied. He gave me a few turns and concluded that he had me on his radarscope and told me that I was 50 NM to the northwest of my intended destination. I was very surprised since I had religiously followed the DI, but still managed to astray so far away. He asked me if I was comfortable to head back to my original destination. I still had enough fuel so I decided to head back and asked for directions back to the field. He told me to turn 130 degrees and follow the heading and that it would take me straight back to the field. When I turned 130 and started going in that direction, the controller again called me and asked that, why was I maintaining 180 degrees whereas he had given me a heading of 130 degrees? On my DI I was maintaining 130, but when I looked at the magnetic compass my heading was in fact 180 and that was the moment when I realized that my DI was out by at least 50 degrees. That was perhaps the reason that I had strayed so far away from the destination, and without any proper visual contact with the ground was unable to appreciate that the instrument was not working properly. I applied the correction on my DI and started flying at the correct heading, I asked the radar controller if now I was heading in the correct direction and he replied in affirmative.

To my good luck, the clouds were lessening and I could see the ground more and more. I reached my destination and landed back safely. Everyone was worried about me since I was overdue for an hour or so. My flight instructor was furious at me and made me write the checklist one hundred times.

I had made several mistakes that day

  • First, I forgot to synchronize my DI with the magnetic compass at the start up.
  • I broke the SOPs by going outside the designated training area and that too in an unfamiliar terrain.
  • The NDB was unavailable that day due to maintenance, but despite being informed about it in the morning, totally forgot that fact.
  • I never crosschecked the DI with the magnetic compass in the air, and blindly believed that the DI was correct.

I was very lucky that I landed back safely and no untoward incident took place, but I learned many important lessons that day, like:

  • Always do your checks properly.
  • Never break the SOPs.
  • Plan your navigation well and that too on a map with proper calculations of time, distance, heading, and fuel.
  • Always crosscheck your instruments with other relevant instruments.
  • Before taking off for flying make sure that, you know about all radio and navigation aids available or unavailable.
  • Last but not the least, flying is about staying safe and not about impressing anyone.

Post submitted by Aabid Niazi, a professional writer and pilot.  You can view more of Aabid’s work at EzineArticles.com.

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