Student Solo X-Country…Lost!

Aviation emergencies seem to start on the ground, hours before the flight. I suppose this sounds a bit snobbish like I’m implying that knowing that the common problem begins before the flight somehow empowers me to make uniquely better pre-flight decisions than my peers. And maybe, for a split second after I realized this the first time, I thought that way. But mostly, I took it to mean that pre-flight planning was the critical foundation of safety in aviation; it was where the bulk of the prevention could happen. It seemed to me that a flight which started with a simple mistake on the ground would develop complexity in the air, where there is less time and fewer resources to dedicate to fixing the original error, let alone the interdependencies that may have appeared. And, that’s precisely what happened to me on my cross-country solo. As a low-time student pilot, I can say I probably made mistakes in my pre-flight planning that any pilot might make, even pilots with more experience and better wisdom garnered from years of flying. But whereas the error would have been at most a detour for them, it was an emergency for me. Fortunately, for me, I also made some critical right decisions that would help me along the way and ultimately get me to safety.  

This was, in a word, bad. What should have been a joyride through the foothills had just turned into a challenging flight through the Bitterroots

Let’s start with deliberate decisions I made that helped me; I had planned my cross country to go to airports I had flown to already, at least once. I was no expert, but I knew some of their quirks and felt confident that I could successfully land the airplane at them in more marginal weather. I had very carefully checked the weather and was flying well below my personal limits for wind, visibility, and turbulence. I had just flown the first leg two days before – it was fresh in my mind, and the last leg was familiar to me because I drove it every day I went flying – it was the air-route from my house to the flight school hangar. I also made a few inadvertently right decisions. I had worn a pair of cargo pants, and I slipped my phone into a pocket. I had thought to put it in the baggage compartment so it couldn’t distract me if it rang, but I decided that I wanted to be able to text my progress to my instructor without getting out of the front seat, so into a pocket it went. I had a wool hat, and I’d worn long sleeves, though the weather was just on the edge of being too warm for it. Though it seemed a little annoying at the time, one final thing that ended up helping me was my CFI suggested a slightly different track for the middle leg of my trip – he wanted me to use a small lake as a waypoint instead of a particular mountain peak. But I made student mistakes; I had purchased a cheaper tablet to be my FltPlan.com electronic flight bag. I had meant to set it up just like the school tablet, but it was only compatible with a slightly older version of the FltPlan.com software, so it wasn’t quite the same. This meant that when my CFI and I sat down to configure the software, we both missed a critical element – turning on the ship icon on the map. We both thought it wasn’t showing because we’d set up the tablet in a big metal building, and it would pop on outside, as it did on the school tablet. I was relying on the GPS feature to keep me honest on the leg of the trip I hadn’t flown before, though I did have some waypoints. Because we had just adjusted the route, I didn’t do my own time calculation, I just accepted a rough suggestion of how far the lake was from my first port-of-call. I didn’t do my usual Google Satellite View cruise of the new flight path. Had I, I’d have known that the creek I was following to the lake was an inadequate navigational aid. As I took off on my first leg, the weather was almost too clear, too crisp. I didn’t turn on my tablet, because I wanted to save the battery. If I had, I’d have known that the plane icon wasn’t showing. I landed at my first airport, took off, and tracked northeast. I forgot to check my watch for the time until I found my river, and began to follow it. It was beautiful country. I turned on the tablet, looked at the map, and compared it to the ground. I felt good. But then as I carried along, I missed the little creek and continued to follow the larger river that would take me east, and more importantly, into increasingly high terrain. Had I noticed then that I didn’t have the plane icon, I could have turned around, but I didn’t.  

I tried to figure out how to turn around and head southwest, back to the lowlands where I might not make it back to my planned location, but I’d have better chances of merely putting the plane down safely.  

Up in the mountains, looking sideways at snow-capped peaks, and down into spring-green valleys, it was easy to get distracted and enjoy the view, perhaps too much. At about five minutes overdue, I realized that my lake waypoint was nowhere in sight, but I could see something up ahead. I traveled there, only to realize it was a soggy field, filled with recent melt. Not a lake. I decided to give the river valley five more minutes. But I was getting a little nervous. The route I had planned was not challenging, and this was becoming so. It was getting colder and narrower. Altitude is your friend, and I went up a level, but I was aware that climbing and staying at the higher altitudes could guzzle gas and freeze me out. When I got to my next flight level, I didn’t like the looks of things up there. I was glad though, I hadn’t used a peak as a waypoint, there were hundreds of them. Though it would be an expensive failure, I thought that now was the time to solve the problem in the most basic way – pull a 180 and high tail it out of the mountains back down to whence I’d come. I didn’t set up for the 180 correctly… students make mistakes… and when I came out of it, to my dismay, I wasn’t quite sure which of the two rivers below me I’d been following. This was, in a word, bad. What should have been a joyride through the foothills had just turned into a challenging flight through the Bitterroots – an unforgiving portion of the Rockies for the unprepared traveler. I declared an emergency on the radio, but skies were silent in response. Mentally, I began to unravel at the edges. A myriad of thoughts tumbled through my head. In the period of perhaps only a minute or two, I had come to conclusions about my life that would have taken months in any other circumstances. And none of them would amount to much at all if I didn’t figure out what to do and ended up running out of gas up there. I didn’t have to stay calm, per se, but I did have to fly the plane. And to fly the plane, I had to decide where to point it. Regardless of how far east I was, I knew the highway, the big one, was on the other side of the mountain ridges to the north. If I could just punch through a saddle, I could track the road far more easily than the river. I pointed the plane at the first feasible saddle and began to ask for another big climb. The plane gave it a go, but I realized I wasn’t gaining the necessary altitude, and pulled the plane into a climbing spiral. It just hung in the air. I’d found today’s service ceiling, and it was, unfortunately, lower than the conveniently located saddle. I turned away from what I knew and descended down and away from the peaks to where I had better performance. I began to report that I was lost on several different frequencies, not just the main frequency for the area. I turned on the wing tank and waited for the gas to come back up to three-quarters tank. All the time hoping for the radio to pick up another pilot. Nothing came back. The skies remained lonely. I brought the plane around in another sweeping turn, looking for the backside of a mountain I would know – I ski. I saw what looked like runs cut into a mountain. But I didn’t know if it was any mountain I’d skied. I wasn’t sure it wasn’t old logging wounds. Not a good waypoint. I continued to bark into the radio as I tried to figure out how to turn around and head southwest, back to the lowlands where I might not make it back to my planned location, but I’d have better chances of merely putting the plane down safely. Mountain waves pushed me back, and my speed grew concerning low. Still nothing on the radio. I looked back at the mountain. I wished I could say I recognized the pattern of runs, but I didn’t want to lie to myself and go towards it, just for it to turn into mirage in a desert of dusky, hazy peaks.

  The situation was still not great, I was concerned. I was in the mountains I had been so intent on avoiding.

But supposing it was the mountain I thought it was? What did that garner me? A cell phone tower. And my phone was in my pocket. Maybe I could get a message to my instructor. Not sure what could be done with a message, but it was a tool. I pulled out my phone. I had one bar. Better yet, I had internet up here. I sent a message to my instructor that I was in trouble. I didn’t know what this would gain me, but it wouldn’t cost me anything. I wasn’t sure what to do with my internet connection yet, so I continued to transmit on the radio. I heard a crackle in response, but I couldn’t make it out. I thought maybe it was a coincidence, so I asked them to repeat. The same pattern of crackles came back to me. I reached out, hoping it would turn into words of wisdom. It didn’t. Though I didn’t want it, I had time to think. A guy on the internet had mentioned using Google Maps when his Garmin had failed. I knew there was a road within ten miles of me, maybe Google could give me a relative position to work with. I held up my phone, Google Maps open, and then brought it down. I was southeast, far southeast of where I thought I was. I did a quick calculation in my head and realized I didn’t know how much fuel the climbs around the mountain ridge had cost me, and there was a good chance that I didn’t have bingo to get back to my first airport like I was planning. I needed an alternative, and I needed it then. If Google was right, I was about twenty miles from my backyard, though, and that part of the mountains, I knew, at least a little. There was a saddle that would drop me within easy distance of the airport. I just had to find it. I was able to communicate with my instructor, but I continued calling on the radio, and something excellent happened. One of the other students heard me and called out. He was flying our big twin, and it turned out it had an excellent radio. I was able to provide him a relative position. And I was also able to confirm my position based on what I knew about the range on my own radio. Google was likely right. I could have faith in the information it was providing. The situation was still not great, I was concerned. I was in the mountains I had been so intent on avoiding, I was absolutely chilled, and I wasn’t sure of my plan to get to the airport. Ridges are dangerous, and I wasn’t sure if I could climb enough. But it’s what I had. I didn’t know if I could do it, but I realized that moment, it was my best chance of a good outcome. I found my saddle. I peeked over it. It was one of two towns. This I knew for sure. I gathered the plane up for a climb, and we squeaked over the saddle, closer to the pine trees than I wanted to be, but with room to spare. Down below, my hometown airport. Home. Safety. A warm pilot lounge. Gasoline.  

I realized that I understood why so many students made it to their cross-country and left training, seemingly so close to the end.

And yet, those weren’t the things I was thinking of when I landed. I realized that I understood why so many students made it to their cross-country and left training, seemingly so close to the end. This was when we found out not if we had the right stuff, but if we had the faith and the resolve to deal with the fact that we didn’t. I think some students would have fallen out of the plane after a trip like mine, called for a pickup and never looking back, preferring to laugh nervously and change the topic if anyone mentioned little planes. But all I was thinking about was how to get that plane home, to the hangar, where another pilot needed to take to the skies and be free of the earth for reasons of his own. I could do it. It was nothing compared to what I had just done. But it was the most crucial part of the trip; it was when I realized that I had not a single doubt regarding what I was doing or where I was going. The entire trip home laid out in my mind perfectly. So I flew it. Several lessons contributed to the ultimate resolution of the emergency – one, the idea that no matter what else is happening, you should never stop flying the plane. I can say with a certain amount of pride that my altitude and attitude was deliberate pretty much the entire trip. Even if it wasn’t quite what I wanted, I was still making deliberate choices. Two, the idea that you reduce the safety margins slowly until there is an option that can lead you out of a situation. If you accept no risk, you take on all of it. If you accept some risk, you can mitigate the rest. Three – use what you have to get what you need. That could be your knowledge of local ski areas. It could be your phone. Your tools don’t have to be aviation-approved to help you. There’s no value in the runway behind you, the altitude above you, and the resources you don’t bring to bear. Finally, and the most important lesson – if you take Dad’s car out of the garage, bring it home without a scratch. Not one.