The FBO at Red Deer is a flying school. The instructors all wear white shirts with ties and even epaulets. I go inside there to pick up a fuel receipt and fax a flight plan to Edmonton Centre. About five instructors and the dispatcher are gathered around a phone. The dispatcher appears to be giving telephone instructions on the operation of a radio. I think I know what has happened. Some student or renter has got the radio into some unusable mode and has called in on his cell phone for help. I wait for someone to tell him to flip the auto switch down.
Further listening casts out that theory. They're not giving him the FSS phone number or telling him to just look out for traffic, land, and sort it out later. Red Deer is not a hugely busy airport and he could surely negotiate his way into the circuit without a radio. No, he's lost. The radio instructions I came in on were for the operation of an ADF. They're trying to get him back by following the needle home. This doesn't seem to be sufficient. Not surprising. Possibly the ADF in the plane isn't working, or there's some other switch he has to turn on that the dispatcher hasn't adequately described.
"How's your cellphone battery?" asks the dispatcher, a couple times until the student understands. The battery is apparently good, because they keep talking while instructors look at charts and relay questions about which side the lake is on. I didn't have a cellphone when I was a student. Most people didn't, and the ability to call your instructor for help on a solo seems to me to remove some of the point of being pilot-in-command. I'm not impressed with the student's problem solving technique. I like to see students get lost and I like to see them use methods they've been taught in the classroom or in the air to find their way home.
I ask an instructor not involved in the huddle, "Why doesn't he climb up and call centre for help?" Apparently the airplane is not transponder-equipped, but still centre could paint him as a primary radar target, radar identify him through turns to assigned headings and give him emergency vectors home. They actually have the ability to tag primaries. I've seen it done. Simpler than that, Red Deer Radio offers DF steers, able to determine the direction to a radio transmitter and tell the pilot the heading to the airport. You ask for DF assistance, hold down the transmit button for a count of five and they bring you home.
I hope the student's instructor takes him out for a flight under the hood and then repeatedly has him take the hood off and figure out where he is. There are section lines here, roads that run north-south and east-west. They should help you get oriented. Every town has a water tower with the name painted on in English. There are lots of lakes with distinctive shapes. If he's north or south of town he should be able to find highway 2, and if he's east or west, highway 11 or 12. If he can't see the highway he should know enough about his position to determine which way to fly to find it, and follow it in. He should have a nav log in front of him showing what time he last identified his position and from there he can determine a circle that must contain his position. Of course that leads back to the joke about the lost student who calls the tower for help:
"What was your last known position?" asks the controller.
"When I was number one for take-off."
You have to be able to turn "I don't know where I am" into a plan. I suppose "phone for help" is a plan after a fashion, and better that than fly around aimlessly until you run out of gas, but I hope the student will have more tools for that job before he finishes his licence.