Saturday, August 22, 2009

Wayward Student

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.


xinstructr said...

I've flown in southern Alberta. It's NOT an easy place to get lost in as you point out - with cut lines and major roads running basically north/south, east/west. And from Red Deer you don't have to be very high to see the Rocky Mountains to the west. With all this, a compass (he does know how to read a compass one hopes), and a map he'd better be able to un-lost himself.

Once I did have a student climb above a thin cloud layer inadvertantly. Happily he immediately contacted the tower who put him over to the center and they vectored him to an area of broken clouds for a visual descent... Live and learn (with the emphasis on that first word!).

Ramiel said...

this recently happened to one of the earlier students in my program. He was out on his first solo cross country, and some how find a way to get lost...he contacts our own frequency for assistance..
the duty instructor responsible for solo flights advised him that he can talk to toronto terminal ..instead of telling him to turn on the gps and so on.

so that he would be looking out instead of busy with his head in the cockpit trying to work the GPS.

i still didn't understand how he got lost after he explained it to me...but regardless, he made it back in one piece

pielot said...

I remember my Qualifying Cross Country for my PPL (here in the UK). First two legs fine, but took off from my final airfield and had one of those moments where I didn't believe the DI (I know, I know... always believe your instruments!!)... anyway, I managed to find myself over a town I couldn't identify from the map... Luckily with the help of a VOR and a very distinctly shaped lake I got myself back on course! (And no-one ever knew!)

Unknown said...

On the other hand, phoning in for help is one very good way of getting home. IMO, just as useful as calling centre.

Sarah said...

This is why I may never be an instructor. The sense of responsibility for keeping students alive and in known locations seems overwhelming at the moment. I'd probably be one of those instructors who never solo their students.... " oh, just 500 more patterns..." :)

Flying around this summer, I heard a student call on CTAF for help getting found. She was calm, but seemed rather unprepared with orientation skills. Some closer kind pilot started to talk about landmarks, VOR usage and such about when she was told her instructor was taking off & climbing high enough to be able to talk to her. I'm sure she made it home.

I've never been lost yet, but I have been momentarily confused. In Minnesota, landof10000lakes, a lake has to be very big and very distinctively shaped to be of use for navigation. Especially in a dry year, when shorelines on the shallow lakes change shape.

Luckily, I fly well equipped airplanes with dual VOR, DME, ADF, Loran/GPS... almost too many ways to know where you are. It's distracting.

As a student should be, I was encouraged to fly like I have in gliders, looking at the map and dead reckoning. In gliders, you're so slow and it's tough to get lost. In airplanes, especially low, well... I do love my GPS. I'm uncomfortable getting close to class-B rings without one.

Chad said...

Sounds like that student needs a little more nav work.

I remember I got lost on my first solo x-country. First leg was fine, but the second leg I realized a little too late my planning log I had created was done incorrectly.

As long as you stay relaxed its not usually that hard to employ some map reading and narrow down where you are.

SwL_Wildcat said...

I have landed at Red Deer 6 or 7 times in the last 3 years. I remember my very first landing there on my first solo x-country. I flew down from Cooking lake, with Red Deer as my first stop, then Rocky mountain house, Whitecourt, and back to Cooking lake through Edmonton airspace. I know where Red Deer is now obviously, but on my first Solo I had a hard time seeing it 3 miles out. There is nothing scarier than the first time thinking your lost or going IFR (either accidental or on purpose).

Icebound said...

How about wayward instructors.

Sometime in the mid-sixties, a Winnipeg Flying Club instructor was somewhat concerned about his (female) student, who was on her cross-country solo. So he booked a cross-country dual for the same time, following behind her, keeping her in sight.

The first leg was Winnipeg to Brandon with landing.

Solo female maintained cruise altitude a little too long, realizes it, peels off quickly, gets into the Brandon circuit and lands normally.

Instructor and dual student, carelessly following and watching the solo, were both unaware of their exact position. When she peeled off, they lost sight and spent time looking for her instead of figuring their position.

They passed Brandon by 10 minutes. Female solo happily on the ground, stamped logbook in hand, ready to run up for the next leg, wondering where the hell they were 'cause she was told to wait...

Well before they landed and sheepishly admitted what kept them.



Unknown said...

Ahh.. the Good Ole DF Steer! I was taught how to do one. Then two years later, they stopped providing them in Southern Ontario.

Glad to hear that you can still use 'em elsewhere!

Aviatrix said...

That's because you'd be hard-pressed to escape radar coverage in southern Ontario and still be at an altitude where it was safe to accept vectors direct. I hope you were also taught how to ask a radar-equipped controller for navigational assistance.

It's possible that they only had SSR coverage and no primary coverage in the area where the student was, so that he wouldn't show up on radar, but I doubt anyone in southern Ontario is filing /N.