Lesson 146
7 November 2000
0.9 hours

GPS to the Rescue!

Just got back from a night flight in which I did two good landings and then decided to fly away from the airport for a while before doing the third that I needed to get current at at night again.  But right after leaving the pattern I got interested in fooling with the airplane--radios and stuff--and suddenly realized that I didn't have any idea where I was.  Somewhere over the Mid-Atlantic states.  In the dark.  Over an almost uninhabited area with few lights, and nothing down there looked familiar.

I wasn't terribly worried, however, because I had four hours of fuel, two handheld GPS receivers, and the airplane's VOR, .  So I flew around for about ten minutes, trying to see if I could get oriented visually--just to see if I could.

Nope, couldn't.  Still lost.  I had flown south from the airport and then turned west--but without paying attention to my actual heading or the length of time.  It was only a few minutes, and I knew I was southwest of the field--but I just couldn't tell AT ALL where I was.

One thing that complicated finding myself was that when I climbed to get a better view I ran into haze at 3000 feet.  At 3200 I couldn't see the ground at all except straight down.  But it didn't seem to be a cloud, because I could see the moon up through it all the time.  The overcast had cleared off at about 4:00, and the sky looked perfectly clear from the ground.  Not so.  I think maybe it could have been a temperature inversion holding the haze there, but don't really know what to think.  It was dark when I took off, so there was no chance to get oriented first or to see the haze.

Another complication was that the runway lights were apparently set on dim, making them almost impossible to see from more than a couple of miles away.  Ordinarily I would have keyed the mike seven times to make the lights go bright--but I could hear several other airplanes in the pattern.  Now, there's not much more aggravating than to be on short final at night and have some bozo click those lights up to full bright.  BAM and you can't see your instruments any more.  You're squinting out the windscreen, night vision already blitzed, praying that your airspeed is okay, hoping you'll have some peripheral vision left when you get down low.

Finally I just said the hell with it and fired up a GPS, and in a couple of minutes I was on the way home.  I could have used the VOR--there's a transmitter only a few miles from FCI--but the GPS with its moving map was a lot easier.

And so I found out one thing:  I sure as hell couldn't figure out where I was by looking for visual references, not without burning up a lot of gas and adrenaline.  Interesting experience.  Pay attention!

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