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Feature Article

LOST IN THE DESERT

Matt Debski, Aircraft Owner WVFC tdebber@alum.mit.edu

My first really long cross-country flight after earning my private pilot certificate was a trip to Las Vegas.  In an Archer, traveling the route south of the Sierra Nevada to North Las Vegas airport is a two-hop trip.  Our fuel stop would be Shafter-Minter airport, just north of Bakersfield.  I was taking three friends along.  One had flown with me on shorter trips and was an aviation enthusiast; he eventually earned his private pilot certificate.  The other two were a couple on their first general aviation adventure.

I had reserved an Archer with GPS.  Although I was comfortable with VOR navigation, pilotage, and dead reckoning and had not flown a plane with GPS during my private training, I was looking forward to the added help of GPS on the long trip.  We also planned to depart Palo Alto with time to complete the trip before night.  I was night current, but I wanted to complete the flight to an unfamiliar airport with busy airspace and nearby high terrain with daylight remaining.

When I arrived at the airport, I discovered that the airplane I had reserved was still in Oakland receiving avionics repairs; it was not clear when it would be ready, but not on the day of intended departure in any event.  Another Archer was available for the weekend, but it was being flown for a lesson and it would be a half-hour before it would be back.  The replacement airplane did not have GPS.  So, we waited for the plane to be available, preflighted, packed up, and departed.

The flight to Shafter-Minter went as planned.  The weather was gorgeous, we landed at the fuel stop as planned, re-fueled, and were quickly on our way again.  After departing Shafter-Minter and clearing Tehachapi, the Mojave was laid out before us.  Due to our late departure, the sun had set at this point and dusk was falling.  I turned up the interior lights, made sure the flashlights were arrayed appropriately, and contacted Los Angeles Center for flight following.  At this point in my piloting career, I didn't regularly avail myself of flight following.  But, for all the reasons I wanted GPS for the flight, flight following seemed sensible.  As we neared Las Vegas, the flight plan called for remaining east of the McCarran Class Bravo, rather than getting a Bravo clearance (again, as a new pilot I wasn't too comfortable working ATC for these privileges).  

As we turned north along I-15, Los Angeles Center advised that at our current altitude, we would be below radar coverage. After passing the ridge between us and Las Vegas, they'd pick us up again and advised me to retain my squawk.  As we passed one of the mountain ridges, a valley lay below us.  Now in the Las Vegas valley, I turned north to follow the east side of the ridge to avoid the class Bravo.  I began looking for the airport beacons that would be McCarran and North Las Vegas.  Additionally, I tried to contact Las Vegas Approach, given that we should once again be in radar coverage.  Those attempts failed.  After traveling up the valley a bit and not being able to find the airport beacons, I admitted to my passengers that I was unsure where we were.  I described what airport beacons look like and asked them to help me find them.  They all remained calm and dutifully began looked out the windows at the darkness for the flashing white and green lights.  I followed the lost procedures from my training, slowing the airplane, circling, and gaining altitude.  I was definitely concerned that I would end up violating class Bravo with this maneuvering, but not really knowing where I was, I didn't have another option.

About this time, I noticed that there was another mountain ridge to the east, with a glow emanating from the top.  At this point something clicked: there was no way that the valley that I was flying over was Las Vegas.  Las Vegas, with all its lights, the strip, and a half-million people in its metropolitan area would not be so dimly lit that I would have trouble making out the street layout.  I gained altitude and when we were high enough to see over the ridge, the true Las Vegas basin spread before us in all its glittering glory.  The Las Vegas Strip and McCarran were easy to find.  Much more sure of where I was now, I navigated around the Class Bravo, located North Las Vegas airport and landed without further incident.

Once on the ground in North Las Vegas, we taxied to transient parking and the airport van approached to take us to the terminal building.  On seeing our tail number, the driver told me to call Flight Service, as they were looking for us.  I had filed a VFR flight plan and had not yet closed it (though I hadn't forgotten; we'd just been on the ground for fewer than ten minutes).  After losing contact with Los Angeles Center, I'd never re-established contact with them.  The time we spent flying over the valley west of Vegas had eaten up the padding I'd put into the flight plan and they had begun the process of discovering our whereabouts.  I called WX-BRIEF and closed the flight plan, allaying their concerns.

In the end, most of the lessons learned from the flight were reinforcements of my private training.  By taking on full fuel at Shafter-Minter, my becoming lost was concerning but did not rise to the level of an emergency.  We had over two hours to discover where we were before fuel would have become an issue.  Once I recognized that I was lost, I admitted as much to myself and my passengers, thus moving along to recovering.  My passengers remaining calm and working through the problem instead of becoming distraught was a huge help.  Filing and activating a VFR flight plan played its role as well: had we landed off airport, Search and Rescue would have been dispatched to locate us quickly.

On the other hand, there were ways that the flight could have ended less well.  Had the night been darker than it was, I may not have seen the terrain of the earlier valley to avoid it.  Had my passengers not reacted well, being lost could have panicked them, causing me to have to deal with them as well as my own level of concern.  Had I not taken on sufficient fuel or tried to stretch the trip on one tank, the outcome would have been different.  Looking more closely at my flight plan, I should have questioned how we had arrived at the final checkpoints several minutes earlier than planned.

Coming back to the very beginning, I could have avoided the whole episode by waiting until the next day to depart after not being able to depart according to plan.  Even without the GPS, we would have been flying in daylight with all the advantages that affords over the night.  These days, GPS would have been available on my iPad and the fact that the plane wasn't so equipped would not have been an issue.  But, back then, the confluence of a less-well-equipped-than-planned plane and a later-than-expected departure resulted in a real life lesson on lost procedures.

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