Lost pilot on frequency

It was July 2, 1974, and my wife Mary Ann and I were flying home from Salilsaw, Oklahoma where we had dropped off an employee’s children. I was just north of Guthrie, Oklahoma; it was early evening and near sundown. We had our Beech Debonair cruising in smooth air at 7500 feet when a call came over 122.8.

“This is Cessna NN; can anybody hear me?”

I listened, knowing this was a strange transmission, and again I heard, “Can anybody hear me? Cessna NN.”

I answered, “Cessna NN this is Debonair 419T. You are loud and clear. How can I help you?”

Sectional chart with question
A sectional chart can look very confusing to a scared student pilot.

The Cessna pilot replied, “I am a student pilot, I am lost and scared.” I assured him that I could assist him and everything would be OK. I asked him to go to 121.5, knowing that a ground station would hear us.

I asked him what his last known position was and he replied, “I don’t know.”

I asked him about his fuel state and he had plenty of fuel. I asked his altitude and he stated 4000 feet. I told him not to descend and asked what his point of departure was. He said “Durant, Oklahoma.”

At that point, the Tulsa tower came on the frequency. They couldn’t hear the Cessna, but had heard enough to know what was going on and advised me to move him to 121.9 which I did. I asked the Cessna what his compass heading was and he replied, “I don’t know.”

I talked to him and asked what the country below looked like and he said “all mountains and lakes.” We talked back and forth a bit and he calmed down some and was able to give me his compass heading. I then walked him through tuning in VORs and giving me the bearing to the station. We then told him his position and gave him a heading to Muskogee. I was getting away from him fast and his transmitted signals were getting weak. I told him I would be losing him quickly and he said, “Please don’t leave me up here.” I told him I was turning back east and would stay with him.

At that point, Mary Ann said, “I want to get on home because it is getting dark.” I asked her if that was one of our children if she would want me to leave him and she said no. Before long, the Cessna pilot said, “I see a submarine in the river” and I knew he was very close to Hatbox Field Airport in Muskogee.

I told him that McAlester Flight Service Station wanted him to call after landing and he assured them that he would. McAlester flight service called me and the specialist asked, “Ralph is that you?” I replied affirmative; they had been able to hear me the entire time but not the Cessna and the fellow on duty had known when he was at Dalhart, Texas.

It turned out that the pilot of the Cessna was a student on his cross country solo and was originally bound for McAlester but had overflown it. I have often wondered if the fellow completed his training and was licensed. I never knew his name and did not know the outcome.

18 Comments

  • When I was a student, I got lost twice. First time it happened to me just before the sunset, but fortunately, I was very close to the airport, just couldn’t spot it for quite a long time. But my second experience was really horrible!
    I lost my track on the x-country flight (GPS was not allowed), disoriented in all the ground references completely, quickly got into a panic, so now I know what “I don’t know” means exactly. Very true! Staring at your compass or heading indicator, you suddenly find out, that you’re unable to read the numbers! You have a huge mess in your head, brain feels like it’s boiling. You can’t distinguish North from the South, and East from the West, you no longer remember how to use VOR or ADF. Actually, your mind is almost paralyzed, and the only TWO functions remain active: Airspeed & Altitude. Airspeed & Altitude. Airspeed & Altitude.
    I was lucky enough to have the Tower nearby, and being out of their vicinity, I still had them on my radio and asked for their assistance. But I hate to think, it may happened to me somewhere in the remote area!
    Yes, I know why and have learned my lesson, but I also acquired a phobia, which I still can’t overcome… and avoid to fly in unfamiliar areas :((

  • This doesn’t just happen to students. It can happen to experienced pilots after a long lapse in night currency.

    Once after a long period of time without flying at night, I took the aircraft up solo for some night landings. It was a beautiful night, but very dark with no moon. I thought I’d cruise out to the practice area of my home airport before coming back in for the three landings required for night currency.

    As I climbed away from the airport I was busy doing my climb and cruise checklists and lost sight of the airport. After I finished the checklists, I went to turn towards the practice area. I looked around at the dark landscape below me and couldn’t figure out where I was.

    I panicked and started to hyperventilate. I was frozen with fear and I started feeling myself get light-headed. Fortunately, I quickly switched on the auto-pilot to hold heading and altitude. I started assuring myself over and over that I had a full tank of fuel and an autopilot to fly for me and eventually the panic subsided. Once I calmed down a bit, my experience and training came back to me. I plugged in the GPS instrument approach to my home airport, set the auto-pilot to GPS mode and let it fly me back home. By the time I got to final approach, I was back to normal and could land the airplane.

    Back safely on the ground, I put away the airplane and scheduled some night currency training with an instructor. I realized that I should have gotten an instructor to go with me since it had been so long since I had flown at night.

    It surprised me how quickly I could get lost at my home airport after not flying at night without currency. I was also surprised at the power that fear had over my ability to do the simplest of tasks. I try not to think what would have happened if I hadn’t switched on the autopilot or if I had lost consciousness from hyperventilating.

    I agree with Guido that this pilot should be given sainthood. His wife’s lack of compassion for another pilot could be attributed to her not being a pilot. Most pilots know the helplessness caused by being lost and want to provide the help that they would want if the situation was reversed.

    • This sort of honesty is helpful to us all. It again makes us realize we make mistakes and have lapses. Thank each of you, please add my name to the list. Even Southwest Airlines can get it wrong !!!! By the way, I have landed at that airport many times. It is owned by The School Of The Ozarks, a Christen School. They have a fine restaurant.
      Landing there is the closest I want to come to landing on an aircraft carrier, there are big drop offs at either end.

    • Your story reminds me of a very similar, although not as dramatic, one I had.

      I was still relatively low hours but had a fair amount of cross country experience including some at night. Hadn’t flown at night for over a year so on a really nice, yet almost moonless, night, decided to go up and get my 3 landings in. Didn’t intend to do much, just a little maneuvering around the local patch close to the airport and the 3 landings or so. I knew the area well (so didn’t bother taking the GPS) but obviously forgot how different things appear at night.

      The airport sits in an area of many other lights. Everything was going well until all of a sudden I couldn’t see the airport, couldn’t find it. Yes, I knew about where it was but couldn’t find it for the life of me, the airport lights were blending in with all the other lights. I didn’t panic or anything like that, still had my sense of direction, but I can relate to the feeling you had. It did occur to me that I might be in trouble. Thought, OMG, I can’t believe this, what am I gonna do?

      Well, first I climbed for a higher perspective and then headed for an interstate highway which has an interchange close to the airport. Followed the interstate to the interchange, and from the higher altitude could make out the airport lights, descended circling over it, and landed.

      Learned a valuable lesson from that.

  • I got lost as a student on a practice XC with the instructor in the airplane. It was hazy and I missed a check point. It was a poor landmark where two small rivers converged. When pressed by the instructor I saw I was over the river, but not sure where, so I dialed up Brook VOR to check my course and improperly adjusted it so it read backwards. A few minutes later I was way off course. I was pretty embarrassed but that was all. The owner of the flight school helped by saying there are only two types of pilots, those that have got lost and those that will get lost. Then he told me his I got lost story.

    After that I got flight simulator on my computer and flew every XC on my computer before flying it in the plane. I also spent time tuning and flying VOR radials until I got comfortable using them. All that work paid off and I haven’t got lost since.

  • I was in Springfield, IL, a few years ago on business. I Decided to stop by the local FBO and pick up a local Sectional Chart. I noticed a young lady sitting on the floor, flight charts spread out before her, and crying her eyes out. When I asked if I could help, she said that she was a student pilot, lost on her first X-C solo flight, and had only landed at Springfield because it was the first airport she had seen. I asked her to point out her airplane to me. It twas a nice, clean little Cessna 150 with a suitable panel.

    Her intended point of landing was an airport about 25-miles west of where she now so distraught, and I told her I’d show her how to get there, and back to Springfield, with no problem. The FBO operator convinced here than my commercial instrument ticket and 18,000 flying hours was more than sufficient to act as her right-seat co-pilot, and off we went.

    At my coaching, she found her destination’s VOR frequency and tuned her receiver to those numbers. I showed her how to center the needle on that station with “TO” in the small window on the VOR head. And then how to find that heading on her directional gyro.

    She found the VOR and the field, and I asked her to do the same with Springfield for our return leg, which she quickly did. Her trepidation was gone and her confidence had returned by the time we had reached the Springfield VOR. She made a smooth landing and I climbed out to say my good-byes. I watched her take off and then turn north on the proper heading for her home field.

    Somewhere up there was an instructor that should have lost his ticket for sending a raw student off on a X-C flight with absolutely no concept of radio navigation. I still find that situation hard to believe.

  • My thanks for the story. Reminds me of many things we all have a tendency to disregard, such as lessons from our past, and the possible “chain of catastrophe” that can happen, if we do forget those lessons.
    Mine was flying one of my first solos to a nearby, (25 nm,) field. Hazy, about 3,000 feet, lot of farmland, and few recognizable landmarks. Couldn’t find the target field, as it was about five miles from the VOR transmitter, and too many obstructions not shown on the chart, visibility down to about 4 miles, so I turned 180 degrees, and got on the radio. My instructor was back at the home field, listening in on the radio while giving ground school to another student. He reminded me of his last instructions on the use of the ADF, AM station near the field, but no other instrument transmitters. Result: got back safe and sound, thanks to his guidance, and no panic on my point. Aviate, navigate, communicate, (and a good instructor.)

    • One of those lessons we remember is the “pilot in command”. I flew out of small non-towered airport in East Texas with a young female passenger who wanted to go sight seeing. A friend had set the flight up (I had not met the lady) and we took off in hazy skies. Got up to 7,500 in a 152 and the air closed in; at 8,000 I had a ground track of about a mile and flat as a table clouds. She was not concerned and appeared to enjoy the flight. Not wanting to cause her any worry I tuned in two VORs to check my position and then did what many of us would do – I circled the water tower for a name. I found the little county airport; not attended and no fuel. Runway 50 X 3500 cut out of the piney woods, landed without incident. Checked the fuel and decided there was minimal fuel and a large airport 20 miles West. My passenger had an appointment she needed to get to, so I headed straight to home field instead of refueling. When I landed I taxied to the fuel pump and while she went inside I climbed up to check the fuel. Both tanks were in the sump. I let my passenger make the decision instead of doing what I knew was correct. Never again.

      • Ha…..I remember going down to check out the water tower name, too!!! Actually, on more than one occasion. Comes in handy……when your left with no GPS and just Charts especially.

  • Somewhere there is (or was) an instructor who thought it was okay to send two students on their solo cross country in loose formation. Worked until they flew through my class C airspace at DAL (Love Field) then on to the DFW class B. 1980… Ray – Retired ATC

  • It’s been decades so I guess I can finally go public. 🙂 It was the early 70s and I had finished my private at Spartan in Tulsa in just over the required minimum hours and was doing just as well on my commercial. So when I took off from Riverside bound for a country strip where the designated examinir lived and would be waiting I was feeling pretty cocky. And then I got lost. Ugh. I eventually found my way but arrived late. I remember the DE telling me I was late (like I didn’t already know that). He asked why I was late. I told him I had been practicing my maneuvers. I’ve no idea if he bought that but at least he passed me on my check ride. Whew!

  • I think getting lost on solo cross countries is more common than we would like to admit. I certainly did, but my CFI had made sure I knew how to find my position and use everything in the airplane to get help. As a result, the moment was more of a puzzle than scary event. With this experience in mind when I teach this skill, I incorporate lost procedures in several flights, and what frequencies to talk with if nothing seems to work.

  • No one’s mentioned that some people have inherited strong navigation skills and some haven’t. Also, males tend to navigate more often by a “north-south, east-west grid system,” and females are more likely to navigate by a “go to the familiar landmark and turn left” style of navigation. If the instructor takes note of what navigational styles and skills the prospective pilot has, then he/she can tailor his instructions to the candidate’s strongest skills.
    Before sending the student off on a solo flight, it’s also good to include some instructions on “what to do if it breaks.” I know of one student who had not yet mastered VOR navigation, and his instructor (with many decades of experience) said, “Here, take my handheld GPS, and use that instead.” I said to the student, who was also a friend, “What will you do if it doesn’t work?” The farthest point of his triangular solo was a rural airport which was hard to see from some angles because of tall trees. I helped the student work-out a “what if” alternative strategy. We set a northern limit to the cross-country as an easily recognizable east-west interstate. The easterly limit was a small city on a river, and just south of the interstate. If the GPS failed, I suggested the student fly to the small city, then fly a compass bearing for X number of minutes. We also set a recognizable large lake as the westerly limit for the return trip, with another compass heading to fly for Y number of minutes. As luck would have it, the instructor’s GPS failed on the outbound leg due to old, used-up (and unchecked) batteries. The student, whose navigational aptitudes were weak, was still able to complete the solo flight using the alternative landmark limits associated with courses to fly for so many minutes, i.e. old-fashioned pilotage.

  • in 1969, as a student pilot on my second solo cross country from Teterboro to Hartford I got lost over Connecticut. There was no GPS then, only the VFR sectional It is not hard to do in that part of the country, everything looks the same and there are no major landmarks to latch on to (at least then). After trying to find out my location for several minutes that seem like hours I decided to quit trying and headed south. I knew that on a course of 180 I would eventually get to the Long Island Sound. I did. Once there everything was fine. I turned southwest and followed the coast till I could see Manhattan in the distance. I turned west and headed for the Hudson (I wanted to stay away from La Guardia, there was no Bravo airspace yet then). I hit the Hudson south of the Tapanzee Bridge and turned south towards Teterboro.
    I was lucky that the Long Island Sound was there. When I talk to student pilots I always relate this story to them, and I encourage them to become very familiar with the areas they fly over and to highlight on their charts all the major airports and major landmarks. As a VFR pilot if you don’t have situational awareness you have nothing…you might as well stay on the ground. If they are going to do a cross country over unfamiliar territory I encourage them to look at their route on Google Earth so they become familiar with what major and minor landmarks look from the air. There is a lot of technology available these days and I don’t think there is anything wrong in using it until you become well versed in navigation.

  • all those stories are so inspiring,its great to see pilots come forward and admit that we are only human and do make mistakes,especially in the early stages of navigation,thank you all so much.

  • When I was a very low-time private pilot (not that I have much more now), I took my girlfriend (now wife of 15 years) along on hundred or so mile (each way) trip to see some of her relatives.

    We stayed there a little longer than I had planned, as I took most of her extended family up around the traffic pattern there. Finally heading for home, it was getting quite dark – not officially night yet, but past sunset. To reassure her, I picked the frequency of one of the fields along our route of flight, tuned the radio, and gave a nice series of clicks to turn the lights on.

    “Look right down there, honey… there’s a field… um… it’s not there. OK… well…”

    In my favor, I had roughly 16 years of growing up flying with my dad, about ten of those years as unofficial copliot. I wasn’t close to panic, just mildly concerned, but knowing that there were dozens of courses of action to pursue to address the question of ‘Where AM I?’. If I recall correctly, I ended up doing a bunch of VOR tuning, triangulating my location, then as a backup I tuned in the ILS to my home field. While far from instrument rated, I just felt better with yet another source of confirmation as to my location, and we landed without further incident.

    I can’t imagine getting overloaded to the point of effective mental shutdown. Always fly the airplane, and keep thinking… I just don’t get how anyone can just lose it so completely.

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