Flying Solo - a Story
I was thirty-five hundred feet in the air, I didn’t know where I was and it was sweltering. The hot, early, autumn sun beat down on the sheet metal, heating up the inside of the cabin. I scanned the ground for any landmarks I might recognize from past flights. This was the first time I was piloting the small, single engine propeller plane in the practice area, solo. I had been in the practice area dozens of times with my instructor, but this time he wasn’t there to guide me. I had lost my bearings while doing my maneuvers and had no idea where I was.
In this moment, everything I learned seemed to spontaneously combust into flames in my brain never to be retrieved again. I was flying by visual flight rules, which means the pilot must navigate using visual reference to the ground relying on buildings, roads, and other notable markings that could be observed. Furthermore, the airport from which I flew was an uncontrolled airport. At an uncontrolled airport there are no air traffic controllers to call. Pilots in this air space announce their every move to inform other pilots and prevent collisions.
There was little training on instrument flight rules, but I had some nonetheless. As I flew in circles unable to find anything discernible on the ground to help guide me back home I remembered one of my instruments that might be able to help me out of my predicament. I was terrible at using this tool but I was in dire straits and willing to try anything. It’s called a VOR, which stands for very high frequency omnidirectional range. It’s basically an antiquated GPS. VOR uses radio signals to help pilots identify their position. I dialed the frequency I needed to determine my location. I had a tendency to use VOR backwards and travel in the opposite direction as intended. Unfortunately, since I was already lost, it was tough to tell whether I was going in the wrong direction or not since I didn’t recognize anything in the first place. I traveled several minutes and got myself more and more lost as I went into the unknown.
Frustrated, I shut off the VOR and circled a little more trying to think of what to do next. This was different than any other problem I had encountered in life before. I couldn’t pull off on the side of the road and take a breath. I couldn’t call dad and ask for help. My instructor was not in his usual spot by my side in the cockpit. It was just me. And I was burning fuel. Oh my gosh! I had forgotten I was burning fuel! In the type of plane I flew, the gas tanks were in the wings. To fly properly with evenly distributed weight, it required manually switching tanks at times throughout the flight. I realized I had burned way past what I intended in the right wing so I turned the switch to the left wing. I knew I had to take action. These fuel tanks are not that big and I did not have much time.
Knowing the airport was somewhere west, I flew at a heading of 270 degrees in hopes that I would see something I recognize if I hadn’t flown too far north or south. It felt like an eternity. I was sweating bullets. After about five minutes I finally saw a main highway which I believed to be the one that was almost perfectly aligned with my destination. If I had the correct road it lead straight to the airport if followed. Yet I still wasn’t sure of which part of the highway I was located. I had never been in this area before but I looked down and noticed the city sprawled out beneath me. I knew the airport had to be to my left just over the city scape. I made the decision and about seven minutes later I observed my airport rise into view across the horizon. I was home! I called my position and next intended activities to my fellow aircraft that could be in the vicinity, safely landed the plane and taxied to a halt.
This uncomfortable experience taught me so much about life. When I looked down upon the landscape in the middle of my own personal chaos, I thought about how the world keeps on turning. If you fall off this merry-go-round, no one stops the ride and waits for you to get back on. This was a big coming of age moment for me. I was eighteen years old and had never even been a passenger on a plane. I learned that success is a choice. I could have easily fallen apart into a mess of panic, alone in that cockpit with no one to call for help. It’s okay to acknowledge when you are overwhelmed. Have your moment. But it should last only a moment because you’re burning fuel fast. Remember what resources you have. Though they may be few, you have been prepared for this exact circumstance and you have everything you need for life up until this point. When you come out of the adversity you are facing down, you will be in possession of even more tools for next time.