Never Again Online: Lost at night

October 8, 2008

As I look back at my logbook, the entry for August 16, 2001, is very concise: “night work, lost @ night w/ patchy clouds;” 2.0 hr, 10 landings. I was just over 200 hours with a private pilot certificate, and Bill and I had recently purchased N8630T, a 1960 Cessna 182C. Most of my time was in Cessna 150s with maybe 20 hours in Cessna 172s. I breezed through the high-performance endorsement in about three hours, including my flight review. This was followed by some local flying and a couple hours of cross-country flights.

I had been keeping current with night flying, so I decided it was time to try out the Cessna 182 at night. Our local airport, McMinnville, Ore. (MMV), is nontowered, has a long and well-lighted runway, and has little traffic at night, so it is a good place to practice night operations. I had been working in the pattern, practicing landings when I heard a call on the CTAF that someone was on the 45-degree entry, setting up for landing on Runway 22, the one I had been using. From the communication, it was obvious the new arrival was a student pilot, so I decided to give him a little extra room, and rather than fly a tight downwind, I’d do a large upwind turn and re-enter on the 45 after he had landed.

So I took off and turned right, keeping the airport and the town on my right side as I flew a circuit five miles or so north of the airport. When I was ready to cut over to re-enter the pattern on the 45, I looked to the left and the airport had disappeared! So I looked around a bit more, clicked the mic to turn on the airport lights, and nothing! I was a little disoriented, but looked down and saw a brightly lit area that I took for St. Paul, a town about 10 miles east of MMV. OK, now I was oriented, so I looked west to where MMV should be and there was a low layer of clouds. Now where had they come from? The clouds were the marine layer that often creeps into the valley from the west, and I thought they had moved in over MMV while I was flying, but they usually didn’t move in that quickly. There are some low hills nearby, so I wasn’t going to scoot under the clouds at night. Instead I’d fly to Aurora (UAO) and land, swallowing my pride and having my wife drive over and pick me up—I’d rescue the plane tomorrow.

By this time my stomach was in a knot and I could feel my pulse rate had jumped to the max, all the signs of panic. “What would Lee say?” went through my mind. Lee Borchers, my flight instructor, was a steady hand and always had us practicing for the unexpected. “Slow down, put it in an easy circle, and figure out where you are,” came the advice I would have expected. So I did, and felt my pulse drop and the stomach ease a bit. After all, I had several hours of fuel left and could always call Portland (PDX) Approach and ask for help. I had a GPS in the plane but didn’t really know how to use it. When I punched in UAO, it said it was 30 miles away, not the 10 or so miles I was expecting. Hmmm. Pulse climbing.... Maybe I really didn’t know how to use the GPS after all.... How about the VOR? So I lined one up on Newberg (UBG) and one on Corvallis (CVO) and triangulated my position. Still had me in the St. Paul area, so that seemed right. Well, I could go to Salem (SLE), which should be about 15 miles to the southwest. So into the GPS went SLE and it said Salem was 15 miles south east, not southwest. I looked in the suggested direction and sure enough there were the lights of Salem. Instantly my internal compass swung into the proper orientation and there was MMV smiling at me about 10 miles to my northeast, 180 degrees from where I expected it, and in the clear. I flew home, landed, and put the plane in the hangar for the night.

So what went wrong? Reconstructing the situation, here’s what I think happened. I had overestimated the time it would take to fly the wide upwind circuit back to the 45-degree pattern entry, and although I thought I kept the town in sight, I must have flown a full 360-degree circle, not the 180-degree turn I had planned. That put me over the town of Sheridan, not St. Paul, and the lighted area was a federal prison, not a shopping center. I was approximately 10 miles west of MMV, not 10 miles east. Then I compounded things in my nervousness by reading both VORs backwards and thinking I was east of them when I was west. And my lack of familiarity and confidence with the GPS didn’t help, either.

I did do the right thing. I took control, got settled down, and figured out where I was, keeping a declaration of emergency in my back pocket. What would I do differently now? I always use flight following with my cross-country flying, so I’m very comfortable with air traffic control (ATC)—at that time I didn’t realize the resources that were there waiting to help me, and I was nervous about talking with ATC. Had I called Portland Approach and told them I was a little disoriented, they would have given me a squawk code and verified my location—no pain, no strain, no penalty. Even when you are on your home turf, where you know the landscape like the back of your hand, it all looks different from the air at night. Use all your resources!