Training Tip: Heart City, westbound

February 7, 2014

It was growing dark, but a clear night as a pilot departed Nebraska’s Ainsworth Regional Airport westbound toward Chadron Municipal on the final leg of a cross-country. Valentine, Nebraska’s "Heart City," was visible off the right wing. The pilot saw the lights of Gordon, near the destination, ahead.

Or was it? The leg "called for a 275-degree heading, but to fly to what I thought was Gordon required a 300-degree heading," the pilot recalled.

Conflicted but still convinced that Gordon lay ahead, the pilot continued on the 300-degree heading while seeking navigation guidance from a VOR near Chadron.

Unfortunately, the flight was too far away to receive the navaid. When the VOR did finally come in, the interpretation made no sense to the pilot, who rejected the indication of a 240-degree degree course to the VOR.

Just then, the lights of a larger city appeared. Chadron at last!

However, "upon arrival it was not, and I simply did not know where I was." 

That prompted a call to flight service for assistance. But the pilot was "unable to raise them on the radio."

This was getting serious. "I had been in the air for three hours without refueling now and I was becoming concerned."

Amidst the city lights the pilot spotted two airports. Time to land, but at which?

Reasoning that the larger airport was more likely to have fuel, the pilot headed for it, discovering on arrival that the flight had landed at Ellsworth Air Force Base, in Rapid City, S.D., many miles northeast of Chadron.

The pilot shared details of the eventful night in a report to the Aviation Safety Reporting System, making use of the opportunity ASRS offers to chronicle, without penalty, lapses of airmanship that led the flight astray.

One lapse noted was “fixation on a city while night flying." "Not believing my instruments" was another.

Fixation (in this case, on lights instead of the course) is a rather common cause of piloting errors. Disbelief of instrument indications may strike when a pilot confronts the first irrefutable evidence of error or bad news (in this case, the off-course situation hinted at by the 240-degree course to the VOR). 

Left to do their mischief, fixation and disbelief can produce a wide variety of adverse results, as this instance of a flight lost at night with low fuel makes crystal clear.