Getting lost while flying is something pilots dread, and we’ve probably all experienced it at some point – even in our own familiar flying area.
It can be particularly common when flying to new locations for the first time.
Many pilots try to be heroes and get themselves out of the situation, often making things worse or straying into controlled airspace.
There’s no shame in asking for help, however.
Here are our tips on what to do if you get lost when flying:
1 Look for Landmarks
Any major landmark that you can see out of your cockpit window is likely to be marked as a landmark on your map. This could be communications masts, chimneys, airfields (including disused ones), windfarms and power stations.
Failing this, look out for large towns, or intersections of railways or motorways, which are all marked on your map. The patterns these intersections make, or the shape of the town, can usually be spotted easily on the map.
2 Use Radio Navigation Aids
You may not use this method much in your VFR flying, but you probably studied it during your pilot training and demonstrated it on your skills test. VOR beacons are still positioned around the country, each with a unique frequency. If your aircraft is equipped with the instruments to tune into VORs, find two on your map and work out the direction to/from each beacon, then draw lines on your map and see where they intersect. This is your current location.
3 Use Digital Navigation Software
Many pilots today use navigation software and apps on their smartphones or tablets which are excellent at instantly pinpointing your current location.
You can also use these tools to plot the route you need to take to a particular destination.
Make sure you heed warnings about straying into danger areas or controlled airspace.
4 Ask Air Traffic Control!
There’s no shame in asking for help from the air traffic control service you’re currently receiving; in fact, they’d prefer to help you so as to avoid risking you straying into restricted airspace or the path of another aircraft.
Simply stating ‘G-ABCD, uncertain of position’ should get the help you need.
If you’re not sure which frequency to talk on, try the standard emergency frequency of 121.500 (122.200 in the United States).
Being fully prepared for your flight is an important aspect in reducing the chance of becoming lost, and in dealing with the situation when you do.
If you’re flying to a new airfield you should familiarise yourself with the landscape and approach paths before your flight.
You should also make a pilot log (PLOG) of your intended flight route, waypoints and radio frequencies before flying, and study the route on the map to look for notable landmarks and towns that you will pass over.