Expedition (n.) a long, organized trip for a particular purpose sometimes surrounded by extraordinary or tedious circumstances, or the people, vehicles, or ships making such a trip

Hello dear readers,

I hope you are all staying safe in these somewhat exceptional times.

Today, I will tell you quite an exceptional story as well, as it is very rarely that a small navigation mistake can go unnoticed for such a long time.

We all can more or less estimate how long a trip will take, be it by car or in flight. I mean, not always down to exact minutes and seconds, but with the basic information, extrapolating a estimated time is always more or less feasible.

Let’s take a look together at a flight that took quite the unexpected detour. The student pilot, who was going on a solo navigation as a part of his PPL training had been given the task by his flight instructor to navigate from his home airport, a small paved strip in Eastern Belgium, to another uncontrolled aerodrome, some 80NM away. 80NM is about one hour of flying, 1h15 tops. I am not taking any wind into account or anything, but we can all reckon that if you want to fly 80NM and don’t see your destination after 1h15-1h30, something is up, don’t you think?

Belgium is a very densely populated country, and as such, it also has a very dense network of motorways, and at one point particularly famous for being almost integrally lit at night. I think it is NASA that pointed out that this tiny little country is one of the easiest to spot from outer space because of the motorway lights.

Belgium seen from space

But then, using these motorways as navigational landmarks can be very treacherous. What looks the most like a highway? Another highway.

And that is exactly what is happening to our student pilot. Firmly convinced that his trip will be easier by simply following the road from aerodrome A to aerodrome B, he takes off and starts following the concrete strip towards his destination. Or so he thinks.

In fact, the pilot makes what could have been a small error, and sets off in the exact opposite direction to the one he is supposed to go. A mistake that could have been spotted fairly easily IF a proper navigation plan had been made. But when you have a landmark like that, leading you from departure all the way to destination. Why bother looking at other things, right?

Well, that would indeed be ok if you also kept track of time and distance, and maybe put down the remarkable spots along the route, like cities, lakes, railway crossings… but once again, that can easily be overlooked when that good feeling of safety overwhelms you and makes you feel comfortable.

Well, after about 3 hours and a half (yes, about THREE times as long as it should have taken), our student pilot starts becoming worried (yes, at last, some could say) that the destination is still not in sight. After hesitating for a long, long time, he finally decides to call flight information to ask for help. Or at least try to be informed about his own position without attracting too much attention. What if somebody he knows is listening?

Back in the “real” world, the light aircraft has now travelled far beyond the borders of little Belgium, heading almost due South into neighbouring France, and actually, it is a small miracle that no airspace infringements were committed yet. In fact, the aircraft is now so far from Belgium that flight information is beyond the reach of the radio transmitter…

Fortunately, and very luckily, a military pilot flying higher is listening to that FIS frequency, and hears the call for help. Unable to help too much by himself, the airman relays the message to the controller who then tries to figure out how to assist the lost pilot.

After going down to try and read the signs on that motorway, it is quickly understood the real position of the lost aircraft, but at the same time, another factor comes into play. Aircraft can unfortunately not fly forever, and the limiting factor is now calling in: the student pilot has almost exhausted his fuel reserves and estimates he still has about 15 minutes of usable gasoline in the tanks.

And then, appears, somewhat providentially, a long and wide concrete runway in the distance. Without further ado, the pilot heads towards it, looks around, and lands, relieved to be safely back on the ground.

Safe, yes. But greeted by military personnel carrying semi-automatic rifles hurling towards him in khaki jeeps.

Well, yes, out of despair, and without thinking further than getting back to the ground, our pilot landed on an active fighter base, without calling the tower for clearance or to announce a distress situation, which would have been the right thing to do…

Back in the day, student pilots in Belgium were issued a “training license” which allowed them to fly only in Belgium and within the limitations of their training plan, of course. Which meant that, now that the airplane was on the ground in the middle of another country, taking off back to Belgium was completely out of the question. I will let you imagine the headache of having AVGAS delivered to an air base that didn’t have any, having a qualified pilot travel by train to pick up the airplane…

The bottom line of all this story?

Do you think you may be lost? Are you “unsure of your position” to use that soft euphemism that so many pilots do to try and sound in control of their situation? Please, pretty please, call somebody. Say you are lost. A simple request for “confirmation of position” is likely to attract a response with less priority and attention than if the pilot had stated that (s)he is lost, especially in terms of avoidance of restricted/controlled airspace and deconfliction from other traffic.

Being in a situation like this one is not a time for pride. It’s a time to ask for help, and that is the most professional thing you can do. Trust my experience on this one.