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Lost in France

By Dan Grunloh, Editor - Light Plane World

Dan Grunloh

As the flying season gets going in full swing and pilots head out on cross-country flights, there are two tips I want to offer based on hard-earned experience. First, always be aware of your current position in case the GPS screen goes blank or your paper chart goes overboard. Secondly, always have a backup navigational aid. My education came in 2005 while flying in a map navigation contest in the wheat-growing region of central France, near Levroux.

It was a simple mistake that could happen to anyone on a cross-country flight. I was following the course line with my finger on the chart trying to pronounce the names of the French towns as they went by when suddenly I was bounced around by a thermal. After struggling to get the wings level, I correctly relocated my landmarks, checked the compass, and continued on course. The next couple of checkpoints appeared as expected and then suddenly it was as if the earth moved. Nothing below matched my chart. It happened so quickly I was baffled.

Circling back to find your previous checkpoint drew a 50 percent point penalty in this contest, so I climbed for a better view and pressed on hoping something would appear. Soon I was ready to give up, but fortunately I didn’t have to land in a field and ask for directions. Instead I accepted the inevitable 100 percent point penalty and broke the seal on the bag containing my handheld GPS. I was only 4 miles off course, but I had been looking for landmarks at a place much farther along the line. When I was bounced by the thermal, I apparently put my finger on the line at the wrong spot. Unfortunately the landmarks at the new point nearly matched perfectly the landmarks below me, at least for a while.

My mistake could have been avoided by marking the landmarks on my chart as I passed them instead of simply relying on memory. There was never any worry or concern about safety, only about the loss of points and embarrassment, because I had a backup. Having a backup navigational aid (or two) takes a lot of stress out of cross-country flights in unknown territory. The paper chart can be your backup if you fly from a screen, or the other way around. A prominent road along your route or a buddy flying alongside may also work just fine.

Many pilots (me included) have noticed how much fun it is to plan cross-country flights using paper charts. Sure you can do it on a computer screen, but it doesn’t have the same feel or fun as laying charts on a table and drawing lines. Planning cross-country flights and then flying them as the weather permits is a big part of the adventure of flying. They don’t have to be long flights, but try to go places that are new to you. It’s the unknown just beyond the horizon that brings the adventure, provided you’re always aware of your current position and have a backup.

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