My instructor and I saddled up and
headed out on our route.
The Cherokee slipped effortlessly
off the asphalt. As I held my heading, the
dim runway lights disappeared beneath
This transition from earth to sky is the
most euphoric moment of every flight. Both
the plane and I were glad to be back where
we belonged. No breeze, no thermals, the
sky was silk, and life was just as it should be.
I should’ve known
things were about to
go south. Literally.
I dialed in my first VOR and flew into
the darkness. With my altitude pegged and
my finger tracking the highlighted line on
the chart in my lap, I glanced below to the
twinkling lights of sleeping towns beneath
us. As expected, there weren’t as many
landmarks to reference at night and the
haze hid even more. Soon though, I was
hoping an airport would appear in the
empty darkness ahead.
Five clicks on the mic and runway
lights lit up at my 12 o’clock—amazing! I
was mesmerized, relieved (that the airport
was actually there), and impressed all at
the same time. I hope the cool factor of
this trick never wears off. I felt I was turning on the giant Rockefeller Center
Christmas tree lights, never mind the fact
I was in rural Wisconsin where even the
dairy cows weren’t impressed with the
light show I had just activated.
Nonetheless, it was a jolt of empowerment
and a magical sight from my seat at 2,500
feet. This simple trick has to be one of the
coolest afforded to aviators who stay up
I greased my landing there as well as at
the next airport. I also arrived to each stop
within a minute or two of schedule. I’m not
sure which is more amazing since this mail
pilot isn’t known for either of these accomplishments on a regular basis.
The flight continued calm and quiet until
we departed on the longest leg of our trip.
The flight was going too well. I should’ve
known things were about to go south.
There were no good navigational aids on
this leg, and our route would be almost
entirely over farmland, which unlike highways and towns isn’t lit at night. This leg
would be the most challenging. No worries,
though, I had my faithful compass and could
monitor my progress by triangulating from
area VORs along the way.
To spice things up a bit, my instructor
threw in a diversion exercise a few minutes
en route. I developed a new plan and continued on course to our new destination.
We began talking about other flying
adventures, experimenting with which
VORs we could pick up in the area, and after
a few minutes I looked outside to see the
blinking lights of a wind farm ahead.
“Wait a second,” I thought. “We can’t
already be south of Fond du Lac where the
wind farms are.” I glanced over to my instruments and suddenly couldn’t remember
which VOR I dialed into which station, due
to all of our tinkering.
I tried to make sense of what I saw outside, but only became more confused. No
lakes, no recognizable towns, just haze and
that wind farm, which shouldn’t be there.
In aviation, we are taught to cross-reference everything. There are occasions when
a visual waypoint doesn’t agree with where
our finger is on a sectional or when the airspeed and attitude indicator don’t match
No lakes, no
just haze and that
wind farm, which
shouldn’t be there.
what our kinesthetic senses are saying.
These apparent contradictions are among
the scariest things you can encounter in the
air, because things are supposed to agree,
and when they suddenly don’t, you have to
question everything, at least for an instant.
This was one of those instances.
I turned slightly to the right, then to the
left. Nothing. I felt my heart rate elevate and
a shot of adrenaline go through my veins. I
DEEP IN THE WOODS
A few years earlier I had been frantically
and dangerously lost while hunting deep
in the woods of northern Wisconsin. It
was an overcast November day with tem-
peratures in the single digits. I left my
backpack behind because I thought I knew
my way through these dense woods.
[Observation No. 1—Overconfidence and
complacency are not your friends.] After
half an hour of walking I saw the same
creek I had seen 20 minutes earlier. The
overcast clouds had rendered my internal
compass useless, and I realized I had been
walking in circles. [Observation No. 2—
Lack of sun increases odds of internal
Disoriented, I no longer knew which
way was north and could feel my heart
racing. The sun would be setting soon, and
temperatures would be dropping
dangerously low. I needed to get out of
those woods fast. I started walking faster,
began to sweat, and naturally shed my
jacket without thinking. [Observation No.
3—When lost, your body begins to freak
and you begin to think irrationally. Learn
to recognize this and to keep your
emotions and thinking in check.]
Thankfully at this point, I realized what
was happening and stopped.
I sat at the base of a tree, admitted to
myself I was lost, and developed a game
plan. First, I needed to make myself stay
calm. I would then walk in a straight line in
one direction until I reached higher ground
where I could see farther. Within half an
hour I found my way out of the woods.
It was a scary situation, but what I
learned that day gave me skills that proved
valuable, even for getting unlost while at
the controls of an airplane.