Directionally Challenged



There was an op-ed piece in the New York Times not too long ago that bemoaned the advent of GPS technology for cars, because it was going to spoil all the fun of wandering around and getting lost on road trips. The man should have talked to me. I could have assured him with great confidence that it is possible to still get quite turned around or lost with not only a working GPS, but even with a radio, map, and an eye-in-the-sky perspective at your disposal. It just takes a little more talent, that's all.

Take, for example, the flight I took with my buddy Jeff the other day. It was almost Los Angeles-grade hazy and, even though we waited until mid-afternoon, fog was still blocking the entire central valley and North Bay. So we just headed southeast from Palo Alto to a small, uncontrolled field south of San Jose, where I practiced landings until the sun began to sink into the hazy layers of dusk.

South County airport lies a grand and mighty distance of 35 nautical miles from Palo Alto. And Jeff learned to fly here, for goodness' sake. So you'd think we could find our way home without incident, especially with a Garmin GPS sitting brightly on the glareshield.

Right. So did we.

But as we skirted the San Jose airspace to the southwest, we found ourselves looking north into a darkening, gray murkiness that afforded a decent view of the western sky, horizon, and mountain peaks sticking up out of the haze, but completely shrouded the landmarks below with a moist curtain of steel tones. This, of course, is where a GPS supposedly comes in handy. So I glanced at the Garmin, saw the airport marking, and steered us toward it. The rest would become clear by the time we needed it to. At eight miles out, I contacted the tower and was cleared, number one, for landing.

Jeff, however, was beginning to frown. "I think you need to correct to the right," he said.

"No," I answered. I'm heading straight for the airport. Look." I gestured to the GPS. Jeff looked at the airport symbol I was indicating.

"Lane, that's San Carlos, not Palo Alto," he said.

Whoops. San Carlos lies just a few miles north of Palo Alto, situated almost identically along the San Francisco Bay. And I would bet good money that I'm far from the first pilot to ever mistake the two.

"Just turn and head toward the water," Jeff said, gesturing at a vague line I could just make out in the murk. With the normal landmarks obscured and having gotten off course, everything looked odd. I was still looking out the window trying to sort it out when the tower called and asked if we had the airport in sight.

"I do," Jeff answered confidently, so I told the tower we did.

Half a minute later, the tower controller called back. "Are you sure you have the runway?" he asked. Note to self: When a controller asks you for a second time if you really see the runway, chances are pretty good that you're not where you think you are.

Just as I pressed the mic to answer, I looked down and saw the bright white tent-tops of the Shoreline Amphitheater, just in front of my right wing. But if that was the amphitheater, that meant that Palo Alto's runway must be …

I looked left, and saw the runway right where it should be, but completely not where we thought it was, at our 10 o'clock position, about a mile away. "Uh … that's affirmative," I answered sheepishly. Of course, the runway looked a tad smaller than usual, because in my distracting efforts to sort out landmarks and my GPS error, we'd ended up a tad higher than we should have been. By, like, a thousand feet.

Now what? We were, by a stroke of luck, the only plane in the pattern. So I chopped the power, pulled the nose up to slow into flap speed, looked right, and then, the coast clear, banked that way to give myself a little more maneuvering room.

"Niner-four-uniform, where are you going?" came the tower controller's exasperated voice through the headsets. I can only imagine what he was thinking at that point. Fortunately, I will probably never have to know.

"Just doing an S-turn to lose a little altitude, sir," I answered as I turned back around to a long final. Well, kind of an S-turn, anyway. I lowered full flaps and immediately put the Cheetah into the kind of slip I used to use with the Cessna 120, the controls fully deflected all the way down to the runway. The landing itself, when we finally got to it, was actually surprisingly nice.

"Well," I commented wryly as we taxied off the runway, "I guess I'm now current on non-standard approaches, as well."

Thirty-five miles to a familiar airport, with a working GPS on board, and I still managed to get completely sideways in my navigation. That, my friends, takes talent.

On the other hand, I think I may have an unusual aptitude in this particular area, which has showed itself repeatedly, but not necessarily consistently, ever since I learned to fly. Sometimes, my internal compass works like a Swiss watch. But sometimes, the gears just seem to slip a bit. It's not that I get lost, you understand. I'm just sometimes a bit … well, directionally challenged, as it were.

It was worse before the advent of GPS, of course. I will never forget a trip my friend Kimberly and I took more than 10 years ago to Northern California. I was doing a story on the fly-in community at Cameron Park, just east of Sacramento, so while I did six interviews in as many hours, Kimberly bopped around to several nearby airports to visit friends. Consequently, we were both very tired when we climbed in her Luscombe to head west to Santa Rosa, where we planned to spend the night.

I gave Kimberly vectors to skirt the Sacramento airspace to the south, which got us more than a little turned around before all was said and done. Then, making the skewed mental assumption that the coastal mountains ahead must be west of us, I told her to head toward them. Unfortunately, it turns out that the California coastline runs primarily southeast to northwest. So heading for the coastal mountains actually sent us _south_west, at a fairly good angle off course.

After a few minutes' flying time, I looked at the sectional and said, "Now, there should be an airport coming up out your window somewhere."

"Yeah, there's one right here," she said, as I continued to peruse the map. "It's kind of big," she added after a moment. Big? My map showed an uncontrolled field with a single runway. I looked up … and saw Travis Air Force Base's two 11,000-foot, staggered runways completely filling Kimberly's window.

"Turn right!! NOW!!!" I yelped sharply as I scrambled for Travis' frequency. Fortunately, that was a lot of years ago, and we did not get escorted to the ground by fighters or Blackhawk helicopters.

Nevertheless, none of my friends was surprised when the very next purchase I made after buying the Cheetah was a Garmin Pilot III GPS. No more blundering into unexpected airports or airspace for me, by golly. When I took cross-country flights into unfamiliar places, I'd pre-program my route into the Garmin and simply follow the line on the map. On course, no mess, no fuss, no directional worries at all. I always kept a sectional on my lap, but my confidence came from the dark line across the light gray screen on the glareshield in front of me. I even got to feeling a fair bit proud about my ability to navigate with GPS accuracy.

Ah, the pride that goeth before the fall.

Sometime after I bought the Cheetah, Kimberly and I were coming back in it from a trip north of Klamath Falls, Oregon. It was a warm, sunny day, and I was happily following my pre-programmed GPS course across the Klamath Valley while Kimberly and I shot the breeze. As we headed toward the ridges near Mt. Shasta, I even noted with satisfaction how incredibly well I was adhering to my dark gray course line.

As Kimberly and I chatted on, however, I noticed that we seemed to be heading straight for a section of ridgeline that was significantly higher than our altitude. I checked the GPS. No, I was still precisely on course, and I knew I had plotted the course to go through a cut in the ridgeline. We just must not be able to see it yet.

It never ceases to amaze me how long it can take the human brain to adjust to the true reality of things when it sets itself on a different view of a situation, person, or event. But the dissonance finally gained traction in my mind at almost the exact same moment as the looming terrain conflict registered with Kimberly.

"Uh, Lane?" she said in a questioning voice. "That ridge there looks kinda higher than we are."

"I know," I answered, "but look. The GPS says …"

I looked at the Garmin and stopped, mid-sentence. The course on my GPS had just gone completely haywire. The line behind the airplane symbol was completely straight, as any GPS course should be. But at the very upper edge of the moving map display, which showed where we were headed, the straight course line suddenly dissolved into a compact, zigzag pattern, like a seismograph recording of the San Francisco Quake. What on earth … ? I zoomed the display out several times as I tried to figure out what would make a GPS course do that.

The answer was: nothing. Forty miles or so earlier, my GPS course had forked away from a very straight road that was also depicted on the map. I must not have been paying attention at that particular moment, and I had the display zoomed in enough that when I did check it, all I saw was the road, which I had been following faithfully ever since. The zigzags were simply the road doing what all good roads do when they encounter a steep ridgeline they need to cross.

"Oh, my God," I exclaimed. "I've been following a road, not the course!"

"Whatever," Kimberly answered. "But if I were you, I'd be either turning or climbing about now." God bless friends and low-key flying companions. In the end, I climbed and turned, accompanied by Kimberly's laughter-which continued, along with some friendly ribbing, for pretty much the rest of the flight home.

Have I learned a bunch of lessons from all of this? Oh, yeah. Every day's a school day, as my sister likes to say. But am I silly enough to think I don't have many more refresher lessons in my future? Not by a long shot.

Technology is a wonderful thing. But the human brain, especially when aided by presumption, distraction, challenging weather conditions, or just sheer fatigue, will always find a way to get it sideways. So all those old-school road explorers need not worry. They, like us, will still find themselves scratching their heads, seeing unexpected sights, and making all sorts of unplanned U-turns on the side roads of life. For on the road, everyone follows Visual Flight Rules. And with VFR travel, "getting there" can always turn into a bit of an adventure. Even with a GPS on the dash.