What do you do if you get lost while flying?

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Original publication date: March 7, 2023
Last Updated: February 9, 2024
Author: Max Skyler
Topic: Proficiency
Number of Comments: 0

In this day and age, with all of the advances in modern technology at our disposal, such as GPS and electronic navigation systems, it may seem incredulous that pilots could still lose their bearings and get lost while flying. However, it can and still does happen, believe it or not. Sometimes it is due to pilot error, due to pilot inexperience, or due to some other shortcoming on the pilot’s part. Sometimes it is due to equipment failure in the aircraft. But the fact of the matter is that all pilots need to be prepared in the unlikely event that they could get lost while flying.

Pilots who become lost while flying are trained to follow what is known as the “5 Cs checklist”. This checklist includes the following steps: Confess, Climb, Conserve, Communicate, and Comply. Following this checklist will help you to regain your situational awareness and help you get back on track.

The 5 Cs essentially constitute a common-sense remedy to get you out of trouble and back on your intended course, or at least onto a course toward a destination where you can land the airplane safely. These tips can help you prevent a potentially bad or hopeless situation from getting worse. Let’s examine each of the 5 Cs in depth, and see how we can apply them to help us out, in the hopefully unlikely event that we might ever need them.

Confess: The first thing you must do when you are lost.

They say that the first step in solving a problem is to admit that you have one. This is absolutely true when it comes to reaching the conclusion that you are lost while flying, and that you have no idea where you are.

“Confess to whom?” you might ask.

At the risk of sounding cliche, the first person you must confess to is yourself. Being in a state of denial about being lost isn’t going to help your situation.

There’s an old adage in the aviation community: “It is better to be on the ground, wishing you were in the sky, than to be in the sky, wishing you were on the ground”.

Realistically, though, the purpose of the first of the 5 Cs, to “Confess”, is to ensure that you remain calm and that you deal with the situation at hand in a methodical, rational manner.  This is no time to be macho and hold the “this would never happen to me” hazardous flight attitude. Nor is this the time to panic and start to feel hopeless.

If you are carrying passengers with you, you will need to confess to them as well, and assure them that you have the situation under control and that you are working on a solution.

Climb: The second thing you must do when you are lost.

The single best flight maneuver you can execute when you confess to yourself that you are lost, is to climb to a higher altitude.

Why would you want to do that? Climbing higher affords you numerous advantages to help you become “unlost”:

  • Climbing gives you much greater visibility of the terrain. You can compare the terrain with your onboard paper map, or electronic map if you have one. (I know what you are thinking: How can you be lost if you have an electronic map, especially if the device has built-in GPS? For the sake of argument, let’s assume that your device is unable to receive any GPS signals for whatever reason, such as due to a malfunction.) Climbing may also help you recognize familiar landmarks, such as a large body of water, a coastline, familiar buildings or highways, or anything that can help you narrow down where you geographically may be, in relation to that landmark, no matter how imprecise.
  • Climbing affords you better reception for radio communication with nearby and distant air traffic control frequencies.
  • Climbing affords you better reception of ground-based navigation signals, such as those from VORs.
  • Obviously you must only climb to altitude that keeps you within 500 feet below any cloud layer.

Conserve: The third step for when you are lost.

Due to the fact that your location is now an unknown variable, you are faced with uncertainty about whether you have enough fuel to reach your destination. If you don’t know how far you have veered off course, and you don’t know where or how far the nearest airport is, it would be in your best interests to conserve your fuel.

You can do this by:

  • Leaning the mixture to optimal cruise performance.
  • Keeping the aircraft trimmed for straight and level flight.
  • Maintaining a cruise airspeed for maximum endurance.
  • If you think you might need to ditch soon, you should pitch and trim the aircraft for best glide speed, with full flaps.

Communicate: The fourth thing to do when you are lost.

If you are lost and are unable to deduce where you are, then it may be time to radio for help. This may be rather obvious, considering that part of your pre-flight planning should have included making a note of the frequencies of the departure control and approach control at your takeoff and destination airports, and each of  the flight service stations on the route of your flight.

For argument’s sake, let’s say you did not note these down on paper, nor did you bring paper maps with you on board, and your electronic devices have malfunctioned or their batteries have died.

One frequency that all pilots should have memorized, which is universally accessible, is 121 MHz. This is known as the “Emergency” frequency. 

Therefore, if you are unsure of what frequency to dial into, you can be assured that someone at Air Traffic Control (ATC) is monitoring this frequency. You can declare an emergency stating that you are lost, and need help. Someone on the ground can help assist you in identifying where you are, or helping you tune to a nearby frequency that can assist you more locally.

In the event of an extreme emergency, such as if you are dangerously low on fuel, or you are a VFR pilot flying into IMC, you may also want to dial 7700 on your transponder to declare an emergency. Simply being lost does not in and of itself constitute an emergency; however if your situation deteriorates and you are in a desperate situation, then this is an option for you as well.

Comply: The fifth thing you must do when you are lost.

Once you have established two-way communication with someone on the ground at ATC through 121.5 or through some other frequency, it behooves you to comply with their directives. If they assign you a heading, a vector, an altitude, or a squawk code, to help you navigate back on course until you regain familiarity with your present location, or to help you navigate to the nearest airport to help you get safely back on the ground, then you are expected to comply.

Circle: Another thing you may consider doing when lost.

Although not one of the traditional “5 Cs” of lost procedures, perhaps a “6th C” would be to “circle” when lost.

In other words, rather than continuing to fly in a particular direction, not knowing whether or not it is taking you further off course, you could do well to stay in one spot and continuously circle over on specific area, while you climb, see if you can recognize any landmarks, and then establish communication with Air Traffic Control.

In this particular circumstance, circling could potentially help to keep an already bad situation from getting worse.

What preflight planning tips can mitigate getting lost?

  • Before embarking on your flight, all pilots are required to research all information necessary for the flight, including not only the information about the departure and arrival airports and the navigation aids enroute, but also information to help you in case of emergency, for example if you need to divert to an alternate airport.
  • You should be familiar with all navigation frequencies, not only of the ones that you intend to use along your flight, but also any CTAF, flight service stations, approach control, or tower frequencies for airports along your route of flight, even if you do not intend to communicate with them.
  • You should also be familiar with all active VORs in the vicinity of your route of flight as well, even if you intend to fly via GPS. Why? In the event of a GPS failure, you will have VORs to fall back on.
  • You should also become not only familiar with your aircraft’s onboard navigations primary and backup navigation systems, but you should also plan to have backup navigation tools available in your cockpit, whether it is a tablet or a phone with a navigation app.
  • You should also plan to keep paper sectional charts in your aircraft as well, in case of emergency. If your electronic navigation tools fail you, then you can always fall back to paper.
  • Worst case scenario, it would behoove you to plan for some good old fashioned, analog dead reckoning along your route of flight as well. What are the highways, railroad tracks, rivers, lakes, or familiar landmarks that you expect to see along your route to flight? What airports will you be overflying or flying close to, along your route of flight?
  • Having an idea of what landmarks you will encounter on your route of flight not only can serve you well in the event you lose your navigation capability and you get lost, but it will also help serve as a reality-check against your navigation instruments to ensure that you are on track.
  • When planning your flight, try to choose checkpoints that are within 25 nautical miles from each other. More checkpoints that are closer together, are better than fewer checkpoints that are further apart. By selecting your checkpoints in this manner, you are less likely to deviate from your track. And if you do end up becoming lost at some point, you will know that you aren’t more than 25 nautical miles from your previous checkpoint. Plus, being within 25 nautical miles increases the likelihood that you will be within range of a VOR or some other airport.

How can flight following help prevent you from getting lost?

All pilots will have been taught about flight following at some point, during their private pilot training. Flight following is an optional service that pilots can request from ATC when flying under VFR conditions.

The way flight following works is that ATC will assign you a unique transponder squawk code, so that they can uniquely identify your aircraft on their radar. This way, they can monitor your position, your direction of flight, your airspeed, and your altitude.

They can act as a second set of eyes on you, during your flight. Should you get lost, you simply call up ATC and request vectors to your destination, and they can assist you. Not only that, but they can also help you steer clear of other traffic (although under VFR, it is ultimately the pilot’s responsibility to see and avoid other traffic).

It is recommended to always take advantage of flight following whenever you can. If they see you veering off your course, they can call you out and help vector you back on track.

How is it possible to get lost in this day and age?

With all the advancements in technology that we have at our disposal in this day and age, it may seem unlikely that a pilot could get lost while flying. But it can happen!

  • Stress – If a pilot is stressed due to personal issues they are grappling with in their lives, it can affect their emotional state and interfere with their concentration during flight.
  • Fatigue – If a pilot is fatigued due to not having enough sleep the night before, or they have already flown for far too long without adequate rest, then it could impair their judgment.
  • Inexperience – If a pilot is inexperienced, either due to being a student pilot, or a rusty pilot who hasn’t flown in a while, then their inexperience could yield improper decision making under pressure.
  • Unpreparedness – An overconfident pilot who takes preflight planning lightly, can land themselves in serious trouble (no pun intended) if they encounter a situation during flight that requires deviation from their intended course.
  • Technology failure – Phones and tablet batteries can die. GPS interference can occur. VORs can be out of service. If you are relying on technology without a backup plan, then this can get you in trouble. 
  • Complacency – Complacency and over-reliance on automation and technology, without using your brain to maintain proper situational awareness can also lead to trouble.

Max Skyler

Max Skyler is a Private Pilot with nearly 200 hours of total flight time under his belt. He is a freelance writer for PilotDiscovery.com. Flying is not his day job. (He's into computers.) But flying is among his passions and hobbies. He just passed his instrument ground school course, and is getting ready to take the IFR written exam as we speak, in early January 2024! He hopes to earn his instrument writing within a year. We've brought him onto our team to share his insights on all-things general aviation, with our community of readers. Let's wish him good luck on his instrument written exam!

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