Pilots become lost while flying for a variety of reasons, such as disorientation, flying over unfamiliar territory, or visibility that is low enough to render familiar terrain unfamiliar. When a pilot becomes lost, the first order of business is to fly the aircraft; the second is to implement lost procedures. Keep in mind that the pilot workload will be high, and increased concentration will be necessary. If lost, always remember to look for the practically invisible hazards, such as wires, by searching for their support structures, such as poles or towers, which are almost always near roads.
If lost, follow common sense procedures.
- Try to locate any large landmarks, such as lakes, rivers, towers, railroad tracks, or Interstate highways. If a landmark is recognized, use it to find the helicopter’s location on the sectional chart. If flying near a town or city, a pilot may be able to read the name of the town on a water tower or even land to ask for directions.
- If no town or city is nearby, the first thing a pilot should do is climb. An increase in altitude increases radio and navigation reception range as well as radar coverage.
- Navigation aids, dead reckoning, and pilotage are skills that can be used as well.
- Do not forget air traffic control (ATC)—controllers assist pilots in many ways, including finding a lost helicopter. Once communication with ATC has been established, follow their instructions.
These common-sense procedures can be easily remembered by using the four Cs: Climb, Communicate, Confess, and Comply.
- Climb for a better view, improved communication and navigation reception, and terrain avoidance.
- Communicate by calling the nearest flight service station (FSS)/automated flight service station (AFSS) on 122.2 MHz. If the FSS/AFSS does not respond, call the nearest control tower, center, or approach control. For frequencies, check the chart in the vicinity of the last known position. If that fails, switch to the emergency radio frequency (121.5 MHz) and transponder code (7700).
- Report the lost situation to ATC and request help.
- Comply with controller instructions.
Pilots should understand the services provided by ATC and the resources and options available. These services enable pilots to focus on aircraft control and help them make better decisions in a time of stress.
When contacting ATC, pilots should provide as much information as possible because ATC uses the information to determine what kind of assistance it can provide with available assets and capabilities. Information requirements vary depending on the existing situation, but at a minimum a pilot should provide the following information:
- Aircraft identification and type
- Nature of the emergency
- Aviator’s desires
To reduce the chances of getting lost in the first place, use flight following through active contact with an aircraft during flight either by radio or through automated flight following systems when it is available, monitor checkpoints no more than 25 miles apart, keep navigation aids such as Very High-Frequency Omni-Directional Range (VOR) tuned in, and maintain good situational awareness. Flight following provides ongoing surveillance information to assist pilots in avoiding collisions with other aircraft.
Getting lost is a potentially dangerous situation for any aircraft, especially when low on fuel. Due to the helicopter’s unique ability to land almost anywhere, pilots have more flexibility than other aircraft as to landing site. An inherent risk associated with being lost is waiting too long to land in a safe area. Helicopter pilots should land before fuel exhaustion occurs because maneuvering with low fuel levels could cause the engine to stop due to fuel starvation as fuel sloshes or flows away from the pickup port in the tank.
If lost and low on fuel, it is advisable to make a precautionary landing. Preferably, land near a road or in an area that would allow space for another helicopter to safely land and provide assistance. Having fuel delivered is a minor inconvenience when compared to having an accident. Once on the ground, pilots may seek assistance.