We all know the classic adage “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” It’s simple advice.
Perhaps too simple, because people still ignore it, no matter how obvious the repercussions of running afoul of it might be.
The latest and greatest example I’ve encountered happened just the other day here in central Florida. And what a doozy it was.
I flew south to Fort Lauderdale, staying over the center of the peninsula for the most part. At the southern tip of Lake Okeechobee I steered to the east, over miles and miles of sugar cane, swampland, and the occasional strip of pavement designed to get ground-pounders to the same place I was going — only a little slower.
Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport can be a challenge to the uninitiated — although the same can be said for the entire southeastern shoreline, where airports are so closely packed that from south of Miami to north of West Palm Beach, the Class B, C, and D airspace overlap into one long controlled maelstrom of aviation-related activity.
From there I zipped up to Fort Pierce, a popular jumping off place for those adventurous souls headed for a few days in the Bahamas by air.
In between Fort Lauderdale and Fort Pierce lays West Palm Beach International Airport. The departure end of the runway is so close to the beach it’s possible to get sand in your toes on a low approach. It’s also a little weird for those unaccustomed to the area.
While flying over the beach at 2,000 feet MSL, I got the call from ATC that I could either head a mile out to sea and remain below 1,000 feet, or hang just off the beach at or below 500 MSL. I took the latter option, choosing to keep my emergency landing strip close, just in case. Ten or 12 miles to the north I got the all clear to climb back up to 2,000 MSL to complete my journey.
The big whoops came on my last leg, as I was headed home to Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, the home of SUN ‘n FUN and the hangar where I keep my company car/airplane. While monitoring Orlando Approach and receiving VFR Flight Following, I heard an exchange I assumed I’d never hear.
“Orlando Approach, N(#&&@, Can you give us a heading to Lakeland? We just lost our GPS.”
At first I thought I might have heard the transmission wrong. I’m old as dirt, after all. My hearing is admittedly not as precise as it was when I was a toddler. These days it’s downright spotty. Yet, as the conversation continued, I realized I’d heard correctly. There was an airplane up there in the sky over central Florida, and her pilot had no idea where he was, or in which direction his destination airport might lie.
Over the next several minutes the pilot of that GPS-less aircraft asked for his distance to destination twice, and a heading perhaps as many as three separate times. We were both going to the same place at the same time. The difference was, I knew where I was and where I was going. He didn’t.
That can’t be a good feeling. Where there is elevated stress, there is degraded thinking. That’s not the best combination one could hope for when navigating through the sunny skies in a GA aircraft.
Thankfully, it was a sunny day with only a few small puff balls of moisture showing up over the interior. Along the east coast the clouds were thicker and more menacing. Thunderstorms would break out within an hour.
Of course I’d be back on the deck with my airplane tucked away in the hangar by then. Better yet, I’d be at the airport I’d intended to land at, and the hangar I usually stored the airplane in. The tone and length of the exchanges between the GPS-less airplane and Orlando Approach suggested they might be lucky to find pavement anywhere and put it down.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to using a GPS at all. In fact, I had three of them available to me. One in the panel, one on my iPad, and one on my phone. But I carry a secret weapon when I fly VFR that not even the best GPS in the world can beat. It’s called a Sectional Chart, and it’s what makes it possible for me to find frequencies, deviate on a dime, and match the terrain to the airspace around me. That keeps me out of trouble. Or it has so far.
My circuitous route was not a random choice. I flew down the interior of the state because the east coast had building clouds and spotty rain in the morning. I skirted Lake Okeechobee because I didn’t like the idea of being 10 miles from dry land while cruising at 3,500 MSL. And I didn’t take the straight shot from Lakeland to Fort Lauderdale because of my aversion to being shot at by military aircraft operating in the Avon Park Bomb Range – otherwise known as R-2901. ATC issued headings, climbs, and descents in order to keep a level of safety in the air that wouldn’t exist if everyone simply went where they wanted, when they wanted, at whatever altitude they wanted.
The only reason all of that worked out is because I knew where I was and where I was going throughout the whole trip. ATC knew where I was and where I was going throughout the whole trip. Neither they nor I put all our eggs in one basket. We kept an open line of communication, monitored our positions relative to each other and additional aircraft in the area, and got the outcome we were shooting for — a safe flight.
Here’s hoping another incident like that lost airplane doesn’t happen again — all for the lack of a $9 piece of paper.