Go Get Lost


Today’s misapplied quote flutters over the transom on the butterfly wings of 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I understood as a child. However,” the author continues, “when I became a man (no mention of women; undoubtedly an oversight), I put away childish things.” Only not so much in aviation, because as an adult—in age only—whenever I open a hangar door, childish things inside refuse to stay put away and sproing out like unchained Slinkys. Nothing anyone can do about it, Sister Belladonna. She was the fourth-grade teacher who caught me staring out the classroom window at airplanes headed to nearby Teterboro, N.J., airport and said if I didn’t “pay attention” to whatever group activity had bored me into somnambulance, I’d never amount to anything. She was right, and I haven’t.

On my first flying lesson in 1973, the instructor, Jim Rounkle, asked: “Why do you want to fly?” I was stumped. Being 19, that wasn’t unusual, and I muttered some malarky about speedy travel and career opportunities when the real reason eluded me. Yeah, I’d hoped flying would make me look cool, but it didn’t. Nothing does. There was no right answer, and today, I still don’t know. Although, I do know it had little to do with practicality.

Upon reflection, possessing a pilot certificate and a variety of airplanes has allowed me to fly far and wide, even when ATC complains that I’ve passed my clearance limit or am wide of the assigned route. But, and this is quotable, getting lost is the first step toward being found, and there’s merit in diverting to ask directions.

I hesitate whenever briefers—cyber or human—request my intended destination, like I’m supposed to know. C’mon, do you always know why you’ve walked into a room? Or opened the refrigerator? The primary reason I brief for flight is to spot TFRs within 100 miles of my departure point, and I generally know where that is. Strangers, seeing me preflighting, might ask the silly question, “Where ya goin’?” I’ll reply, “Don’t know, but it’s a nice day to get there.” Then, if they seem not too crazy and won’t put the airplane significantly over gross, I’ll ask, “Wanna come along?” By then, they’ve usually moonwalked away. Their loss. If I were an airline captain—and be thankful I’m not—my PA announcement would be: “They’re closin’ the door, folks, so we’ll be gettin’ underway momentarily. (Pause.) Any destination requests?” Flying for Spirit Airlines, I might add, “Care to wager when or if we’ll leave the gate …?”

It’d be helpful if, when briefing online or with a perceived AFSS human, after selecting an arrival airport, the briefer would prompt, “Pilots who briefed for Hollister Muni, also liked …” and provide alternates.

Perhaps I’m callow and not the ideal spokesperson for aviation … or anything with serious adult intent, such as hot air ballooning. That said, I’ll marvel at the latest Garmin/Avidyne/PlayStation displays that replace an airplane’s analog instruments and might as well cover the windshield, because computers can navigate way better than I can and now even land better, which admittedly is a low bar. But I’ll always check the wet compass after turning to a heading and tap the oil pressure gauge on engine start. Older airplanes expect that. Plus—and this gets techy eyeballs rolling—I proselytize about coordinated turns or utilizing adverse aileron yaw in crosswind landings. You know, stick-and-rudder skills, not swipe-right aeronautical distraction making.

Possibly a fetish, I enjoy the feel of paper charts, leaching the essence of fresh magenta. Before downshifting from Basic Med status to Sport Pilot—to avoid risking the latter in hopes of retaining the former—I taught primary students to navigate, using paper sectionals, mechanical E6B computers, and the vague unease of always feeling slightly lost. A little anxiety sharpens the mind and challenges your assumptions. Not so for Lindbergh who crossed the North Atlantic with confidence and stunning accuracy, utilizing little more than an earth inductor compass and a cheese sandwich, both now in the National Air and/or Space Museum. But I ain’t Lindy, and he wasn’t merely “Lucky.”

Consistently finding one’s destination is overrated and engenders high expectations, leading to unnecessary stress. Example: If you’re holding a heading, which is making you lost, then any other heading is possibly better than the one you’re on so get off it. GPS, VORs (for retro-nav), and ATC assistance makes getting found and pointed in the right direction easy but dissatisfying. I prefer, instead, to land at what appears to be an airport and ask the local sheriff in my best W.C. Fields voice, “Is this Kansas City, Kansas or Kansas City, Missouri?” *  I once became so pathetically lost over Tennessee that I landed to ask directions, only to discover I was in Kentucky. There being scant difference between the two, I stayed, met nice folks at the FBO, borrowed their car and spent the night in it.

But all seriousness aside, consider Donald A. Hall, an adult engineer who must’ve paid attention in grade school and designed Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis Ryan NYP monoplane.  More to my design comprehension, though, is Slinky. This pre-compressed helical spring was invented (discovered) in 1945 by Richard T. James who was supposed to be working with other adults on gizmos to stabilize instruments but instead, must’ve been staring out the window at airplanes when he knocked over a coiled wire that “walked” down from his desk and inspired future pilots everywhere. Therefore, if you want to experience the full measure of aviation genius, refuse—as Richard T. James did—to put away those childish things that make kids better at appreciating what’s seriously better in flight.

* WC Fields’ Kansas City line is from International House (1933), uttered as a rejoinder to, “Perhaps you’re lost,” to which autogyro pilot Fields replied, “I, sir, am right here. It is Kansas City that is lost.”

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  1. My typical destination response is “up”.

    If asked the mission… “checking to see if the little round circles are still on the top and bottom of my gyro”

  2. Those who were never lost in an airplane are either too green to have made the experience or too old to remember. Unlike German the English language sadly lacks a dedicated word for being lost in an airplane („verfranzt“). Great article! The right answer to the „why do you want to fly“ question was given by the Romans as „navigare necesse est“ and – more poetically – by none other than the great Leonardo Da Vinci.

    • There are several synonyms for verfranzen, including muddled, perplexed, addled, discombobulated,
      and (most appropriately, for anyone interested in aviation) befogged. There are also the “standard”
      translations (to lose one’s way, to lose one’s bearings–the latter could refer to someone on land, or
      at sea). Whereas, befogged is a state of mind, as well as an atmospheric condition. There is also
      another word, which may be superior to all the rest: confounded. You don’t hear it very often, but
      it connotes complete bewilderment, coupled with dismay, anxiety, fear, and anger. Shakespeare’s
      Sonnet 64 affords a perfect example:

      When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d
      The rich-proud cost of outworn buried age;
      When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
      And brass eternal, slave to mortal rage;
      When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
      Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
      And the firm soil win of the wat’ry main,
      Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
      When I have seen such interchange of state,
      Or state itself confounded to decay;
      Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate —
      That Time will come and take my love away.
      This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
      But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

      Here the word “confounded” means ‘baffled out of its wits, unable to cope with its problems,
      losing its grip on reality and thus unable to control events, on the verge of self-annihilation,
      having no idea of where it is, let alone where it is headed, having no idea what to do next,
      or how to restore order,’ and so on. I prefer befogged, but confounded is both broader
      in semantic scope and deeper in emotional resonance. Besides, it’s Shakespeare. If it’s
      good enough for the Bard, it should fly anywhere you want to go, without getting lost or
      mixed-up along the way–nicht Wahr?

  3. How lost can you get if you employ the time-honored method of reading water towers? Which in this era goes something like “I’m on a direct course from ‘Go Panthers’ and, uh…*huge picture of smiley face*…”

    • I still thank the town of Hazard Ky, for painting their name on their water tower( at least it was there 55 years ago) to save this student pilot from terminal embarrassment.

    • A friend used to fly T-29s in Central California training Air Force Navigators. He had to make repeated calls to ATC to change their clearance as the Navs learned their skills. He had made so many requests late one night that the controller relented and cleared them to “ wander aimlessly around central California and maintain 12000 feet.”

      • I was one of those Los Angeles Center controllers, late ’60s, early ’70s, that watched those T-29s wander aimlessly around the airspace.

  4. Where were you Paul when I needed your humor the most? That would have been during the pre GPS era of the 1970s searching for that elusive first strip 6 degrees south of the Equator in central Africa. The end of dry season in those climes is characterized by clear, visibility 1 mile in smoke with a possible thunderstorm lurking because rainy season is just around the corner. The end of dry season was “Go Get Lost” day every day. I could really have used a little humor and W.C. Fields’s line back then. Oh well, better late than never. Thanks again for the chuckles.

  5. Paul’s statement to the people of Corinth was no oversight. He was a man, not a woman. (And unlike today, in his time there was no confusion over the fact.)

    • Did Paul intend to exclude women–or anyone else–from the kingdom of heaven?
      Did he suppose that “faith, love and charity” applied only to some of God’s people,
      and not others? If so, then he was very childish, indeed–and hardly consistent
      with Christ’s teachings, either in letter or spirit. Sister Belladonna would not be
      amused, and no one else should be, lest Y-h clip their wings, just before takeoff.
      You know how angry fathers can get–even a nice Jewish boy can’t control them.

  6. After over 50 years of going places, my two main aircraft today are a de Havilland DH82a Tiger Moth, and a Mudry CAP10B all-wood aerobatic trainer. My flying these days rarely has a destination other than, “I wonder how well we can …” followed by something I haven’t tried yet. The CAP10B brings me the joy of being completely free to move about in the air while the Tiger Moth makes me a part of the air. In the CAP10B loops and rolls are a breeze while spins make me focus. In the Tiger Moth, loops and rolls make me work, while spins become the most natural thing in the world. “Genteel and lady-like she is.”

    I guess the point is, the journey IS the destination, and it has little to do with my location on a map. And sometimes it is just the search for the perfect 3-point landing … somewhere.

  7. Reminds me of my children asking ‘Are we lost?” when out on backroads.

    Nope, I know where we are, just figuring out how to get out of this area.


  8. Awesome writing! When I don’t actually get to fly, you are sometimes the best part of my day. Airborne, sitting in the left seat, I have frequently answered “Where are we?” with “I don’t know, but I know where we’re going” (somewhere in the sublime peace between lost … and found).

  9. A technologically challenged friend of mine taught me that GPS direct-to precision navigation is only for pilots who want the flying portion of their day to end sooner.

  10. I’m reminded of a line from Little Rascals:
    Q: Hey, where are you going?
    A: I don’t know but I’m on my way!

    PS – an old saying is men are never lost. They are merely not where they want to be.

  11. Heading in a general direction and deciding which airport you want to land at after taking off isn’t so bad. But I do want to know where I am at all times. Just in case something goes amiss and I need to land ASAP. Nice to know where the airports are. And if we’re fat on fuel and can make it to any of the airports in the general area we’re headed, there’s nothing wrong with choosing one when we get close to the area while airborne. That’s one of the nice things about not having to file a flight plan for every flight with a pre-planned destination. Like over in Europe and other countries where everyone has to file a flight plan for every flight. I think in the UK I heard they can stay in the traffic pattern shooting landings, or “circuits” as they call them, with no flight plan. But that’s it.

  12. The latest DOT stats from June 2021 show that SWA cancelled 3.3% of its flights, while NKS cancelled 0.6%. I expect better research from you, even in a humor piece.