Posted 4 years 17 days ago ago by jhadmin
Occasionally fate (sometimes luck) steps in to break a link in an error chain, serving to protect us from ourselves. That’s what happened to me in August 1974 while ferrying a Hughes 300C 300 miles, from McArthur River Cattle Station in the Northern Territory of Australia to Mt. Isa, for the aircraft’s scheduled 100-hour inspection. I’d been flying over parched, featureless landscape for 30 minutes; each minute becoming more and more perplexed because nothing I saw outside fit my woefully inadequate map.
I’d strapped three extra jerrycans of avgas on the floor in front of the empty passenger seat to ensure I made it to Mt. Isa, but even with the extra fuel I knew that if I didn’t pinpoint my position quickly I wouldn’t make it. That’s when I got lucky—when my map blew out the window.
Because GPS navigation was pure fantasy back then, I was navigating solely by magnetic compass and a World Aeronautical Chart scaled 1 to 1 million, where 1 inch on the map (one thumb knuckle) equaled approximately 15 miles.
One of the straps holding the jerrycans needed adjusting, so I folded the map, set it against the door beside me and reached over to pull the strap tight when … whoomph! My map got sucked out the vibrating crack between the flimsy door and the airframe. It was gone like a galah (Australian bird) caught in a southern cyclone—poof!
A moment of complete shock and utter disbelief filled the cockpit because I was completely and truly lost—well, temporarily disoriented anyway—and I really needed that map. I thought to myself: I’ve become a full-fledge member of the Fugawi Indian tribe!
I’d been told about the Fugawi tribe in Army flight school six years earlier. Before we launched off on our first cross-country flight, our flight commander told us, “There will be those of you who will join the Fugawi tribe at some point in your aviation career. The Fugawi are a nomadic tribe who once roamed the Western Plains. They were never quite certain where they were, occasionally asking one another, ‘Where the Fug-awi?’.”
Prior to my map being sucked out the door, I’d been anxiously scanning the horizon, leaning forward in my seat, trying to make things make sense with what I saw on my map. It caused me to wonder why we pilots do that: lean forward in our seat while attempting to spot an aircraft or an item on the ground or trying to figure out where the heck we are. Does leaning forward that extra 2 to 3 inches really make that much difference? I had to leave that rhetorical question for another day because I had way more pressing concerns to deal with, like: Where the heck am I?
Unwilling to press on further in an aircraft with only a magnetic compass to guide me, I elected to turn around on a reciprocal heading, hoping I would see something I recognized to get me back to the cattle station.
The McArthur River Cattle Station, where I lived and worked, was a tiny dot on what was considered a medium-size property encompassing 1,639 square miles. I knew that within the next 25-30 minutes if I didn’t recognize something, I could be in very big trouble.
My link to the outside world was one VHF radio to announce my dilemma, to call for help if need be. The problem was the nearest flight service station was out of radio range, beyond line-of-sight even if I climbed to a much higher altitude.
I managed to contact a passing Qantas crew who then relayed to flight service in Tennant Creek that I was turning around (I didn’t tell them why.) and gave them my ETA to the homestead. (That is, if I managed to find it.) Then I waited, droning on at 6,000 feet, navigating by magnetic compass while unconsciously leaning forward—again—in an effort to spot something—anything—I recognized.
Navigation’s a breeze in this 21st century age. I have an electronic flight bag (EFB) carried on an iPad, making my job easy. (Perhaps it’s too easy, with the loss of an important skill—map reading—becoming a dying art.) I also have a GPS with a display showing me the surrounding terrain, letting me know exactly where I am. Easy. (Again perhaps too easy, where situational awareness is all inside, not outside the cockpit.)
Technology can present its own set of problems. When Abu Dhabi Aviation took delivery of its 12 AB-139s, a common complaint from all the pilots making the transition was the use of the flight management system (FMS). It seemed so complex that captains initially didn’t trust the copilot to enter in the information correctly, so both heads were inside the cockpit, that is until all crews became competent to operate the FMS.
Geoff Painter, who operates 19 helicopters at a flight school in Florida, told a similar story when I visited his training facility recently. He said, “I notice the students putting way too much time with their head in the cockpit looking at all the technology. I warn them it’s not safe and to remember—keep eyes out.”
As an instructor and flight examiner, if I wanted to put real fear into a student I’d simply reach over and switch off the GPS to teach them why it’s important to get a firm grip on the ‘basics,’ so if technology lets them down they won’t need to declare an emergency in a situation that was normal before GPS arrived on the scene.
I did eventually find my way back to the cattle station that day. While unloading the three jerrycans from in front of the passenger seat, I noticed my magnetic compass swing back 30 degrees. My jaw dropped. It explained why nothing fit on my map. Thank goodness I’d been forced to turn around, because the metal jerrycans affected my compass—explaining why I became a member of the Fugawi Indian tribe.
It was a lesson I never forgot.
About Randy: Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM instructor for Oregon Aero. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org