Brush with “Disorientation”

Nobody in aviation gets lost. We get “disoriented”. Yeah… that’s it. Disoriented.

I decided to go somewhere new and further this time to build some cross country time… solo. I planned a flight to Martin County (MCZ) about 40 miles east of Rocky Mount, then to Johnston County (very near where we used to live), and back to Sanford. A 192nm trip that would include some night flying.

I started out with enough sunlight left to get me to and out of MCZ. I had no problems making my way to Wilson, but I missed my first checkpoint after Sanford where I had intended to do some timing to figure out my ground speed. No big deal, I thought, I could see where I was going. After passing Wilson, however, things started looking very unfamiliar. The sun was setting behind me causing poor visibility from haze in front of me and next to zero visibility behind me due to glare. My calculations told me I should be spotting the airport, but it was nowhere to be found.

I continued on track trying to match up anything on the sectional with what I saw outside, but it just didn’t add up. After a few more minutes I started getting that awful feeling of being… disoriented. I did not like that at all. As a last ditch effort before the inevitable call to Raleigh approach for vectors, I followed what looked like the road heading toward Robersonville, which is west/southwest of the airport. The bends in the road before made me think I was already there, but within a few minutes, I saw the town, the bends in the road, and finally, the airport. What a relief.

It turns out the winds aloft were more of a headwind than predicted and I was going slow enough to throw off my timing completely. I just needed to keep flying longer… at least I got the heading right. If I just hadn’t missed that first checkpoint…

I landed, gathered my paperwork and nerves, and took off for Johnston County.

I like night flight, but it turns out that the time during sunset and shortly after before the city lights come on is a difficult time to navigate. I was able to maintain orientation this time and once the city lights came on, things got much easier. I approached what was clearly Selma and Smithfield and easily spotted the airport. There was a lot of traffic there according to the radio chatter, so I was expecting to have to deal with it, but they all disappeared before I landed.

As I was taxiing back, a twin Beechcraft announced his taxi to the opposite runway. I wasn’t too crazy about that since the winds favored my choice and I didn’t want to have a face off with a plane that large… any plane, actually. I made my announcement loud and clear that I was departing my runway; the twin hadn’t even made it to the other end yet, so there was no conflict.

About 200 feet in the air, the Beechcraft makes the following call: “Aircraft getting ready to take off… be careful, I just saw a couple deer run across the runway.” Yikes! I was already in the air, so it wasn’t a problem, but all the “what ifs” started coming to mind. I announced my status, put it behind me and moved on.

The flight back to Sanford was uneventful and most welcome.

That was a really long 2.9 hours of flight. It’s time to break out the old GPS.