Like you, I “read” Playboy growing up because I loved the articles. The interviews were the best. But long before I ever saw a Playboy, my major magazine consumption was Highlights for Children. They usually appeared in a doctor or dentist’s waiting room. I didn’t like the articles that much, and the interviews left something to be desired, but I did like the pictures. Mostly, I loved the “embedded pictures,” in which you would search for the hidden objects amid a more complex picture. If you’re anywhere near my age, and we’re a dying breed, you’ll know what I am talking about.
I used to think I was pretty good at it, which wasn’t really hubris, because there’s a similar task on the classic Wechsler Intelligence Test, and when I practiced it in graduate school I did a pretty good job compared to my peers. That is why I find it frustrating that I seem to have great difficulty finding the airport I am heading for from the air when I know I am near. My maps tell me it should be right in front of me, but all I see is a whole lot of buildings, roads, and trees. When I am flying with a more experienced pilot, it isn’t uncommon for the other pilot to point his finger and say, “See, there it is…. right next to that barn…”
“Oh yeah, that barn….” I look, I really do, but can’t see it, sometimes until I am practically on top of it.
This is not a small thing. Usually, when flying, I am being followed by an air traffic controller. They are there to help me out, but at some point they need to stop holding my hand. Usually, they do that based on my response to the question: “Do you have the airport in sight?” I want to tell them I do when I don’t, because I know I should and they are very busy people. I have been so tempted so often to say “affirmative” when instead I have to clench my teeth, shorten my breath and abashedly key the mic to utter “negative.”
You would think that an airport would stand out like a sore thumb from the air, and it does if you are high enough. But the way geometry works, it is easier to see something when looking down from above then when you are looking forward toward the horizon. That is why, when learning to navigate, pilots are taught to climb when they are lost. It is easier to make sense of where you are when you see the big picture as a flat map rather than a stretch of terrain in front of you.
There have been times, I confess, that I think I have found the airport, pointed my nose in its direction, and realized I was headed the wrong way. Sometimes taxiways look a lot like runways, but sometimes even big drainage ditches or gaps in the constructed landscape can masquerade as airports. It doesn’t happen often, a fact for which I am grateful, but it happens, even to famous people.
Harrison Ford managed to have his wrists slapped rather than face a stiffer fine when he, now famously, admitted to the controller “I’m the schmuck who landed on the taxiway.” Humility sometimes gets rewarded, as it should, although humility may have had little to do with it. Sometimes it’s difficult to know just what the folks at the FAA are thinking.
I have yet to land at the wrong airport, on a taxiway, or the wrong runway. I got really close when I flew the pattern over an airport that I thought was Claremont in California. No one responded to my radio calls on the local frequency, which was odd, but there was no one else in the pattern and there was no tower so radio silence wasn’t that unusual. It was only when I saw the numbers on the runway not matching the numbers at Claremont that I realized something was very wrong. I aborted the landing, climbed out of the pattern, and discovered that I was about to land at Brackett Field, which was less than 10 miles from Claremont’s Cable Airport. From the air, that’s right next door, but still… I was flying solo, so my embarrassment was all internal, and I don’t think I ever told anyone until now.
There are many ways to prepare for landing at an airport with which one is unfamiliar. Nowadays, you can use Google Earth to “fly” over the airport and get a good sense of what it will look like, but even then, subtle changes in lighting caused by time of day and weather can make the earth below look quite different from the day in which Google memorialized it. The idea, of course, is to prepare as best as we can, and then depend on the skills finely honed by Highlights for Children.