High ceilings early in the day had, by mid-afternoon, given way to a 3,500-foot overcast and declining visibility. Below the clouds it was still decent VFR, and would remain so for several hours when some storms in advance of a cold front would hit the Florida peninsula. But a haze had settled that cut visibility to about seven miles.
I was flying the Citabria from a meeting in Venice, Fla., back home to Orlando at 2,000 feet and I had tuned in the Lakeland Tower frequency in advance of transitioning that airspace. Things were pretty quiet until an uncertain voice came on the radio.
Uh, Lakeland. This is Bonanza 12Z calling for Lakeland. Lakeland Tower.
Bonanza 12Z, Lakeland Tower.
Uh, Im coming in there and, uh, I cant find, uh, I cant find the airport.
Note that Lakeland has a VOR on the field, which was in service at the time. Winds were out of the southeast and runway 9 was in use.
The controller helped the pilot orient himself and gave him a 160-degree heading that would put him on a left base for runway 9. Over the next few minutes, however, it became apparent the pilot was either unable to hold a heading or had some kind of unspoken equipment issue. He ended up flying east. And then west. And then east again.
Despite attempts by the controller to guide him in, the pilot was flying back and forth looking for the airport. In exasperation, the controller started suggesting prominent landmarks. The area around Lakeland is dotted with lakes, one that has a large power plant on the shore. An interstate highway runs past it a few miles away.
When finally the controller had the Bonanza lined up on final for runway 9, he asked the pilot if the runway was in sight. It was not. The flight came in closer.
Do you see that smokestack about a mile in front of you? the controller asked. Fly right over that. The runway is 12 oclock and two miles.
The pilot reported seeing the smokestack, but incredibly said he still couldnt see the runway. By now, I was about six miles out and could see the Bonanza coming up on the runway.
Finally, the pilot reported the runway in sight and landed. He then told the controller hed been looking on the wrong side of the highway for the airport.
Now, I dont mean to imply this pilot was irresponsible because he got disoriented or lost or whatever you want to call it. What shocked me was the complete and utter lack of proficiency he showed, both in trying to follow the controllers instructions and using the radio.
Not all pilots fly as much as they need to, and not all pilots get routine practice in radio communications. If you fall into one of these categories, do something about it before your Bonanza (or whatever) gets the better of you.