It was one of those typical mid-summer days. Hot, humid, and clear skies. I was not happy. Out of all the zones we had, some spectacular spots like zone Iž at the Kornati archipelago, I got zone Kistanje. For those unfamiliar with Zadar and its surroundings – Kistanje is a small town SE of the airport, close to the famous Krka national park. The landscape is reminiscent of the Arizona desert, flat, and dry, with a handful of trees, and bushes here and there. The only prominent feature of this desolate scenery is the water tower at the eastern entrance to the town. It is a fine example of Yugoslav concrete modernistic architecture with a twist – the water reservoir was painted in cyan. As it sticks out quite notably, it became the center point of the zone. Finding the route to zone Kistanje was not easy in nice weather, let alone on a hazy summer day. Usually, we would fly from the airport along the coastline until Vrana lake and then turn eastwards looking for a long straight stretch of the railway just before the entrance into the town, which helped quite a lot in finding the zone. This is how I got to Kistanje. The task of the day was a solo aerobatic zone and due to the fact, that only the railway could be somehow used for orientation during the maneuvers I was quite nervous. Poor visibility certainly didn’t help. Nevertheless, I found the water tower at the end of the town and started with the prescribed program: level flight, normal and steep turns, half-roll and into the loop, roll, Immelmann, and so on. I was halfway into the routine, just about to start the Immelmann when I caught with the corner of my eye a strange shadow on the floor. It was following me like a ghost. “What the…?”I turned my head around and there it was – another Galeb, glued to my wing and following my aerobatic maneuvers precisely. It was manned by two instructors, checking every single zone where we were flying and joining into aerobatic pairs without notifying us, all to check us out – what we were doing and if we were flying the maneuvers within the norms. I waved to them, and they waved back and flew another half-roll and loop with me and then disappeared breaking sharply to the left. I guess they went to another zone to check somebody else. Or went to have some fun on a low-level flight.I continued with the program and after a while, checked my watch – it was time to head back. I looked around to establish my position and to my horror – I was not able to recognize anything! Where was I? I made two turns to find something familiar on the ground – to no avail! I was in the middle of nothing, slant visibility was nothing to write home about, I could hardly see anything, and as it was an afternoon flight, the sun was already past zenith, which added even more to the already poor visibility. What now?
I continued to circle, trying to recognize anything. Suddenly I could hear on the radio one of my colleagues – he was reporting being lost somewhere. His voice was slightly trembling, and his instructor took over the radio on the ground, trying to encourage him to find his way back to the airport. There was a constant: do you see anything? What is on your left, what is on your right…over the radio. Suddenly there was a command: rock your wings! And a few seconds later: you are above the airport! His zone was halfway from mine, and he got lost! My brain went into overdrive; thinking about what to do…do I call in and report that I’m lost too, or do I attempt to find my way back…fuel! How much fuel do I have? A quick glance at the fuel gauge is not reassuring – zone Kistanje is one of the furthest and 30 minutes aerobatic program is not exactly fuel-saving activity….I decided to find a way out of this mess by myself. I reduced the engine power by sliding the throttle backward to 80% to conserve fuel as much as possible and reducing speed below 400 km/h. Next – I made a turn to the NW, and I figured that I was not drifting northwards, but rather south-eastwards. My plan was simple – I will continue flying to NW and turn to North every few minutes until I either see the Velebit mountain range, Novigrad, or Karin Sea (both are very enclosed, more resembling lakes than the typical sea). As soon as I would have anything of the above in sight, the left westerly turn would take me directly towards the left downwind for runway 13, which was the prevailing runway for take-offs and landings. I was hoping to see all three natural features on my right, meaning, that my navigational error was not that big and that my estimate was good enough. Alternatively, if I could not see anything (haze was making visibility worse every minute), I would turn to the West and wait for the shoreline and then make my way up towards the city of Zadar. After a few nerve-wracking minutes (and still not able to recognize anything below the grey haze below) I noticed Velebit mountains poking out of the haze and almost at the same time the familiar shape of both Karin and Novigrad Seas on my right. I was saved! Turning left I called the Tower in Zadar and announced my return, still flying half-blind and in the general direction of the Airbase. A few minutes later I saw the outlines of Zadar and then also the runways…The landing was uneventful. My colleague who called in lost (and found over the airport) got suspended from solo flying the next day, till the end of the training. My survival instincts, developed in countless hours in the gliders, saved my day. But don’t be fooled. One needs to set a red line, where pride must finally be swallowed and help requested, regardless of the consequences for the career. Training, knowledge, and experience widen the gap between the red line and circumstances.