Jumpseat: A Substitute Copilot

Flying without professional assistance.

Piper Arrow II
Columnist Les Abend works out the bugs in a newly acquired Piper Arrow II.Illustration by Tim Barker

Despite our takeoff clearance, I advised Amarillo Tower that we would need to taxi off the runway. My wife couldn’t latch the door on our newest acquisition, a 1972 Piper ­Arrow II. It was my fault. Although our prior airplane, a Cherokee Six, had the same tortuous slam-bang locking system, I forgot that it was always a minor struggle to apply enough leverage to properly latch the door from the copilot’s seat.

The door-latching event was actually chapter one in a series of flight mishaps that had me wondering if I was the same airline pilot who had brought a few hundred passengers safely back and forth to London in a 777 just last week. But for that trip, I had a professional copilot.

The first flight in the Arrow didn’t start without some diligent planning. Having been bitten by various discrepancies from two previous airplane ownerships, one of them involving an engine overhaul, the ­detailed pre-buy inspection ­reflected my paranoia. Perhaps my maintenance experiences were making me that much wiser — or not. Because the pre-buy inspection was thorough, for a few more dollars I opted for a complete annual inspection.

The GNS 430 was sent to Garmin for a repair of the radio ­frequency tuner as part of our verbal sales agreement. It seemed a good opportunity to upgrade the GPS to a WAAS unit. Unfortunately, the upgrade was successful, but the original repair was not — a discovery I made immediately after engine start. I didn’t want to fly the airplane from Texas to ­Connecticut with one radio, ­especially if we encountered IFR conditions.

Because I had mentioned that the following day was our anniversary, the folks at English Field ­Aviation took pity and procured a loaner GPS for overnight delivery. We were also accommodated at a local hotel. ­Despite the 24-hour delay, my wife accepted the change of plans in stride. We quietly celebrated our continued matrimony at a pleasant downtown Amarillo restaurant.

Beyond the maintenance precautions, I had spent a good amount of time becoming familiar with the operation of the Aspen flight display system by studying the owner’s manual. I also reviewed the GNS 430 manual, refamiliarized myself with the S-Tec autopilot and completed a careful reading of the airplane POH. What could possibly go wrong?

Our ear canals were invaded by an annoying squeal on Tower frequency, reminiscent of a stuck mic. The instructions to contact the departure controller were barely audible.

Having awarded myself a gold star for diligence, I became dismayed shortly after slipping the surly bonds of Earth via our departure from ­Amarillo’s Runway 22. Our ear canals were invaded by an annoying squeal on Tower frequency, reminiscent of a stuck mic. The instructions to contact the departure controller were barely audible. In the midst of the distraction, I hadn’t noticed that the Arrow’s automatic gear extension system was preventing the wheels from retracting because my airspeed acceleration was slowed by the high-elevation takeoff and hot outside temperature.

I fumbled with the lever of the emergency gear override system in between the seats and finally got the wheels to retract. After turning to the clearance heading, I changed frequencies. I glanced at the 430 display. Apparently, the loaner had been programmed at the factory for north-up mode — and we were flying south. ­Another distraction.

Established on the assigned heading and climbing to the assigned ­altitude, I tabled the idea of correcting the GPS display until later. Just prior to keying the mic, I realized the annoying squeal and muted voice of the controller had followed us to the new frequency. And then my ­epiphany arrived. I’m an idiot. The stuck mic was us. Crap.

Fortunately, the frequency was unjammed long enough to allow ­intermittent communication. We were cleared direct to our destination airport in Austin, 340 miles away. But what to do about the radio problem? Return or continue? The controller was not concerned when I confirmed that it was our radio that was the culprit. Translation: Please leave our airspace and take your stuck mic with you.

The issue required troubleshooting. But first, I ­needed to navigate. I mashed the direct-to button on the 430 and activated the course. Next, I had to get out of that damn north-up mode. I pressed the menu button and found the track-up selection. Yay. But why wasn’t the ­Aspen’s CDI needle displaying the course? Ah … that would ­require pushing the CDI button on the 430 — so much for my methodical review of the manual.

The controller was not concerned when I confirmed that it was our radio that was the culprit. Translation: Please leave our airspace and take your stuck mic with you.

With the navigation problem solved, it seemed appropriate to make use of the autopilot to reduce the ­workload in an environment that had become a little hectic. But pushing all the right buttons on the S-Tec did not lock the autopilot on our direct course. Foiled again. I had another aha moment. I forgot about that funny little GPSS button. Now began the troubleshooting process with the radio. I had already attempted communication via the No. 2 VHF but had the same annoying result. As we continued our climb, I got my wife involved with a frantic headset swap. First, I had my wife disconnect her headset from the copilot’s jacks. Same problem.

Next, I had her reach behind to the back seats for the spare headset. I disconnected my Aloft unit and exchanged it for the spare. The issue remained. Then I used the copilot’s push-to-talk (PTT) to transmit. No change. What the heck?

The problem just had to originate from my PTT switch. Jiggling the damn thing occasionally got the noise to clear. We were switched over to the center frequency. Normal communication occurred. Nice. I tapped the electric trim switch on the yoke as we leveled at cruise altitude. The horrifying, muted squeal returned. And then I had another epiphany.

Somehow the electric trim switch was interfering with the PTT switch. They were mounted on the same horn of the pilot’s control yoke in close proximity to each other. The solution: I would use the manual elevator trim wheel located between the seats. Problem solved. But easier said than done. After 40-plus years of professional flying, my left thumb instinctively gravitates to the pickle switch. For the remainder of our trip home, only occasionally would I jam the frequency with a slip of the thumb.

I was most grateful for my first officer. Even though my wife didn’t assume the duties of a regular first officer, her moral support was very much appreciated. I am ­certain she bit her lip more than a handful of times, but she never once uttered a complaint. And that’s a great ­attribute for a substitute copilot.