On a recent flight from Los Angeles to Dallas, I was nearing a pit stop in Albuquerque when the radio crackled with the following: “Thunderbird One, you’re cleared direct Red Ridge.” “Hmm, can it be the T-Birds?” I thought as I sped toward the Lone Star State. The controller inquired about their loose formation, and the lead T-Bird confirmed their staggered positioning. Must be them, I gathered, and I looked down to the screens for traffic info, flicking the sensitivity from NORM to UNLTD in hopes of seeing something. Well, wouldn’t you know it, up pops a return moving quickly in the opposite direction, 7,900 feet above at my 11 o’clock.
Long cross-countries can be boring and uneventful. I actually like them that way, and this was surely one way to spice up what was, thus far, a normal IFR flight. So, as I scanned the sky, I spotted two groups of F-16s in loose three-fighter delta formations. Because I was already on the horn with ATC, I called to say, “Hey, I see the Thunderbirds” (only in more-appropriate, government-approved language). I don’t recall the response from ATC; the first thing I heard was a loud “woo hoo!”—it could only have come from one of the T-Birds.
It was over in an instant, and I settled in for what I assumed would be an uneventful flight. That wasn’t to be. Turns out the real “fun” was yet to come.
Back at cruise altitude, maybe a half hour east of ABQ, the ALT 1 idiot light popped up, glowing yellow on the annunciator panel. I was already experiencing radio and other issues, which led me to believe that some electrical gremlins were at work somewhere in the system—the ALT light confirmed my feeling. I checked the system, and the battery was discharging, so I reset ALT 1, hoping for reengagement as I reviewed what I’d be left with in the panel if the alternator went tango uniform. As luck would have it, the cycling did the trick. ALT 1 came back online, and I settled in for two more hours of prairie vistas, XM Radio and, hopefully, boredom.
No luck. Those gremlins returned, little buggers, and topped their last efforts. Not far from Lubbock, Texas, and listening to a channel appropriately called Flight 26, I was about five miles and a couple minutes from a turn when George decided he wanted to turn now and hard to the right. Before reactively reaching for the yoke, I assessed things, let the airplane turn and looked down for some indication that the autopilot was following a cue from the GPS. It wasn’t, so I clicked it off and brought the plane back on course. Reengaging the autopilot only gave me altitude hold; after some troubleshooting, it seemed all autopilot roll control was gone, so I pulled the breaker for that part of the system. During the failure, the little gremlins cranked the trim way over, making the airplane want to turn right, so I had no choice but to hold opposite pressure from either my hand on the yoke or, as the flight progressed, my knee.
As I decided to press on to my destination, I was reminded of an article we’re running on page 42 about judgment, risk management and personality’s role in decision making. As I drove to a hotel in Dallas, I thought about my decision to continue in an out-of-trim situation for the final hour and a half to Addison Airport. We pilots read and hear a lot about accident chains and decision making; we run through what-if scenarios all the time. Many of us also have the mentality that it can never happen to us because it hasn’t yet. For me, this was a great lesson in keeping complacency at bay and remaining within one’s comfort level. I’d love to hear about your wake-up calls. Log on to our website and tell us what snapped you out of it.