All alone with the Noise

SAFETY COLUMN

The following article was sent to me by Mark Henderson, son of Cathy Morshead, (99 extraordinaire).  There’s lots to learn! Thanks Mark!

A story of how a common mistake can make for a hair-raising solo flight.

A first solo is exhilarating in itself, but it can get down right scary when you lose a major system on the plane at 400 feet after take off. This happened to me, or at least I though it did, because of a very simple mistake that was not covered in my pre-solo discussions. As I left the ground on my solo flight there was an incredibly loud static sound in the headset and it seemed I had lost my radios, or something worse. When you have hundreds of flight hours a surprise like that may not merit a panic.  But when you’re on you fist solo, a distraction on that level can be downright freaky. Let me explain.

It was a sunny day in August 2010. My instructor, Caroline Patterson at Aero-club Marin was getting me accustomed to flying in a Piper Dakota (PA-28-236) which was formally owned by my mother, Catherine Morshead (a 99).  You see I purchased the Dakota from my mother after she lost her medical. It was a way to keep the plane in the family and to still fly together as we used to do, this time with me in the left seat. So Caroline was teaching me the ins- and outs of the Dakota, which was a bit more complicated than the Cessna 172 that we started training in.  That day Caroline called me on my way to the lesson, which was at an airport in Marin County and gave me the news. I was to pre-flight the plane and fly just a few miles to a neighboring airport, Gnoss field (KDVO) and meet her for the lesson. This constituted the first solo in the Dakota (I had soloed the C172 around the pattern at KDVO previously). I felt the butterflies in the stomach but told Caroline that I am up for it and I would see her at the destination airport shortly.

The pre-flight was standard. The winds were about 8 kns left to right on the departing runway. The radios were pre-programmed by me for the departing airport frequency and the destination airport frequency. I even picked an alternate airport on the chart if the winds were too strong at Gnoss. The run up was fine, I looked over everything once again, grabbed a sip of water of my water bottle that was in the back seat, took a deep breath and made the radio call that I was departing.

As I gave it full power the realization that I am solo the Dakota set in. The instruments seemed to be a little brighter. “Were there this many instrument dials before”, I thought. Everything was just a bit more intense; hell, I’m soloing!! When the wheels left the ground I was happy, or better said, I was thrilled. But at 400 feet everything changed.

I suddenly heard a loud static sound in the head set.  It sounded as if the door was open, or broke off. I checked that the door and window were shut which they were. Now I was at 500 feet and I thought it could be an electrical problem. It sounded like what would happen to your TV if someone ripped the plug out of the wall. I looked at the instruments and they seemed fine. Now I was at 600 feet. I took off the head set to see if the sound was only in the radio. All I could hear was engine noise, which was normal, but loud. I put my headset back on and I was at 700 feet. The foreign sound persisted and was loud. It cannot be good. My thoughts began to race in all directions. What if there is some thing wrong with the plane? If I need to turn around I’ll have no radio to make calls, I could collide with someone. I sure don’t want go to the destination airport with no radio. Remember it was my solo, my nerves were already rattled enough doing normal procedures.

Suddenly a voice inside my head cleared my thoughts. I remembered Caroline instructing me over and over if something goes wrong, the first thing you do is “fly the airplane”. Don’t panic and drift into uncoordinated and dangerous fight attitudes as you rummage around the cockpit trying to fix something. One should first accept that something is not going right, then make your first priority flying the airplane. With this guiding voice in my head I blocked out the horribly strange noise and made sure to level the wings, brought the pitch to Vy and climbed straight out to 1500 feet. I leveled the nose, reduced power to cruise, trimmed, and then took another sip of my water bottle. I tried to block out the fact that I was doing this in my solo. “Everybody’s solos are like this” I thought; gulp.

OK, now lets figure out the strange noise problem.

My first move was to call a radio check. Nothing. My next move was to find another headset. There was one plugged into the right seat where Caroline sat during our training. I reached down to grab it off the ground and put it on my head. Then I made another call for radio check. But the yoke talk button seemed dead. (I found out later that the talk buttons only work on same side it’s plugged into). I took that head set off and placed it on the seat to my right. I put back my original headset and the awful sound was gone. The headset was quiet and functioned normally. I made a radio check call and I received a response, “check loud and clear”. A huge rush of relief came over me. I double-checked everything and it all was normal. “Could I be saved?” I hoped. Of course I was suspicious that the problem would return. At this point I was halfway between airports so I headed to Gnoss, the destination airport, switched radio frequencies, and listened to AWOS. It reported light crosswinds, which to me was good news because at least the radio worked to inform me of that.

I entered the pattern, landed a bit long and taxied to Caroline who was waiting on the field.

“Well, how was it?” she asked.

I told her the story and she reviewed with me some possible reasons for the problem.

“Maybe somebody had their radio on, that can happen. Maybe the headset ran out of batteries, or the plug is faulty” She suggested.

Then she paused for a second and asked, “Was the right-side headset on the floorboards plugged in?”

It was.

“Well, that’ll do it,” she said, “once you got up to speed the vents blew air on the extra head set microphone and forced the talking microphone to stay open. This caused a loud wind sound to persist in the left head headset until you picked it up”.

You see, once I reached over to try on the right-seat headset I retrieved it from the floor. Then I placed it back on the seat, away from the vent. By doing this move I unknowingly solved the problem.

This simple problem could happen to anyone when you think about it. We train with two people in the front seats. Both headsets are used. When the instructor gets out for a solo, it is likely for the right seat headset will still be plugged in. If it happens to be next to an open vent, then you can create a very scary flight environment. As, in my case, the already nervous first time pilot-in-command who cannot talk or hear anything on his solo.

In writing this little story I hope that it can help others avoid this problem. But of more importance, if you do encounter a problem that you remember the classic first move for all pilots; “fly the airplane” above all else.

Mark Henderson
9/14/10
Son of Cathy Morshead (99)

1 Response to “All alone with the Noise”


  1. 1 Barbara O'Grady October 15, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Hi Mark,

    I was the pilot who flew with your Mom to Alaska and spent many exhilerating hours in your Dakota.

    Just read your story and want to congratulate you on your handling of the very unsettling (to put it mildly) situation on your first solo.

    Every incident like this is an opportunity for we pilots to learn an important lesson and and ask yourself (or discuss it with your instructor) is there anything I would do differently if a similar situation arose. Fly the airplane, which you remembered, but gaining more altitude before trying to resolve the headset, or any problem, would be a good idea to keep in mind. If it had been an engine problem, it would given you more options.

    You did good though!

    Best, Barbara O’Grady


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