Posted September 2023

I had just taken off from Auburn and had turned the Fly Baby East to head towards another airport, about three miles to the east.  My home field is in a valley, with ~400 foot walls on either side.  I was just coming up on east hill, still climbing.

I hate aircraft electronics, and am often worried whether my transponder is working.  It has never failed a check, but because Auburn is actually about 400 feet lower than the FAA radar, I don’t start getting “painted” until I rise at least that high.  The “reply” indicator on my transponder is on an LCD screen, and can sometimes be hard to see when the shadows are across the display.

So I had started a gentle turn to the south, and stared at the transponder readout.  Eventually, yes, I got the “R” that indicated it was replying to the radar.
Just took about five seconds.  When I turned my attention forward again, I expected to see sky, mountains, and land.  Instead, all I saw was trees.

Fly Babies aren’t that stable; a few seconds inattention had seen a gentle right bank increase to about 45 degrees, and the nose start pitching down.  It wasn’t THAT close of a call.  But it was a real shock seeing pines when I expected clouds.

Distraction, pure and simple.  Washington State is running a lot of “Don’t Text and Drive” PSAs, but in my case I was actually doing “real work.”  There’s a lot of things we have to do while flying an airplane, unfortunately, we can’t allow ourselves to get focused too long on the tasks that don’t actually control the airplane.

A lesson for me; hopefully a lesson for all of us.  Job #1 is flying the airplane. Not replacing bulbs in the panel (Eastern Flight 401), fiddling with a scheduling app (Delta Flight 188), or waiting for an LCD screen to show an “R”.

Ron Wanttaja

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