Monday, March 22, 2021

HAL Is My Copilot

Statute of Limitations

It is a little recognized fact that application of nicknames is subject to a statute of limitations. Nicknames must be bestowed when a relationship is relatively new or else they never stick. Case in point: I failed to name Warrior 481 when I acquired her 17 years ago. Any nickname that I give her now will feel forced after a long relationship without one. Imagine not naming a child for 17 years. Awkward.

However, it is a different story for newly installed equipment. "I named the autopilot HAL because it tried to kill us a couple of times," I explained to Ray while describing the first test flight with the new Garmin autopilot.

"I hate test flying autopilots," the mechanic declared with a passion forged by many years of experience.
Final Exam

I have a hard time learning anything deeply by reading the manual alone. I read initially to get the basics, go off and experiment with the actual thing, then read more to pick up the nuances I was unprepared to absorb on the previous round. It’s a cycle I repeat until it all clicks. Sometimes YouTube provides some useful intellectual spackle to fill in the gaps.

If only her designers from the mid-1970s could see her now...

Learning to use the Warrior's autopilot (HAL) proceeded exactly this way. A week after receiving my airplane back from maintenance, I decided that I was ready to put my understanding of the system to the test. While the autopilot's basic modes are not difficult to understand, some strategic thinking is required in transitioning between modes and navigational data sources. Basic cruise flight does not present much opportunity to really test this, but flying instrument approaches seems like an ideal stress test for "navigating" (pun intended) HAL's various capabilities. 
Back To Basics, the VOR-A
Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
22 Mar 2021 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - 5G0 (Le Roy, NY) - ROC (Rochester, NY) - SDC 1.7 2223.1

Before launching from runway 28 at the Williamson Sodus Airport, I pressed the TOGA (takeoff / go around) button. This brought the magenta chevron of the flight director's command bars to life on the G5 primary flight display (PFD), appearing at a typical takeoff attitude of 8° above the artificial horizon. The command bars were "hollow" to indicate that HAL was still sleeping.

I taxied onto the runway, slowly applying full power as I lined up on center line. At 55 knots, I pitched the nose to a takeoff attitude and, moments later, left the Earth to rise above the treetops. I activated HAL about 800 feet above the ground and removed my hands from the yoke. I would not touch it again until over an hour later while on a short final approach for home.

In takeoff mode, the airplane simply climbs straight ahead with wings level. I programmed the Le Roy Airport as my destination in the GPS, then loaded and activated the VOR-A instrument approach starting at the initial approach fix of the Geneseo VOR. I activated HAL's NAV mode to follow the magenta line of the GPS to Geneseo and programmed an indicated airspeed (IAS) climb to 4,000 feet at 90 knots. HAL responded by smoothly banking Warrior 481 to the southwest on a direct heading to Geneseo while pitching to 90 knots in the climb. [Note: I later realized that altitude pre-select works with TOGA mode.]

While HAL flew the airplane, I contacted Rochester approach to request flight following. Along the way, Warrior 481 reached 4,000 feet and leveled herself off. HAL transitioned from an indicated airspeed climb (IAS mode) to an altitude hold (ALT mode) and I verified the correct annunciations on the PFD.  I made some corresponding trim and power adjustments to set the airplane up for cruise.

ForeFlight ground track of HILPT and VOR-A approach to Le Roy

At the Geneseo VOR, HAL flew a textbook hold-in-lieu-of-procedure-turn (HILPT) maneuver using a parallel holding pattern entry. For VOR approaches, GPS guidance may be used up to the final approach fix (FAF), but the last five miles to the destination airport must be flown following the VHF radio beam emanating from the VOR. Outbound from Geneseo, I throttled back and instructed HAL to descend to 2600 feet (the FAF crossing altitude) with a -800 foot per minute descent.

One of HAL's quirks is that changing the navigation source (i.e., from GPS to VOR or vice versa) disengages NAV mode. I made the switch from satellite to terrestrial navigation, transforming the course deviation needle on the G5 flight display from magenta (GPS) to green (VOR/localizer) and re-engaged NAV mode. HAL continued to track toward the airport, now riding the radio beam from Geneseo.

HAL flew a perfect VOR approach to Le Roy, minus a few wiggles that I believe have more to do with the fidelity of the VOR signal itself than anything on board my ship. Not to be outdone by the fancy new box in my panel, I even remembered to start the timer from the FAF inbound! This made me feel useful while HAL did all the work. Humanity for the win! Once reaching the airport, I pressed the TOGA button and pushed the throttle all the way forward to climb away from my former home base.

Success! One down.

Once More, With Precision!

Being vectored for the ILS-22 at Rochester on a 030° heading

Back in two-way communication with the friendly neighborhood approach controller, I requested a practice ILS-22 instrument approach to Frederick Douglass-Greater Rochester International. I was assigned a heading of 030°, a course that took me west of Rochester on a slightly divergent line from the target runway. HAL handled this in HDG mode while I set up the rest of the approach and verified the Morse code identifier for the localizer. This was all much easier to do with “someone else” flying the airplane.

Heading 130° while being vectored for the ILS approach

I followed my usual workflow of activating the full approach in the Garmin 430W GPS and eventually activated the leg to the FAF once it was clear that Rochester was going to vector me to final. Overall, I found that HAL fit right into my usual procedural flow. Rochester then instructed a right turn to heading 130, roughly perpendicular to the final approach course. With the turn of a knob, I set the new heading and HAL smoothly banked Warrior 481 to follow. 

"This is just way too easy!" I exclaimed to no one, laughing. I reflected back on my days of instrument training and being task saturated while hand flying my first few approaches. Instead, I was doing the job of system manager while HAL flew the plane and I had lots of time to gawk at the world passing beyond the windows. The paradigm shift that came with this level of automation was jarring.

Established on the final approach course with HAL tracking localizer and glideslope

Then the magic words came, "Cherokee Four Eight One, three miles from MAPES, turn right heading two zero zero, cleared ILS 22 approach, maintain VFR."

After more twisting of the heading bug knob, HAL swung Warrior 481 onto an intercept course for the approach. I pressed the APR button to arm HAL's approach mode that would capture and track both the lateral guidance of the airport’s localizer array and the vertical glide slope. Approach mode would activate once interception of the final approach course was imminent.

Near the final approach course, approach mode automatically activated (with a LOC annunciation) and Warrior 481 turned an additional 24° to intercept the localizer. A few moments later, I reached the FAF at MAPES to the sound of the outer marker pulsing in my ears. Altitude hold automatically disengaged and HAL pitched the nose down to follow the glideslope to the runway (with a GS annunciation). I started the timer (photo above for proof!), eased the power back to the 1700 RPM necessary for a 90 knot, -500 foot per minute descent, and added a notch of flaps.

On the ILS for runway 22 at Frederick Douglass - Greater Rochester International

Under HAL's control, Warrior 481 flew that ILS like she was riding on a rail. It was nothing short of amazing. Usually I am under the hood while practicing approaches, so watching the big runway grow in my windscreen as I sat in my airplane with my hands on my knees was a very novel experience.

Two hundred feet above the runway, I pushed the TOGA button, added full power, and eased the flaps out. As HAL put the Warrior into a climb, I was switched to Rochester Departure.

Meet Up

"Cherokee Four Eight One, Rochester Departure, fly heading zero seven zero, vectors to Sodus." Back in HDG mode, I set the new course while HAL obligingly turned my ship toward home. I had just popped the side window open to capture a photo of the Rochester skyline when Departure called again.

"Cherokee Four Eight One... Chris, is that you?"

Why is it that these kinds of calls immediately make me think that I've just done something wrong?

Tentatively: "Affirm, Cherokee Four Eight One."

"Hey, it's Erik!" A couple of years ago, I organized a tour of Rochester's Air Traffic Control facility for the Williamson Flying Club. Erik was my primary contact and, in 2020, I vouched for Erik to join the Club. 

"Thanks for helping me test my new autopilot," I responded.

"How's it working?"

"Awesome," I said. Nonstandard radio phraseology, perhaps, but it made the point.

Irondequoit Bay

Recovering the Satellites

Passing the Williamson Sodus Airport. I can see my car! I wish I saw more green.

Once back in the vicinity of Sodus, I set up to fly the RNAV (GPS) 28 approach to wrap up the day and test approach mode using a GPS-generated glide path. Once again, HAL flew the approach procedure with aplomb.

A few hundred feet above the ground while on the approach, I hit the "nope" button to disengage HAL and hand flew my airplane to a passable landing at the Williamson Sodus Airport. It was my first time back on the controls since departure and I actually felt a little guilty logging the entire time aloft as piloting time. After all, there is no category for "systems management" time in the logbook.


As shown by ground track data from ForeFlight, HAL flies more precisely than I do. Kristy says that she can see the difference in FlightAware. In my time aloft, I tested HAL's takeoff and go around mode, performed indicated airspeed climbs and vertical speed descents to preselected altitudes, flew a procedure turn (HILPT), and executed three approaches using different navigation sources (VOR, localizer / glideslope, and GPS). The ILS and GPS approach procedures were an excellent opportunity to test HAL's approach mode that simultaneously tracks lateral and vertical guidance. It all worked perfectly.

While I expect that I will continue to learn nuances of the system, it is so intuitive that my comfort level with it is already very high. This is impressive considering that I had never touched an autopilot before HAL was installed.

Spa Day

Still grinning ear to ear from the success of my test flight, I reheated some leftover chicken with garlic sauce in the airport microwave and ate while lounging in the warm sun irradiating my south-facing hangar door. I realized that it was my first time using chopsticks at the airport. So many firsts that day.

I pampered my airplane with a well-deserved bath. I had moved her annual inspection with Ray back to February and she went directly from that to the avionics installation with Jake in Batavia. As a result, there were lots of greasy handprints on the airframe from the two shops. On top of that, the first good bath after a long winter is always truly satisfying.

For amusement and situational awareness, I tuned my handheld radio to listen on the Unicom frequency as I cleaned. Entertainment came courtesy of an apparently non-local aviator who entered the traffic pattern at nearby Canandaigua while repeatedly broadcasting his intentions to "Canon-dee-dee-wah". I stopped my scrubbing to giggle each time he said it. For the record, Canandaigua is pronounced exactly the way it's spelled despite a spectacular concatenation of vowels; it is certainly no Skaneateles ("skinny atlas").

"PhDs aren't supposed to do that," a quiet voice from an unseen speaker teased. I was on a creeper scrubbing oil and exhaust stains off the Warrior's belly and had not heard Denny approach. I turned to find him grinning at me kindly from his bicycle. "You're supposed to hire someone to do that."

I shrugged. "It's therapeutic." I had a nice catch up chat with Denny and earned a big smile from him when I restored his range rings display in ForeFlight. Sometimes, it's the little things.


Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
22 Mar 2021 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - ART (Watertown, NY) - SDC 1.6 2224.7

With the airplane thoroughly cleaned, I decided to reward us both with a little excursion to the northeast along the Lake Ontario shoreline. HAL remained dormant for this flight and the resulting ground tracks proved Kristy right. Though I fly reasonably precisely, the difference between my flying and HAL’s is definitely apparent in FlightAware.

There was still ice covering part of Henderson Bay

When the flying was done, I closed the hangar door on my clean, capable aircraft and departed the airport after one of my most satisfying vacation days in a long time. It is hard to believe that a year ago, the Warrior was stricken in Dansville and the path back home was unclear. The intervening year has been quite a journey.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Baby Steps To Normalcy

Rush Hour

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
11 Nov 2021 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - 44N (Lagrangeville, NY) - SDC 3.5 2221.4

"Cherokee Four Eight One, what's going on at Sky Acres today?" The query came from New York Approach.

I played dumb. "I'm just looking for breakfast," I responded somewhat disingenuously. I knew that Warrior 481 was the first in a string of six aircraft from the Williamson Flying Club tracking inbound to Sky Acres. Via ADS-B, I could see airplanes converging from other directions as well. To my mind, it was a race with the non-WFC aircraft for parking and outdoor seating at Hangars Café.

"Well, you have several aircraft behind you and multiple targets converging on the airport." New York signed off with a well-intentioned caution about the traffic density. 

With Kim and Scott aboard Warrior 481, we slipped into the pattern between a pair of RVs. From the pattern, I was gratified to see that the main transient parking ramp at the terraced airport was mostly empty.

The plan came together by text over the previous days. With warm weather (finally!) and good flying conditions expected for Sunday, we planned to arrive at Sky Acres around 11:00 for lunch. That morning, Scott warned that another group of pilots from the Northeast were also planning an 11:00 am arrival. He came by this knowledge thanks to that great intelligence-gathering tool: Facebook. As a result, we hustled out early in an effort to beat the rush and secure enough outdoor seating for fourteen people. Seeing us launch prematurely from Williamson Sodus, Tom, Ed, Brad, Paula, and Dan scrambled to get their airplanes into the air.

Our gambit worked. While I took care of the Warrior, Scott and Kim secured enough outdoor seating for our entire group.

How To Become a Pariah in One Brief Radio Call

Aircraft swirled around Sky Acres for some time after I landed. One Cirrus SR-22 pilot broadcast an intention to enter the pattern on a straight-in. This was met with derision on frequency from other pilots negotiating the crowded pattern. If that pilot got out of bed that morning with the goal of embodying a cliche, well, mission accomplished.

Eventually, we began to accumulate on the ramp, including Brad in The Cirrus and Tom in his new Cherokee, Two Six Romeo. I spotted Ed on short final and rushed to photograph his landing.

I caught Ed rounding out over the runway numbers in his Archer.

The newest aircraft in the fleet became the gathering point for the WFC pilots and their passengers.

Our entire group landed safely, though Paula and Dan arrived last and were forced to park on a more distant ramp.

Really, all anyone wanted was an opportunity to fly somewhere with the group where we could do something. Sure, eating was not a particularly creative activity, but I verified that the Hangars Café at Sky Acres had outdoor seating available and that satisfied everyone's safety requirements. With temperatures in the mid-50s, it was very pleasant in the sun. I suspect that several airplane  winterization plates were removed that day.

An Outdoor Springtime Dining Experience

Much of the group ordered a late breakfast. Biscuits and gravy with eggs was an especially popular selection. My breakfast was delicious, particularly the potatoes. I even ate the green stuff on top.

At the neighboring table sat my favorite COVID-pod: Brad, Tom, Alicia, and Melodie. Brad, of course, is master of The Cirrus and newly instrument rated. (Congrats, Brad!) Tom is a great pilot who insists that my presence on board his aircraft makes him "fly like a goober". (Not true.) Alicia is the graceful tamer of the elusive pneumatic snow unicorn. ("Right rudder!!") And Melodie seems so uncannily tapped into my personal neuroses that I often feel called-out by the things she posts. ('s kind of unsettling.)

Ed (not pictured) and I sat across from Scott and Kim, both of whom are already vaccinated against COVID owing to their professions. Kim broke with the breakfast trend, but her burger looked good.

There was not much social distancing going on with aircraft on the ramp, however!


We would have happily spent the entire afternoon chatting together, but we eventually surrendered our tables to those in greater need.

Mike B and his son made the hike to Paula's distant plane and taxied it to the fuel farm for her...just in case anyone thought that chivalry was dead.

I caught one last shot of the ramp before clambering aboard Warrior 481 and going aloft.

Sun and Shadow

As part of my Official Autopilot Acclimation Program, I ran the autopilot for the entire round trip. I was amazed by its precision. We flew the exact reciprocal route back to Sodus and the breadcrumbs in ForeFlight for the outbound and return flights were perfectly overlaid. Neither Scott nor Kim seemed to mind that the computer flew us home. Then again, Kim never heard the story of the first test flight.

I repainted the instrument panel overlay the day before and apologized to my passengers for the faint aroma of "eau de spray paint" still lingering in the Warrior's cabin.

The Catskill Mountains presented an interesting sight as they passed beneath our wings. They were still snow covered except for the south-facing slopes presented to the sun.

We may not be quite back to normal yet, but this fly-out with my friends felt like a step closer. It will get better.

Post Script: Normal?

We returned to Sodus in the middle of the pack. As we taxied toward my hangar, we spotted someone running along the taxiway up ahead.

"Is that Jamie?" I asked Scott.

The person stopped on the yellow line running down the center of our taxiway, turned his back on us, and bent over to present us with a fake moon.

"Yep, definitely Jamie," I answered my own question. It's always good to be welcomed on the return home.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Ghost in the Machine

“Look Dave, I can see you're really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over. I know I've made some very poor decisions recently. But I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal.”
HAL 9000, 2001: A Space Odyssey

2200+ Hours of Hand Flying

In the words of Hamilton's fictionalized King George, I am often asked, "What comes next?" 

"Moving up to a bigger, faster airplane?"
"How about something that pulls its gear out of the slipstream like a 'real' airplane?" 
“Are you seriously going to hand-fly everywhere, even in IMC?"

These are all good questions and I have been pondering them for quite some time.

Warrior 48's simple instrument panel in 2004. Half of these instruments sit on my desk now.

Even though I occasionally fly missions better suited to a Bonanza, I also like to putter along with my taildragger friends and take low and slow sunset flights that are poorly suited to a travelling machine. Flying the Warrior was always a compromise between these two extremes. While I appreciate the capability of Bonanzas and truly admire the lines of the elegant Piper Comanche, I do not have much interest in buying an aircraft with retractable gear. After 20 years of not contemplating the state of my landing gear, I see myself as being one minor distraction away from grinding the belly of a retract across the asphalt someday. Other deterrents include maintenance and insurance costs. Where these factors are concerned, simplicity is a virtue and the Warrior is simple.

I have often thought that an Archer II would be a good move-up airplane with more climb power and useful load from essentially the same airframe. My mission has evolved over the years and, if I knew in 2004 what I know now, I would have focused on an Archer II instead. Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

It is also not lost on me that an autopilot is an important safety tool for single pilot IFR operations. I remember becoming task saturated when assigned a new full route clearance while hand flying IFR  through the Washington DC Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) in 2014. I spent roughly 20 minutes reprogramming the navigator in flight. Those knobs on the Garmin 430W must require a lot of torque to rotate because the Warrior invariably rolls off heading whenever I turn one. After many busy minutes of splitting my attention between holding a heading, climbing to an altitude, and reprogramming the navigator, I was allowed just enough time to take a deep cleansing breath before Patuxent Approach called with another new full route clearance and I started the process all over again. An extra hand would have been incredibly helpful that day. In-flight route changes, even relatively simple ones, are always tough to manage while hand flying.

Furthermore, given the lack of rest stops conveniently floating at cruise altitude, restroom breaks while hand flying on an IFR clearance are not only task saturating, but require a certain type of graceful dexterity that is not taught in flight schools. Beyond that, sometimes a pilot just needs a break. 

So...what comes next? I decided that automation might be a greater need than going faster. After all the hand flying I have done over the last 20 years, I have no macho need to convince anyone of my ability in that regard.

Aircraft Economics for Dummies

Conventional wisdom in the pilot community dictates that it is more economical to buy an airplane with the desired avionics already installed than to upgrade an aircraft without them. For a time, I contemplated Archers with autopilots already installed. Unfortunately, most of what I found was priced at a premium and lacked several of the amenities already available in Warrior 481. Many of the autopilots were old and dependent on analog gyro equipment of the sort that I discarded in the wake of my attitude indicator failure in 2017. Aircraft sales listings were often uninspiring. 

Then, three factors led me to question conventional aircraft economic wisdom.

First, I needed to put a new engine into the Warrior in 2020. The market value of Warrior 481 did not increase to match the full price of the installed engine, especially given a replacement case and new crankshaft that boosted the overhaul cost by 50%. Continuing to fly behind that nice new engine is probably the best way to wring the most value from it.

Second, the airplane market has gone absolutely crazy. I have watched several friends search for airplanes while navigating a labyrinth of overpriced junk, sketchy sellers, and rabidly competitive buyers. I think that at least one of my friends probably needs therapy for PTSD after his airplane purchase experience despite managing a positive outcome. Based on what I see in the market currently, I would be competing with other buyers for expensive used airframes with unknown flaws and ancient avionics. It's daunting out there.

Garmin's GFC 500 autopilot system consists of a G5 (bottom), servos (bottom left), and a GMC 507 Mode Controller (top). I already had a single G5.

Third, the FAA recently certified new autopilots from Garmin (GFC 500) and TruTrak / BendixKing under less onerous rules that significantly reduce equipage cost versus less-capable certified units of the prior generation. 

Taking these three factors together, I decided to buck conventional wisdom and upgrade Warrior 481 rather than trade-up to a different aircraft. I could install an incredibly capable autopilot for less than the hardware cost of legacy systems. An upgrade in 2021 made sense in a way that it did not previously. I also fully realize that there's an emotional component to this. Whether these specific upgrades truly make sense for this particular airplane or not, they make sense to me and after years of contemplation, this is what I want to do.

Nuts and Bolts

I conferred with Jake from Boshart Enterprises in Batavia, NY to make a plan. It is always a pleasure to work with people you know well and I have 15 years of experience with this shop. With Jake's assistance, I finalized an upgrade package that would enhance the safety and utility of my airplane:
  • A GFC 500 configured as a two-axis autopilot (roll and pitch)
    • I did not spring for the third servo allowing the autopilot to drive the trim as I did not think that the cost/benefit ratio was in my favor.
    • Unlike a simple "wing leveler" (single axis autopilot) or a two-axis autopilot with simple altitude hold capability, the GFC 500 can fly instrument approaches right to minimums, leaving the pilot to manage power and trim. The less expensive TruTrak / BendixKing unit is not certified to fly coupled approaches in this manner.
  • A second G5 unit replacing the mechanical directional gyro (DG) that would:
    • Provide redundancy for the existing G5 attitude indicator. Although the units are connected and pass data back and forth, they are completely independent and use separate back-up batteries.
    • Eliminate the airplane's balky vacuum system entirely. I never really trusted it. Now I won't have to.
    • Include installation of a magnetometer that would eliminate the need to constantly reset the mechanical DG due to gyroscopic precession. 
    • Add horizontal situation indicator (HSI) capability and eliminate a Garmin GI 106 mechanical course deviation indicator from the panel (sold back to the shop).
    • It was already my plan to add the second G5 in 2020, then Dansville happened.
Interestingly, these upgrades will also serve to classify Warrior 481 as a Technically Advanced Aircraft in the eyes of the FAA, a status I never expected my airplane to achieve. All I need is a parachute, more power, a really good waxing, and I'll practically have a Cirrus! This is not a terribly important classification unto itself except that, if I choose to pursue a commercial rating, I will be able to do it in the Warrior under the new rules.

Work in Progress

"Before" - Photographed 13 Oct 2019

Ed C followed me to Genesee County Airport in his Archer on the afternoon of February 17 to drop off the Warrior. Jake provided routine photographic evidence of his progress.

26 February 2021, photo by Jake

In just over a week, the panel was well and truly gutted except for the primary pitot-static instruments.

26 February 2021, photo by Jake

26 February 2021, photo by Jake

26 February 2021, photo by Jake

The roll servo was installed in the spar box under the back seat. It simply clamps directly to the existing cables that drive the ailerons.

26 February 2021, photo by Jake

There was a delay receiving the correct bracket for mounting the pitch servo. That would eventually mount all the way back in the empennage next to the emergency locator transmitter (ELT, the orange box in the photo above). I teased Jake about having to crawl back in there to work, but he revealed that it was actually Jeff, the owner of the shop, who undertook that particular chore. Hats off to Jeff!

09 March 2021, photo by Jake

Sometimes, things look worse before they get better.

09 March 2021, photo by Jake

By March 9, Jake had all the trays positioned and wired for the radio stack. Completion was nearer at hand than this photo makes it seem.

09 March 2021, photo by Jake

Later that same day, Jake had the center stack complete and the 48 year old King KX-170B radio slid into place. I have literally waited 17 years for this thing to die. It simply refuses to acknowledge its own obsolescence. Why would I spend a few thousand dollars on a new navcom radio when this one works perfectly well? 

I used to boast about having the ugliest KX-170B in operation, but Jake exercised his artistic side and repainted it. It actually looks pretty good now and the new coax connecting it to the antenna has eliminated background noise that has been apparent for the last five years.

By March 14, the work was finished except for the cosmetics. Jake was kind enough to grant a visitation.
The Biggest Loser

All set except for some black touch up paint needed on the instrument panel

I took a vacation day on Monday, March 15 to do the test flight and (hopefully) bring Warrior 481 home. Tom flew me over to Genesee County in his beautiful new-to-him Cherokee 180, Two Six Romeo. Tom's airplane has the same GFC 500 system and dual G5 setup that I installed. Seeing Tom's capable autopilot in action whetted my appetite to test mine.

 As part of the upgrade, Jake performed the first direct measurement of weight and balance on the airplane in the 21st century. With the vacuum system removed, Warrior 481 lost weight and picked up about 17 pounds of useful load. Not bad! I could stand to lose about 20 pounds myself.

Beware the Ides of March
Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
15 Mar 2021 N21481 GVQ (Batavia, NY) - local flights - SDC (Sodus, NY) 1.6 2216.1

It was an auspicious date for a test flight, but what was the worst that could happen? It was not as if my airplane could literally stab me in the back. 

After a thorough preflight in the Boshart Enterprises hangar, we pushed Warrior 481 out into the cold. With Tom in the right seat, I ran the engine start checklist and discovered that the fuel boost pump was inoperative.

The massive hangar door was lifted again, flooding the shop with cold air. Inside went Warrior 481. Jake climbed in, energized the master switch, and the boost pump ran as expected. After some group speculation about my competence as a pilot, closer examination revealed that the rework on the breaker panel left a loose connection for the boost pump. Jake found it immediately and fixed it. He second checked the remaining breaker connections.

Up went the door and out went the Warrior again. This time the boost pump ran as expected and I fired up the engine. Before Tom and I launched from runway 10, I pushed the TOGA (take-off / go around) button on the panel, then firewalled the throttle, and climbed into the cold March air. About 800 feet off the ground, I engaged the autopilot to continue the climb in take-off mode.

Warrior 481 immediately attempted to kill us.

Et tu, Garmin?

Activating the autopilot resulted in a violent pitch skyward toward a stall attitude. As the airspeed dropped precipitously, I pushed back on the yoke and easily overpowered the autopilot. Then I remembered the autopilot disconnect switch (what I now call the "nope button") on the yoke and mashed it with my thumb. 


After sounding an alert tone, Warrior 481 immediately relented in her murderous intent. I pushed the nose down to a normal climb pitch and watched the airspeed needle reassuringly sweep clockwise. Airspeed is life.

Surely that was user error.

Trying a new tactic, I set an altitude of 3,000 feet and programmed an indicated airspeed climb of 90 knots. The Warrior immediately dumped her nose into a steep dive.


We tried using the "Level" button, an emergency feature designed to recover the airplane from an unusual attitude created by a disoriented pilot. Upstate NY farm country immediately filled the windscreen as the Warrior dove hungrily for the Earth again. Was it "opposite day"?


Tom had a smart idea to test the "programmed backwards" hypothesis. We programmed a shallow 300 foot/minute descent that resulted in an immediate and extreme upward pitching moment.


We'd seen enough. At least the "nope" button worked. We returned to the shop and reported our observations to Jake. Up went the door again, back inside went the Warrior. 

As Jake checked the autopilot programming, I had the good fortune to reconnect with Ed V, a Le Roy pilot whom I have not seen in many years. [In Troy McClure's voice] You may remember Ed from such blog posts as "Rescue from Pontiac", "Where There's Smoke...", and "Leitmotif". It was Ed who introduced me and Darrell to Tom H, our truly excellent instrument instructor and all-around terrific human being. I was genuinely pleased to see him again.

Jake emerged from the Warrior looking chagrined. "I programmed it wrong, that's all on me." He was clearly beating himself up over the error. But this is why we do test flights. I told him that I expected some future mistakes of my own as I learned to manage the system. With assurances that everything was set properly, up went the hangar door and out went the Warrior again.

Magic Carpet Ride

This time, there was no need to use the "nope" button. The autopilot functioned flawlessly. Activated 1,000 feet above the ground, take-off mode flew us away from the runway at a comfortable climb pitch. I programmed a top altitude, an indicated airspeed climb, and used heading mode to turn the airplane southbound. As the Warrior leveled herself at 3,000 feet, I supplied some nose down trim (as prompted) and reduced power to a cruise setting. I programmed the system to track the 314° radial to the Geneseo VOR. The interception of the radio beam was smooth and the tracking flawless. I reset the GNS 430W to fly the VOR A approach procedure into Le Roy using GPS guidance, including the procedure turn. Without any hands on the controls, the Warrior executed a flawless teardrop entry into the holding pattern and flew a perfect interception of the inbound course. The Level button successfully salvaged an intentional unusual attitude. 

It all worked. Having verified that the autopilot could track both VOR and GPS inputs, could climb and descend at indicated airspeeds and vertical speeds, and that the Level button actually lived up to its name (this time), we returned to Genesee County to report a successful test flight.

Flying home from Genesee County Airport. Look ma, no hands!

With the Warrior returned to service, Tom fired up Two Six Romeo for the flight back to Sodus. I collected the reams of paperwork making my modified aircraft legal to fly and launched into the evening sky. I started by hand flying out of habit, but then programmed my ship to fly me home. I folded my arms across my chest -- because that is how one properly rides a magic carpet -- and monitored the instruments. I realized how well the old vacuum gauge had been incorporated into my scan every time I caught myself glancing at the blank panel where it used to reside.

Now the real work begins. The next time I fly practice approaches is going to be interesting.