Goal fixation: when ingenuity overrides common sense

This is not a story about fast jets, elaborate cockpits or major life and death mid-air drama… it is the true story of a humble student pilot trying so hard to overcome a mid-air incident that he took leave of his common sense.

I was a proud student pilot undergoing my third and final solo cross-country prior to completing my Private Pilot training. The weather was perfect—calm, cloudless and mild—and the flight had been uneventful. I was total concentration personified in the cockpit of the Piper PA-38 Tomahawk and focused on nailing this final leg down to the predicted minute. The final leg was into a small international airport and the first reporting point on arrival was at 3000 ft some 15 miles out.

As I approached the reporting point, nervousness set in because ATC were professionals with the power over life and death, demi-gods that presided from a glass-sided tower high above us mere mortals. They were not to be feared but they were to be absolutely respected, especially when every conversation with them was listened to by everyone on frequency, which was everyone in the very community I was trying to join.

To sooth my nerves, I jotted down the main points on my kneepad and briefly rehearsed my lines. Prepared, I reached for the button on the top of the yoke, pushed down and called approach control, gave my callsign, altitude and position. As I released my thumb, the spring-loaded push-to-talk button released itself out of the yoke and flew up and over my shoulder, bounced off the canopy and into the bowels of the baggage compartment. I turned to see where it had gone (surely not far; a PA-38 is not that big!) and there it lay hard up, against the rear bulkhead as far away as it is possible to go, right beside the little silver spring that had energized it for the flight.

Tomahawk
A Tomahawk will fly just fine without a PTT switch—if the pilot doesn’t panic, that is.

I’ve never been one to panic. I’d trained as a paramedic and as a rescue technician and I’d become adept at working out solutions to every problem I had ever encountered in the field. Aviation might be new to me but I could crack this nut for sure! I started a slow orbit and considered my options. Clearly, I needed to get that button and spring back again and reinsert them back into the yoke.

I reached back as far as I could and stretched out as much as possible… no joy. Not one to be discouraged, I undid my lap and shoulder belts, slid the seat back and tried again… still well short of success. As I leveraged myself off the seat, I had to release my grip on the yoke but the nose pitched up with the weight shift, the aircraft slowed, and the stall warning squeaked. “Idiot!” I said to myself, now starting to stress because ATC kept calling me in response to my initial transmission and because my scheduled precision arrival time was now falling apart.

Not to be outdone, I came up with a plan that would have made MacGyver proud! Clearly, I needed to get the yoke held in position while I went back for the button, so I scanned my surroundings for tools I might utilize. I thought about it briefly and then implemented my ingenious solution: I looped my shoulder strap over the yoke which, when adjusted, prevented the yoke from going forward. I then took the bungee cord securing the first-aid kit and affixed it from the underside of the panel around the yoke and back again to provide back-pressure against the shoulder strap. Pure genius! I climbed halfway over my seat, assessed that everything was in relative balance, rescued the button (and the spring) and successfully reinstalled it. Problem solved! Bungee released and seatbelts on, I called ATC—careful not to lift my thumb off the button.

The rest of the flight was uneventful. Sure, I arrived later than planned but I was so enamored with my genius that it felt inconsequential. My instructor came out to meet me and I pointed out the broken button that would need to be replaced before the next flight. “Oh, no problem,” he said, “we’ll get it fixed straight away, but of course the other one is just fine.” There on the other yoke, just 20 inches away, was a perfectly serviceable PTT button.

Since then I’ve gone on to have a safe and successful life in recreational aviation, flying friends, teaching ultralight flying, and owning a few humble aircraft. That early lesson has never left me and in other in-flight instances (a rough running engine that led to a forced landing, an encounter with severe turbulence, getting caught out in VFR minimums) I’ve found that serious situations are usually covered by the checklists drilled into us during training. For everything else, you need to remain calm and flexible and consider all the options.

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com.

9 Comments

  • Call me Captain Killjoy, but I’ve GOT to ask:
    Why didn’t you just plug in the hand-held microphone that I’m just CERTAIN was located in the back pocket of the right seat – along with the fuel sampler?

    (I hope that this isn’t too subtle.)

  • Besides looking at the other yoke for a perfectly good transmit button, did this self proclaimed “pure genius” MacGyver ever consider squawking 7600 rather than potentially crashing the airplane? He should also consider investing in a hand held radio as they are relatively cheap in the financial scheme of things.

  • I had a similar event happen on my last solo cross country as well. Also in a Tomahawk. I was inbound to Santa Barbara, California when the PTT quit working. There was not one on the other yoke, so I simply used the handheld mic and continued on to an uneventful landing.

  • Again, hindsight is 20/20…
    The plastic button and the spring are just for asthetics.
    I would bet that if you just shoved your thumb into the open hole and pushed, The two brass tabs would have connected and the TX would have activated.
    It is Not like it is 120 volts, 12v at most, probably more likely 3 to5.
    Even more likely, there was a fully functional Microswitch in the bottom of the hole just waiting to be pressed.
    Definetly goal Fixation. Given half a dozen options, we tend to choose the most difficult.
    Thanks, for the story!

  • Geez guys. All this armchair commentary. He was a student for crying out loud. Rob, thank you for stacking up your humbling experience alongside of all of ours, whether we admit them or not.

  • My FIRST thought was the other yoke, but then had I been in that stressful situation, and a much younger guy, I can only HOPE I would have thought of that, or the hand-held which is likely right there within reach. But I would never had been likely to try to monkey the yoke. But again, it’s easy for me to say now from home.

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