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Flying with George

We were climbing on course in my club's A36 Bonanza at the start of our family's week-long vacation to the Pacific Northwest. My parents were in the back, my wife Janet was in the right seat, and Eddie Pippin, Canine Aviator, was in her lap. We'd just departed Ukiah, California, and I had circled to climb up through a hole in the scattered cloud layer before crossing the six and seven thousand foot peaks to the East. As we turned on course, I kept climbing.

It was a warm day, which was typical for that part of the world in early September, so as we climbed higher, our climb performance fell off noticeably. George (the autopilot) was flying as I tended to leaning the mixture, adjusting the flow of oxygen for myself and my passengers, and scanning for traffic. Our autopilot is a 1970's model with limited capabilities. Modern units can climb at a specified airspeed or climb rate, level off at a preselected altitude, and even fly GPS courses and holding patterns. Ours can only maintain a given attitude or altitude and fly a bugged heading or track the CDI according to the selected OBS course. It can also fly a coupled ILS approach if you set it up right.

I had been rolling the autopilot's pitch wheel back to maintain a 500 feet per minute climb. After a couple of minutes dividing my attention between the oxygen bottle, scanning outside for traffic, and an occasional glance at the instrument panel, I noticed the groundspeed readout on the GPS. It read 67 knots.

"Whoa!" I thought to myself, and quickly checked the airspeed indicator, which read about the same. Just at that moment, the stall warning horn blared. I quickly rolled the pitch wheel forward to get the nose down. The airplane lurched forward, jostling my passengers, as the airspeed built back up.

"Sorry about that," I said. "Gotta pay closer attention!" I resumed the climb at a more leisurely rate and a safe airspeed. It had been a long time since my last real trip in the Bonanza, so I hadn't used the autopilot much in a while. The incident was a sharp reminder of the importance of maintaining a good scan, especially when George is at the controls.

My re-familiarization with the autopilot continued a couple of days later as we were approaching Seattle's Boeing Field on an IFR clearance when Seattle Approach began vectoring us for the airport. I noticed that George was flying a heading a few degrees to the right of the heading bug. Cross-checking our heading against the magnetic compass, I adjusted the bug until we were flying the assigned vector.

By the time we were bound for home, George and I were working better together. As we approached the high terrain East of Mount Shasta along Victor 25, I knew we had a 10 to 15 knot headwind, so I was on the lookout for downdrafts. We were at 11,000 feet, above the MEA, so I knew we had at least 2,000 feet of terrain clearance. Sure enough, I noticed a series of slow fluctuations in airspeed as we approached each ridge, indicating that George was having to climb just to hold altitude. The airspeed excursions were never large enough to worry me, but I was glad that I noticed them.

Of all the trip's lessons about using the autopilot, though, maybe the most important was getting clear on when not to use it. Especially towards the end of a VFR descent when nearing our destination, heading changes became more frequent and the dance of twist the bug, roll the wheel, enrich the mixture, and roll back the throttle required increasing contortions. It was time to give George a rest and just fly the airplane. In these flight regimes I found the autopilot to be more trouble than it's worth, and when moderately loaded, the Bonanza is a very pleasant airplane to hand-fly.

Besides, I didn't become a pilot just so George could have all the fun.

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