By Peter Conant
- We don't think a whole lot about our radios. Our communications with ground, tower, departure, center and EFIS are automatic. I started carrying a portable radio after an incident in Lansing, Michigan where I lost communication with the tower on final, but the second radio in the panel made this event a non-event. And ever since packing a portable comm I've never once had to use it. Complacency? You bet.
Now that I'm renting things with wings, a lot of different panel equipment connects to my headset jacks. Sometimes the plugs need buffing (I'm told using a soft pencil eraser helps burnish the contacts) or often the plug receptacle is loose or wobbly, resulting in a sporadic connection. I carry a Leatherman to help tighten any loose bolts and often have to contort my frame under the panel for a proper fix. Sometimes there is bleed over on the audio signal from the ADF identifier or transponder, or perhaps the audio panel gives off a mysterious rhythmic clicking, which often drives me nuts.
Staying ahead of the checklist, going through the familiar motions we all take for granted, is a potential trap. Just as we cycle the prop, check the mags, carb heat (if you fly a carbureted engine) and ammeter, I believe that checking the radios and their connections is just as critical. My "plug in and go" mentality is now undergoing some serious revision, especially now that I'm thinking more like a flight instructor. Do I really understand all the intricacies of this particular audio panel? Do I check each light, switch, marker beacon and annunciator before EVERY flight? I think the trap is when our checklists are seen only as something to be completed before we fly and our focus is getting into the air instead of exploring in detail all the items that could malfunction while we're still on the ground.
A friend of mine who learned to fly at a non-towered field south of Boston would always, before launching, check with Unicom to confirm both radios were operational. A good idea for any pilot, but especially when you are about to launch into the clouds. At our last IMC Chapter meeting here in Norwood, MA we were presented with a scenario where an IFR flight in low clouds was cleared into Teterboro, NJ for an approach and promptly found the radios had died. What to do? I realized this "what if?" question rarely crosses my mind, intent as I am on frequencies, altitudes, speed and chart profile during an approach. So here was this pilot, coming into some of the busiest airspace in the country, with no means of communication. I suppose squawking 7600 would help, but that was about the only transmission available. Several scenarios were presented: exit the terminal area, descend and find a VFR airport (bad idea), go to the filed alternate, complete the approach, and so forth.
After the discussion, I realized I would be definitely behind the airplane if something like this happened to me. So I am now becoming a zealot when it comes to studying accident reports containing communications failures and committing to memory the procedures specified for such an event. As we all know, it's much nicer being on the ground wishing you were in the air, than being in the air wishing you were on the ground. My radio check is now a much more detailed process than just seeing if I can transmit and be heard.