My student Mike and I had filed an IFR flight plan from Nashville International Airport to Warren County Memorial Airport located in McMinville, Tennessee, where he would take the oral part of his instrument check ride. The weather was not good enough for the practical test, but we figured this would be great real-world IFR experience for him.
We preflighted his Diamond DA40 and performed the runup. I had watched Mike dutifully carry out the preflight- and before takeoff-checklists, including the "control lock removed" and "flight controls free and correct" items. The weather in Nashville was 300 feet broken, 500 feet overcast, and one-and-a-half miles visibility in light rain.
I have taught my instrument students to set up the instrument approach for their departure airport and to have the approach plate handy in case some difficulty with the aircraft necessitates a return and landing at the airport. Since we were going southeast, Mike setup the ILS to Runway 20 Left. We received our IFR clearance, then called Nashville Ground for taxi instructions, and soon were cleared for takeoff. Everything was nice and routine, but the "real-world experience" part was about to unfold.
We taxied on to Runway 20 Center and began the takeoff roll. A few seconds after becoming airborne, Mike said, "Something's wrong with the controls!" I looked over and saw him fighting the stick with both hands as the end of the runway disappeared below us and we entered the clouds. I immediately took control of the airplane. It felt like something was jamming the control cables, and I realized we had a real problem.
"Nashville Tower, Two-Eight-Five-Delta-Sierra needs to return for landing." This was definitely not going to be a routine flight.
"Five Delta Sierra, do you have visual contact with the ground?"
"Five Delta Sierra, what is the nature of your problem?"
"We are having a slight control problem."
"Do you wish to declare an emergency?"
About fifty simultaneous thoughts went through my head. I was able to keep the airplane under control but had never worked so hard to do it. "Negative," I replied. I requested vectors for the ILS to Runway 20L and was given a downwind heading. Trying to ease my student's apprehension a bit as well as my own, I said, "Now you see why you need to have that approach handy."
We tried to determine the nature of the difficulty. If I released any forward pressure on the stick, the nose would immediately start up making it feel like a trim problem. The roll was a bit more stable but not much. We checked the trim. It was where it should be. Moving the trim forward and back made little difference. The autopilot was turned off but I pulled its circuit breaker anyway. I found a lower power setting that helped stabilize the pitch a bit. There had to be something obvious that I'd overlooked but I couldn't figure out what it might be. I was not looking forward to flying the approach to not much above minimums but I had no choice. I kept hearing myself say, "Priority one, fly the airplane." That was all I could do.
As the controller provided me turns to intercept the approach course, I had to stay super focused on the instruments to keep from over controlling. The airplane seemed to have a mind of its own and with both hands on the stick I literally had my hands full trying to convince it I was the boss. I received a final vector and was cleared for the approach. I told Mike to stand by to adjust the power in case I needed to keep both hands on the controls and I told him to keep looking outside the airplane and tell me when he had the runway in sight — a good practical lesson in cockpit resource management.
We turned on to the localizer and soon intercepted the glideslope. Somewhere around 300 feet agl, Mike told me he had the runway in sight. I took my eyes off the instruments and saw it straight ahead. It was a mighty pretty sight. The wheels touched down and we turned off on the first available taxiway. I looked over to Mike and said as calmly as I could, "I'm really glad to be on the ground." He heartily agreed.
As we taxied back to the hangar I again reviewed all possible scenarios. Still wondering what could have caused the problem, I happened to look down in to the opening in the seat through which the stick comes up. The power pack for my noise-canceling headset was jammed in front of the stick, forcing it back. This had caused the pitch and roll restrictions we had experienced. I had been thinking of bad linkages, servos run amuck, or an object wedged in the control surfaces. But never once had I thought to look at the control stick itself. At this point, I couldn't help but laugh.
"Ah, Nashville Ground, Two-Eight-Five-Delta-Sierra has found the nature of our problem and fixed it. Could we please taxi back for another clearance and take off?" We taxied back to Runway 20C, got a new clearance, and flew to McMinnville, where Mike shot the localizer approach down to minimums and successfully made it through his oral exam. It was a long day.
Whether the battery pack fell in to the hole before or after the "controls free and correct" item on the checklist, I don't know. I do know I have a new respect for carefully checking every item on the checklist. And, I will always have an approach loaded and ready for my departure airport, and when faced with an unexpected situation or a problem I'll always fly the airplane first, then try to troubleshoot.
Two weeks after this incident Mike returned to McMinnville for the practical test and flew back with a bright, shiny new instrument rating. Both of us have become better and wiser pilots through this experience.
Jud Phillips, AOPA 872240, is a Gold Seal flight instructor and FAA safety counselor. A retired graphic designer, Philips has logged more than 5,100 hours during 22 years.
Look for the latest installment of "Never Again" in the September issue of AOPA Pilot. Learn why vigilance in the pattern is critical, especially with mixed traffic operations