I’ll bet you have departed from your home base hundreds of times. And like me, you can probably recite the procedure from memory. At my airport, Dallas Addison (KADS) however, the routine can be demanding. Addison lies just north of busy Dallas Love (KDAL). Normal departure procedures off Rwy 15 include an immediate 100-degree left turn to avoid traffic headed for Love and a short climb to 2,000 feet. If everything plays out as planned, my clearance and verbal callouts go something like this:
“November 416 Delta Mike, you are cleared to the Gunnison airport. On departure, turn left heading 050, radar vectors SWABR 5 departure, HUDAD transition. Climb and maintain 2,000. Expect FL400 10 minutes after departure. Departure control 124.3. Squawk 4134.”
Cleared for takeoff.
Pitot static heat and lights on.
Power set, two good engines.
Airspeed alive, cross check.
V1, Vr, rotate.
V2 plus 10, flap retract.
Start the left turn.
Level at 2,000, reduce power to maintain 200 knots or less.
I have played this game hundreds of times. It’s similar to patting your head and rubbing your tummy simultaneously. A lot happens quickly, and the departure maneuvers can be quite demanding even in good weather. Throw in a hiccup or two, and good planning goes out the window.
August 25th was a good example.
“November 416 Delta Mike, cleared for takeoff,” came the clearance from tower. Shortly after, “Six Delta Mike contact departure one two four point three.”
As I began my left turn, I heard “TRAFFIC! TRAFFIC!” from the Honeywell system. Immediately, my eyes left the cockpit and scanned the horizon for low level, fast-moving obstructions. Climbing through 2,200 feet I realized in horror that the airplane had not leveled at 2,000 feet. The autopilot was not engaged and my clearance limit was 2,000 feet!
In an instant, I pushed the nose over to descend to 2,000 feet as Patty and I became weightless volunteers for the astronaut program. Patty was a pro. She didn’t scream or wet her pants although I probably did. Scream that is.
I had engaged the yaw damper instead of the autopilot.
Fortunately, we didn’t cause a conflict with departure control. I couldn’t believe I had made such a simple mistake. Actually, two mistakes. (1) In the rush to look for traffic, I assumed the reassuring “clunk” on the yoke was the autopilot instead of the yaw damper. (2) I failed to confirm autopilot engagement on the “scoreboard.”
We all make mistakes. And reflecting on mine, I could have hand-flown the entire departure and been “in the loop” before the altitude excursion. But the use of automation in single-pilot operations allows us to be outside the cockpit looking for traffic that can ruin our day.