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"Always have an out." That's what my roomate told me about flying in IMC. It was good advice when this story took place, twenty-seven years ago:
I had arrived in Pontiac in January to begin a "dream job" of flying on-demand cargo as a charter pilot. On this particularly dreary day in March, our dispatcher, "Sea" received a call from a traffic manager in Lansing to charter a plane to pick up some widgets in Tennessee, and get them to Lansing as soon as possible. I was next out, so Sea barked for me to jump into the Cessna 310 and get down to "Hooterville" quick. He said he would file the flight plan while I got the ship ready. Our machines were always preflighted and ready to go, so I simply got in, fired up and began taxiing out to the runway as fast as I could. I did remember to grab some chocolate-chip cookies that Rose, our secretary and counter girl had baked that morning as I ran out. First things first, you know.
I was trying to remember just where "Hooterville" was when the ground controller radioed that he had my clearance ready. I copied it, set the radios, did the runup, then lined up for takeoff. It seemed that the weather had come down some. The tower said the visibility was a half-a-mile, but I wasn't so sure. He cleared me to go and I tookoff into the low soup. "We" were into the fog almost immediately after leaving the ground. This was just the type of flying that I had longed to do: Low ceilings, low visibilities, single-pilot, fast airplane, you know, a real challenge. I thought I had the world by the tail. I was finally doing some "manly" flying.
As I jerked the gear up I noticed that the usual spunky electric landing gear motor was dragging a little - kind of slow. Next, I saw that I had lost the reply light on the transponder. In short order, I realized that I had heard nothing from the tower either. I called them, but I got no reply. Things were starting to go down hill fast. I began analyzing my situation, and realized that I had just suffered a complete, and total electric failure. All the electric instruments were inoperative. I continued to fly the airplane in what I thought would be the expected course and altitude. But I could only guess at my position. A quick assessment produced the following results: I had all the basic air-driven and static instruments, as well as the magnetic compass. The gear was up, because I felt them bump the belly when they became flush. I had reached VFR conditions on top of a solid undercast at seven thousand feet. I had no electrical components, including boost pumps, anti-ice, lights, nor electric flight instruments. I did have a flash light. I just hoped it worked.
Before I took off, Sea had radioed me that the weather was IFR all the way down to Tennessee and as far west as Chicago, so I figured that finding VFR conditions on the fuel I had available to me was not going to be an option. That seemed cruel, because I was savoring the final rays of a beautiful sunset before it disappeared beneath the undercast. Level at seven thousand feet, and on course to Toledo, I extracted the flight manual from the jacket beneath my seat and began to run the "Electrical Failure" checklist. Methodically checking off every item, I came to the emergency power switch. I don't know what they call today, but that switch was supposed to give you the last bit of power in the battery to enable you to make an approach of some type. It's very much akin to the emergency power system in the 737 that I fly now. Anyway, I flipped that switch to the on position and was blessed to see some life in the radios. Quickly I turned everything off that did not absolutely need to be on, which was that switch itself. I'd save it for when I really needed it. I firgured out that somehow I had lost both generators, and that I only had minimal battery power left in the old 310. So, there I was at cruise, in very congested airspace over Detroit, in a ghost ship with a now reduced fuel supply above a solid undercast with low IFR reported everywhere I could reach - about an hour and a half of flying. As the last of the sun set beneath the clouds, I could think to do only one thing - I ate my cookies in silence waiting until I thought I was over Toledo.
After droning along for several minutes more, I estimated that my time to Toledo was expired, and that I should be at least in the vacinity. I crossed my fingers and switched the emergency power on. Transmitting on the Toledo tower frequency, I informed the controller of who I was, where I thought I was, and what was happening. He answered that he knew all about me, had me on radar, and asked what my intentions were. "Oh great" I thought. "I'll never live this down - if I live through it." I told him I needed to find some VFR airspace if possible. "Standby" he said. "Well not too long." I fumed. I waited maybe thirty seconds before calling him again, because I had heard nothing. I transmitted a few more times with the same results. I recycled the emergency power switch and tried again. Ziltch! Nothing at all. I worked with it for a few minutes more, but I knew that I had lost the last bit of hope in the battery. I was on my own. And now it was dark with a forecast of complete blackness very soon.
I began to feel scared. I hadn't up until then. Funny, the things you think about when you're scared... "At least nobody was shootin' at me, yet." "No time to be scared" I said outloud. I needed to think clearly and fast. I was running out of time, and options. The only thing I could think of to do at that moment was to turn around and head back north, which I did. I wasn't sure what I would do when I got back north, but I was headed there anyway. I wondered if it was possible to use aux. tank fuel without the boost pumps. So, I switched the right engine to the "aux" position. NO, it isn't possible. That model 310 didn't like doing that. I recovered quickly and continued north bound. Sometimes you have to just accept reality: I was never going to able to find any runway, anywhere. I was going to exhaust my fuel in forty-five minutes or less. I couldn't see a blessed thing. It was cold, and I was alone. It was then that I thought about finding something flat, very flat. Water! Lake Erie!
The lake had to be east of me right then. I turned east, flew for five minutes, and began to let down. By flashlight, I decsended through the fog and began to pick up ice on the windsceen. I knew the elevation of the lake was about six hundred feet, and I hoped to break out at maybe one thousand. A change in blackness density told me that I was out of the clouds, but I couldn't tell how far above waves I was. I turned north, maintaining contact with the clouds just above the difference in blackness. That's all I could see: a change in density. Finally I saw a couple of lights ahead. They zoomed out of the fog just below me. I was about two hundred feet above the ground of Ontario, Canada. Hoping for Windsor, I turned northwest, tree hopping all the way. Highway 401 led me to the airport which I spotted from about a mile east, and I circled the tower twice before receiving a green light to land. I chose the VFR runway, because I had no way of knowing if the gear was locked after cranking it down. Rolling out on final, I noticed my flashlight was also quitting on me. We touched down, the gear held, and it was over. I sat in silence and listened to the rain for a while. Funny the things you think about in the rain.
Common sense should always come first.
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