The amber gear-in-transit light was glowing and everything seemed routine except for a whining sound in my headset.
I looked out the right side of the windscreen to visually locate the highway that would become our emergency landing site should the engine fail at low altitude. Good planning, right? I looked back into the cockpit and saw the red flag on the turn-and-bank indicator. I tapped it with my magic finger. Nothing. Then I looked toward the radios and found them all dark. I asked the rhetorical question into the intercom: “What happened?” But my wife didn’t respond. I looked at her and found her looking at me with one of those big-eyed, question mark kind of looks. Uh-oh!
I fumbled to reach the transceiver handheld that only 40 minutes ago had the antenna connected and helped me to obtain my clearance. Now, I had to feel my way in the GPS/radio bag that was in the back seat to find it and the antenna. I locked the antenna in, turned the radio on and punched in 133.1. I called the tower to report our complete electrical failure. What’s wrong now? A little voice, or my normal scan, had me look at the instruments. 75 mph? 500 feet?
What was I doing at 75 mph at 500 feet? C’mon, get with the program.
Did I mention we are based at Manassas Airport — well within the Washington, D.C., air defense identification zone? To make the flight extra interesting that day, we were “lucky” to have several TFRs left and right of our course. Turning crosswind to downwind, I began thinking of the Blackhawk or F-16 that we could soon see pull up alongside. “Stay close to the airport,” I said to myself. “Very close!”
I was thinking of the NOTAM that had been issued a few days before requiring any aircraft with a malfunctioning transponder to immediately (and directly) depart the ADIZ. I thought to myself that my transponder wasn’t working: Should I depart the traffic pattern? I tried calling the tower again. Why couldn’t it hear me? I transmitted, “Tower, 72T, we’ve suffered a complete electrical failure, two souls on board, returning to land.” I looked at the tower for a signal, a light-gun signal. Nothing.
Why was I thinking about TFRs and NOTAMs? Fly the airplane!
I was on a slightly extended left downwind now. Circuit breakers? Check! I cycled the master switch but to no avail. I spotted the only other aircraft in the pattern on final to 34L. I turned in behind him, slowed down (to give gravity an advantage) and pushed on the emergency-gear extension lever between the seats. I knew I had only one chance at getting the gear down. I waited for the slight “thump” and then instinctively looked at the gear indicator lights. Duh! I lined up behind the Cessna and began preparing for my landing. Was the tower giving me a green light?