The emergency training my instructor, Lucas, had drilled into my head quickly took over. I made sure that I kept control of the airplane instead of falling prey to panic or distraction. I then handed my uncle the POH that sat between us and asked him to read the procedure for a failed alternator to me, to confirm that my memorized steps were accurate. He did a wonderful job, given the circumstances, calling out each step:
Uncle: “Verify failure ... check ammeter.”
Me: “Failure verified.”
Uncle: “If ammeter shows zero, ALT switch off.”
Me: “ALT switch off.”
Uncle: “Reduce electrical loads to minimum.”
Me: “Loads reduced.”
Uncle: “Check and reset ALT circuit breaker if required.”
Uncle: “ALT switch on.”
Me: “ALT on.”
Uncle: “If power not restored, ALT switch off.”
Me: “No power, switching ALT to off.”
Uncle: “If alternator output not restored, reduce electrical loads, and land as soon as practical.”
Me [thinking to myself]: “If ever there was a time to yell ‘uncle,’ this was it!”
Keeping to my course, I focused my attention on the moving map display to determine the nearest airport. I then called ATC, advised them of the sound we had heard and asked to divert to the nearest airport to inspect the problem.
We followed the emergency procedure Piper had carefully detailed in the POH, landed at the nearest airport and shut the engine down. After removing the cowling with the help of a mechanic who happened to be at the airfield on a Sunday morning, we discovered that the alternator belt had broken in flight, striking the cowling as it went, which produced the loud noise we heard somewhere northeast of Washington, D.C.
The mechanic assured us that it was no big deal, especially given that we had a backup alternator. He handed me the shreds of the alternator belt he had picked out of the engine compartment and added, with an air of nonchalance that only old-school pilots and mechanics can muster, “My cousin once flew from Santa Monica to New York without a radio or a transponder. You’ll be fine.” It was one of those well-intentioned comments that did little to appease the apprehension I felt about having to fly into the Washington, D.C., ADIZ on my way to the Piper dealer ... on a backup alternator.
After stopping for pizza at the airport restaurant — which, incidentally, is where we confirmed we were in New Jersey when the waitress said, “How are yous guys today?” —we flew to another nearby airport for the repair. One week and two commercial flights to and from Atlanta later, the airplane was good to go.
Eager to determine what caused the belt to break in a new airplane, I asked the shop foreman to show me exactly what he determined to be the cause. He took me to the front of the airplane, had me look at the narrow space between the back of the propeller hub and the cowling, then pointed out that the tube feeding the prop slinger (basically a ring with a channel on its underside) was misaligned when the anti-icing system was installed. When I turned the system on, it didn’t feed the glycol into the prop slinger. Instead, it sprayed the slippery solution all over the front of the engine, including the alternator belt!
Once coated, the belt no doubt began slipping, built up heat and broke, causing the alternator failure. I have since added an item to my checklist before every flight, of course — namely, making sure the feeder tube is properly aligned with the slinger ring.
I learned from this experience that extra attention and caution is required during the break-in period of anything new, and that it is important to run tests of those new systems in as controlled an environment as possible. I can only imagine if my first use of the system had occurred in IMC conditions, with ice building on my wings. My second and subsequent tests of the system were performed at 5,000 feet, within gliding distance of my home field.
I was also reminded of the importance of staying cool, calm and collected when the unexpected happens. Don’t hesitate to use all resources at your disposal (such as equipment, ATC, copilot and passengers) to finish the flight safely. Finally, I learned that I can — and should — add items to my preflight checklists as experience dictates.