I Learned About Flying From That: Total Blackout

The most horrible of emergencies: A night flight in extreme weather without electrical power.

I Learned About Flying From That Barry Ross Aviation Art
To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go to barryrossart.comBarry Ross

It was late August and I was in Goose Bay in Labrador, Canada. For two days, my time there had been spent either at the local weather station or in my hotel room, parked in front of the Weather Channel.

I had departed Bangor, Maine, two days before. My mission was to deliver a pretty red-and-white Maule M5 to southern Italy for its excited new owner.

A seven-hour flight brought me to Goose Bay. The next stop was supposed to have been St. John’s, Newfoundland, the last point of land before heading out over the Atlantic, bound for the Azores and then ­Portugal. But the weather was bad. Really bad. A huge and nasty low-pressure system had stalled over the Atlantic, having persisted now for five days. It looked to last many more.

But by the following morning the weather had improved to the north. If I changed my route and flew over southern Greenland, Iceland and Scotland, and down the east coast of the U.K., I could make it. I departed at 4 a.m. into solid IMC.

I broke out on top at 5,000 feet on a climb to 8,000. The Maule was a real handful — no autopilot or wing leveler. The ferry tank full of extra fuel drove the CG well aft. No matter how carefully I trimmed, the Maule would try to roll over on its back within seconds of releasing the yoke.

Fifteen minutes farther south and the world changed. I was now in IMC with precipitation so heavy that all I could hear were sheets of rain pounding the windscreen.

I had to divert to Narsarsuaq, Greenland, for fuel due to higher-than-forecast headwinds, but the remaining flight to Reykjavik, Iceland, went smoothly enough. The next day I departed into low ceilings and cold, blustery wind, with the plan to make ­Germany late that night and my destination the following afternoon. The weather improved some as I approached the Faroe Islands, remaining VFR all the way to my planned fuel stop at Sywell ­Aerodrome near Northampton, England.

Before departing Sywell, I checked the oil, did a preflight and was off again, enjoying a stunning sunset as I headed south toward the English Channel. I knew the fair weather wouldn’t last though — there was a storm covering much of Western ­Europe, which I would enter before reaching cruise altitude. I picked up an IFR clearance and leveled at 8,000 feet.

Fifteen minutes farther south and the world changed. I was now in IMC with precipitation so heavy that all I could hear were sheets of rain pounding the windscreen.

An hour into the weather, I was handed off to Brussels Center. I signed on and awaited a response, but none came. A second attempt also went unanswered. While keying the mic for the third attempt, I noticed a dimming of the instrument panel. Hmm, that’s odd, I thought.

But before any further contemplation was possible, the whole world went black. And I mean pitch black. Cave black. Can’t see your hands moving in front of your face black.

In the span of several seconds everything had changed, and I was plunged into the most horrible of emergencies — flying totally blind at night, in IMC, in a heavy rainstorm, in a dynamically unstable aircraft with no autopilot, and with only seconds left to react before death would be all but a certainty.

I Learned About Flying From That Barry Ross Aviation Art
To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go to barryrossart.comBarry Ross

Clutching my flashlight in my mouth, I regained reasonable control of the airplane. I was able to maintain my altitude and airspeed, so I figured I must still have an engine, though I couldn’t hear it over the roar of the rain. The tachometer was dead. I had no engine instruments, no interior or exterior lights, no panel lights, no GPS, no nav radios and no comm radios. Not good.

I grabbed my portable navcom. Remembering the Brussels frequency, I tuned to it and broadcast a Mayday, but there was no response. I held the radio up so I could read the display. “Low Battery” was all I could see. Really?

Five minutes later, with fresh batteries installed, I once again tried Brussels. This time they heard me. Upon declaring an emergency, I was given vectors for an ILS into Brussels. “Negative,” I replied. “I have no navigation radios. I’m requesting a PAR or ASR approach.” Brussels told me it had no surveillance approaches and to stand by.

Moments passed that seemed like hours. Finally, Approach came back with a frequency change to Charleroi. Good fortune smiled on me — it was already after 9 p.m., and Charleroi tower normally closed at 9. Only minutes later and the controllers would have been gone. Charleroi had a surveillance approach. Brussels vectored me in that direction and handed me off. The surveillance controller calmly provided vectors and stepped descents until I was at MDA on final approach minutes from the MAP, still in solid IMC.

Approaching the MAP, I began to pick up the glow of approach lights, illuminating the clouds but nothing else. I continued my descent, and, at about 75 feet agl, I caught sight of the runway numbers directly below the nose. I flared seconds later and rolled to a midfield turnoff, shutting down at the base of the tower.

I grabbed my portable navcom. Remembering the Brussels frequency, I tuned to it and broadcast a Mayday, but there was no response. I held the radio up so I could read the display. “Low Battery” was all I could see. Really?

It was only then that my body started to shake uncontrollably. I took a few moments to compose myself and to grasp the fact that I was still alive.

Exiting the airplane into the downpour, I climbed the stairs to the tower, wanting to thank whoever was there.

Upon entering the dark room, I saw two men, one large and tall, the other short and much thinner. Both were scanning helplessly into the night sky with their binoculars. Upon seeing me, the larger one said in a heavy French accent, “Not now, we are having an emergency.”

“Yes, I’m thinking I am the emergency,” I said. He looked at me quizzically. “Look straight down,” I said. There, about 60 feet directly below them, barely visible through the rain, was the little Maule, dark and drenched. “But we did not see you land!” the larger one exclaimed. Since I had no exterior lights they probably would not have seen me no matter how hard they tried. Suddenly, the larger man came running at me — I thought for a moment that he would punch me, but instead he picked me up off the ground in a bear hug and, with tears in his eyes, said, “We thought we had lost you!” It’s a moment I’ll never forget.

The next day, my friend Guy, who owned an FBO at Charleroi, pulled the cowl and found the two bolts that attach the tachometer drive cable to the engine block had vibrated loose — one was gone, the other was two threads from being gone. The tach drive plate had pulled away from the block, and this had allowed pressurized oil to be forced out of the crankcase and down into the alternator directly below, destroying it. In short order, the battery had also died. I remember thinking then how much I loved magnetos. Leaving Sywell, I had 12 quarts of oil. After Guy drained the sump, 2 quarts remained. How long can an engine run on 2 quarts of oil?

I have spent many hours pondering why I survived, replaying my options that night over Belgium 23 years ago. I’ve determined that every other scenario would almost certainly have ended in a fatal and fiery crash.

So is it luck that determines the path or length of our lives? Or is it skill, hard work and preparation? Or is it, perhaps, all of them?

That night they were all required for my survival. Had I lacked any of them, I would have found myself in the pitch black at 8,000 feet, knowing that I had seconds left to live, never again to see another sunset.