Unusual Attitudes: Electricity is Not My Friend

To say that electrical systems are not my strong point is something of an understatement. The reality is I don’t actually believe in electricity, and although I’ve spent a lifetime regurgitating answers to questions on oral and written tests about amps and volts and ohms and AC and DC current and inverters and buses and current limiters and reverse current relays, I have no earthly idea what I’m talking about.

On the eve of that sad day last summer when the Cincinnati-Blue Ash Airport was forever closed — although rumor has it that persons (possibly aliens) have landed on the “X’d” runway at night — a number of runway and taxiway lights were mysteriously “liberated.” One, converted into a table lamp, somehow ended up in my living room, and I was fiddling around with the harp and bulb — after plugging it into a floor socket. When I got a helluva shock, it occurred that maybe I’d gotten things out of sequence and that the fiddling around part should have preceded the plugging it in part. As I said, electricity is not my friend. Anyway, I forgot all about it until a few days later when I noticed the little white gold cross I always wear around my neck had morphed into a twisted, blackened blob, suggesting Somebody was trying to tell me that Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were really on to something.

When I bought my 1956 Cessna 180 20 years ago, the panel looked like somebody in the back seat had thrown gauges, rocker and toggle switches, circuit breakers, and engine and flight instruments at the instrument panel. Most of the stuff seemed to work, but I would discover that some didn’t … or that they worked “backward.” A big glob of ice formed on the pitot tube one night, even though I’d pulled the button “out” as labeled; pushing it in provided heat … because that button was actually a circuit breaker. Yes, I should have tested it during the preflight. Then there was the big red generator circuit breaker button that wasn’t actually connected to anything. So without a “failure” light and with an ammeter that consistently showed a charge, I blissfully assumed all was well with the electrons … and protons, neutrons, muons and whatever else it is that keeps radios and lights working. Yes, I should have checked the gauge by turning on something that uses lots of electrons, such as a landing light or maybe the pitot heat.

Anyway, it was a hot July afternoon when I started home from northern Florida, and sure enough, the buildups over the mountains in northern Georgia were doing what they usually do on hot summer afternoons but maybe a little more vigorously than forecast. The ground was getting higher, the ceilings lower and the rain showers more numerous around Rome, Georgia, when I abandoned the “contour flying” nonsense and called Flight Service for an IFR clearance to London, Kentucky, my planned fuel stop. Feeling righteous and invincible with my powerful Cessna 180, a real IFR clearance and a recently installed Stormscope, I climbed to 7,000 feet. The turbulence increased from moderate to scary, but I assured myself all would be well if I just asked for deviations around the “lightning bugs” now peppering the screen. Before long I would discover that while a Stormscope will probably keep you from getting killed, it most certainly will not keep you from getting your palms and maybe even your panties wet.

The weather extended north of the mountains, and a King Air ahead of me on a VOR approach (the only one available in those pre-GPS days) into London called a miss. With about an hour of fuel left, I decided not to waste time trying to do something the King Air couldn’t and went on to Lexington, Kentucky, where there was an ILS — a good decision because I broke out about 300 feet above minimums. After getting fuel and waiting a few hours until the weather improved, I made the 45-minute flight home, no sweat, in light rain with broken to scattered layers above and below.

The next day the weather was glorious, and I took a friend to Middletown, Ohio, for his first ride in a little airplane. He was intrigued that you could actually land an airplane in the grass. I was intrigued that absolutely everything that ran on electricity quit working when we touched down. We got the airplane back to Lunken on light gun signals, and after much head-scratching and several attempts to fix it by recharging the battery, my then-mechanic decided that maybe the generator had failed. This guy was held in some esteem as a genius with sheet metal, but I would discover his knowledge of engines and electrical systems was only slightly better than mine. But it was sobering to realize that the generator may well have failed over those mountains in Kentucky, and that I’d made that 300-foot approach at Lexington on battery power.

Some years passed with things suspiciously quiet on the electrical-system front. But knowing those electrons are not my friends, I’ve stocked the airplane with an uncommon number of flashlights, batteries and spare bulbs. And I religiously follow the old Navy practice of hanging a small flashlight on a long lanyard around my neck.

Coming home from Oshkosh this August, we climbed to 11,500, VFR direct Gary, Indiana, and then to Lunken (the Gary “jog” allowed us to hug the shore of Lake Michigan). It was a beautiful night, and we were smoking — the GPS indicating 180 knots groundspeed as we flew along the Chicago lakefront. Even though we were well above Chicago’s airspace and the weather was great, the retired airline pilot snoozing in the back seat woke up and opined that maybe we should be talking to somebody. It’s against my principles to talk to anybody when you don’t have to, but I also believe you’ve gotta keep everybody riding in the airplane happy. So we called Chicago Center and squawked the code we were given, but even though the “reply” light was blinking, the controller wasn’t picking us up. He told us to “ident,” and when I pressed the button, the transponder died, the cockpit lights dimmed and the Garmin 430 went off the air. But the KX-155 still worked, and we were nearing Gary, so I told Chicago we’d cancel the VFR radar advisories … thanks and goodbye! I tried resetting the master switch and the circuit breakers but saw the ammeter was showing a discharge. Thanks to my vast store of electrical expertise, I intuited that the generator had failed and whatever was working was running off the ship’s battery. So I turned all the radios and lights off except a Garmin 696 mounted on the panel and plugged into ship’s power. My rationale was to let it use up the ship’s battery, if necessary, so there’d be enough internal battery power in the box to get us home on this very black but very beautiful night.

Actually, we could have done it by pilotage. From about Kokomo, Indiana, where we started a slow, 200 fpm descent, I could identify Indianapolis, Marion, Anderson and Richmond, Indiana. We descended below Cincinnati’s Class B airspace as we passed Oxford, Ohio, and I turned the KX-155 back on briefly and picked up the Lunken ATIS. But when I turned it back on about 6 miles north of Lunken, it was dead, and I decided to circle the field 500 feet above pattern altitude and look for a light — which, of course, we wouldn’t get because they couldn’t see us. But we planned to check carefully for traffic and land on the ATIS-advertised runway 21L.

Then Bobby Strunk, the retired airline captain, came awake again in the back seat with, “Why don’t you call them on the telephone?” Why, indeed! So I dialed the familiar number and told the rather surprised controller we were overhead at 2,000 feet with no electrical power.

“You’re where?”

When he recovered from his surprise, he cheerfully cleared us to land on 21L, and it was uneventful — except I could use some practice on no-landing-light night landings. We called him back with thanks and further explanation after taxiing to the hangar, which is right near the end of the runway.

Over the next few days, Joe Schott, the skilled and patient mechanic at Signature Engines who now keeps ’72B flying, installed an alternator, a new battery, an alternator switch and this nifty yellow light on the instrument panel that alerts you if the electrons start going south. But when flying ’72B out east for an airport “do” the next weekend, I found that, even after days in the shop and a considerably lighter checkbook, the voltage was low, the ammeter showed a discharge and the damned yellow light was on. Only by drawing once more on my vast store of electrical knowledge and experience did I determine that you have to turn the alternator switch “on.” Alas, electrical systems are not my strong point.

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Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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