I Learned About Flying From That: Communication Breakdown

Lessons learned from a complete electrical failure.

Learned Big

Learned Big

** To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art,
go to barryrossart.com.**

__The 2004 fourth of July fell on a Sunday, so I had the added benefit of a Monday off from work. My wife and I had planned our trip to Toledo, Ohio, a couple of weeks earlier to catch up with some old friends. This was a perfect-length trip for a single-engine airplane and one of the reasons we had purchased our Piper Arrow. Driving wasn’t an option, and in only 2½ hours we’d be landing 72T at a small, single-runway airport perfectly situated three miles from our friends’ house. We had recharged the battery in the Arrow overnight and our plan was simple: reinstall the battery and test to see if the engine would crank before we loaded the bags. Smart, I thought. The airplane did start, so I shut the engine down, called for a top-off and began loading the bags. It’s surprising how many bags you bring on a two-day trip.

I finished loading the bags and, while waiting for my wife to return from parking the car, I called clearance delivery on my handheld. Efficient, right? I copied our route and told them we’d be ready to taxi in 10 minutes.

The fact that 72T didn’t start a second time was a small wrinkle in the plan. I must have used up the “recharge effect” on the first startup. I called the FBO, which quickly brought out the power cart. After waiting a few minutes to let the battery charge, we cranked up the airplane and were ready to go. A quick check of the oil pressure and ammeter showed all the engine gauges lying down. I verified the master switch was on and then did the next logical thing: I tapped the gauges with my finger. It worked! All the gauges simultaneously sprang to life. Perfect! I turned the avionics master on and brought the comms and navs to life.

The battery, obviously, wasn’t holding a proper charge, but I was rushed. We were 30 minutes behind schedule. (Note to self: Order a new battery upon returning home.)

As we taxied out, I saw the gear lights flickering slightly. Huh, never seen them do that before. I added a little power and they started to glow steadily.

My wife and I ran the preflight checklist, which I had customized to include a takeoff briefing and an engine failure briefing, and I spent a little extra time checking the electrical system. I turned the landing light on and verified a spike in the charge rate. I then turned the pitot heat on and saw an even bigger rise of the needle. I turned everything else I could on and saw the needle jump to almost the halfway mark on the Piper’s gauge. Good!

I was satisfied that the charging system was working properly and felt comfortable thinking it would recharge the drained battery in flight and that I had performed the extra precautionary checks necessary to ascertain that everything was working as it should. I activated the flight plan feature on my new GPS as we lined up into “position and hold.” I held the brakes and watched everything come up in the green. Here we go. Airspeed alive. 70 mph, rotate! Positive rate, gear up!

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?

“What’s he doing? Is the Cessna going around?” I was speaking in a normal intercom volume and realized my wife still couldn’t hear me (the same feeling you get when the lights go out at home but you instinctively flip on the light switch to help you find the flashlight).

I made a left 360 and chose to overfly the runway at pattern altitude. If the tower didn’t see my gear down, it would surely signal me with an alternating red and green light, right?

I flew upwind, crosswind and downwind again, repeatedly calling the tower on the handheld. Nothing. My wife asked if we could use our cell phone to call the tower. Of course, why didn’t I think of that? I didn’t know the tower telephone number but instead had her call the FBO and ask it to act as a relay to the tower. (The tower had already called the FBO at this point.)

By the time my wife got the FBO on the phone, we were turning from base to final. A glance over to the tower showed me the green light. With 10 degrees of flaps, my plan was to land a little fast in order to test the mains. I touched down on the right main first and then lifted her up and touched down with the left. They seemed sturdy. The nose wheel touched down smoothly and the landing was uneventful.

The entire episode lasted 11 minutes and 26 seconds, but the morning after, I could recall only glimpses and freeze-frame moments. Now I think back to the events of that morning and see them all too clearly. I failed to see the chain, or rather the links being added onto the proverbial accident chain. The airplane sat only a few days before this trip. Why was the battery voltage suddenly low?

Complacency and the urgency to stay on schedule seduced me into rationalizing that the battery must be old and need replacing. I never stopped to think in a more systematic manner about what else could be the problem. I never considered that a complete electrical failure could occur on takeoff. Have you? If you have imagined your way through an emergency, think about it occurring where you didn't think of it occurring. We all know an airplane will continue to fly during an electrical failure. The failure to plan for it kept me from being professional.

I also learned a few other things: If you have a copilot during your flight (FAA-rated or not), involve him or her in the flight and keep the copilot informed of what is happening. An electrical failure is not necessarily a life-or-death, engine-failure type of emergency, but a non-pilot doesn’t know that. Also, customize your checklists and make them flow. Our custom preflight checklist called for a takeoff briefing and an engine failure briefing. Now we have an electrical failure briefing as well.

Lastly, if you feel prepared for a failure because you fly with a handheld transceiver, don’t forget to connect the antenna before the flight and have it within easy reach. Oh, and don’t forget to charge or change the handheld’s batteries every once in a while; just because it has got enough battery juice to receive doesn’t mean it has enough to transmit.

Oh, what ended up being the problem, you ask? A failed battery solenoid that sits adjacent to the battery. A $200 part.

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