Thursday, February 04, 2010

A night when flying was more interesting than it should have been.

So I'm sitting here, flipping through my flight log, when I spot a night flight entry with the notation "Electrical failure!" And I remember a flight some years back when I was still a new pilot with well less than a hundred hours under my belt and I'd talked a friend who'd never flown before into coming out and going up for a night flight.

I love night flying. The air is calm and smooth, other traffic is scarce, the lights below are neat to watch; I really enjoy it. This flight however...

Back in those days, if I wanted to fly, I just went over to the FBO at the airport, walked into the rental office, signed the plane of my choice out in the log book, and took the keys from their hook behind the desk. It didn't matter if it was midnight and no one was around--the place was never locked and those of us who flew out of there were trusted.

After checking the plane out, we'd taken off in full darkness and buzzed around a bit, and then I pointed us over towards the big commercial airport nearby to show my passenger how I could land on the big runway with all of the jets. This airport was a hub for several airlines, including a few cargo haulers, and while it was fairly slow during the day, it really rocked at night with both UPS and Fed-Ex flying in and out. Naturally the control tower was just overjoyed to have a Cessna 172 come up on their approach channel and ask pretty please to come in and squeeze in between the big fast-movers to shoot a few touch-and-go landings. But on this night they indulged me, although with the caveat that I could make ONE full-stop landing and get off of their runway and onto the taxiway ASAP so as not to interfere with the real traffic any more than I had to. I agreed and set up for my first landing, greasing it in oh-so-perfectly even as the tower was warning me of a 727 on final and telling me to turn off the runway and take my place in the departure queue if I wanted to take back off any time soon. It was also suggested that if I had no actual business at this airport that I go find someplace else to play.

I thanked them for the indulgence, and as I'd shown my pal that I could fly in there just like a real plane could, I was ready to go back to the home field and let him buy me a few drinks. And as I sat at the hold short line waiting for a DC-9 to take off with another big jet behind me and a couple more on approach, I was thinking that I was seriously cool. Of course if you'd polled the tower or the pilots of those other planes, they might have voted a bit differently. But this was my moment to shine.

I did a quick scan of the gauges, and I noticed that the ammeter needle was flickering pretty wildly. Hmmm... It hadn't been doing that earlier. In fact I'd never seen that gauge do that before or even heard of that. But before I could ponder it's meaning, the radio crackled. "Cessna 172, you are number one for takeoff on runway 27, cleared for departure from the pattern to the north, have a nice night."
Translation: Get off our runway, get away from our airport, and don't come back.

So I shrugged off the little ammeter gauge as I pushed the throttle forward and let off on the brakes. I made a mental note to tell someone about it in the morning as I kicked in some left rudder to line up on the centerline and firewalled the throttle, watching the airspeed indicator climb. "Come on, 55 knots!" And just as the needle hit 55, I pulled back on the yoke and the little plane left the runway. I was grinning like a fool.

Then it suddenly got very dark in that plane, and very quiet save for the engine roar. I stopped grinning as I realized that the lights had just gone out. In fact everything electrical in the aircraft was dead, and that included my exterior navigation and collision-avoidance beacons as well. I realized that I was now flying around in airspace chock full of big, fast jets and I was invisible to them all. Instinctively I hit the transmit button and tried to alert the tower of my emergency but the radios were dead, too. This was seriously not good.

By feel, I brushed the circuit breakers, but none of them reset. I knew that I needed to get well clear of the airport so that I could try to figure something out without getting whacked by a jetliner. Going around the pattern and trying to muscle my way back in for an approach without lights or communication didn't seem like a very good idea so I just followed the departure instruction and then went down low to get below any other traffic that might be in the area. At this point I was making it up as I went along because this situation was not covered during my flight instruction. All I knew was that I had to put this plane where no one else would hit it while I tried to figure out what to do next. Digging into my flight bag, I found my mini-mag flashlight with the red lens on it that I used for map reading. I handed it to my friend and told him to use it to light up the six-pack of essential instruments on the console, and I quickly taught him to focus it on the artificial horizon, altimeter and airspeed indicators when I called for them. I then began to fiddle with things, trying to get something to reset and restore power, but nothing was working. I headed back towards my home field, but I quickly realized that it was unattended and the lighting controlled by radio signals from pilots, and without a field lights. This just kept getting worse.

I got out my cell phone next, and I called one of my flight instructors at home. Unfortunately I couldn't hear over the engine noise so I had no idea if anyone was picking up the phone--all I could do was shout: "Hey, it's me! I got an electrical failure and need you to go to the airport and turn the lights on!" I yelled this half a dozen times, then hung up, dialed the other instructor, and repeated it. I had no way of knowing if either of them had heard this (It turned out that they hadn't--both pleas for help just hit their answering machines) but it gave me a bit of hope right then and there to know that someone somewhere--other than us--knew that we were in trouble.

Then I caught a break--as I approached the field, I saw that the lights were on--they were actually on! YES!!!

Of course now the question was, why are they on? Is there another aircraft in the pattern that I can't see? Or did one land or take off a while ago? If it was the latter, those lights are on a timer and could go out at any time. I needed to get down and down quick while they were still on, but what if there was another plane in the pattern or on final? I banged the Cessna into a 360-degree clearing turn, looking for any other traffic. If anyone was up here, I had to spot them because they'd never see me. Finding none, I dove for the runway, dispensing with the pattern approach in an effort to get down before those lights switched back off. Without a landing light, there was no way I'd be able to touch down absent those runway lights. Angling in on a short final and watching my airspeed and altimeter, I reached out and hit the flap switch, only to realize that these, like everything else, were inoperative. So not only was I landing a blacked-out plane on a runway whose lights might flick off at any second, I was also going to be coming in hot with no flaps. No pressure here...

"Come on, God...just get us down safe and I swear I'll be in church Sunday...I promise!"

The lights stayed on as we coasted in over the threshold, but my hand was on the throttle waiting to jam it forward and abort the landing if they went out. I focused on the flare and put some back pressure in and the aircraft settled ever-so-gently onto the runway, smoother than many of the landings I'd made where I could actually see the ground. I gave a victory yell--we were down safe; we'd made it.

And as I turned off the end of the runway and onto the taxiway to the FBO, the lights all went out. We'd been down less than a minute. Talk about a close one.

If there's a moral to this story, I'm sure that it has something to do with poorly-maintained rental aircraft and keeping your head when things start coming untwisted. Or maybe it has something to do with paying attention when little gauges that never act up start acting up. All I know is that I had a flight that I'll never forget and I'm still here to write about it. Life's good.

And yeah, I was in church that next Sunday morning. You don't even want to welch on a deal with God.

1 comment:

  1. I was gonna ask if you went to church...til I read the last line. :)
    Wow! Talk about a scary moment! Glad you made it down safely and in one piece, at that! :)
    And you know HE is probably sitting up there chuckling to Himself saying, "So this is what it takes to him to show up on Sundays..hmmm...what else can I throw his way?" hehe!!