Electrical failure: time to improvise, adapt and overcome

Heartbreak Ridge is one of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies. Clint plays a grizzled old Marine gunnery sergeant who is assigned to a reconnaissance platoon full of undisciplined misfits. He whips them into an organized fighting unit which then finds itself on the island of Grenada during the U.S. invasion which actually took place during the Reagan years. During their training, he exhorts them to “improvise, adapt, and overcome” because combat will be full of surprises and setbacks.

I had all four seats filled as we were winging our way westward to Santa Fe, New Mexico, at 8000 feet on top of a cloud deck. The ride was smooth and all seemed well with the world. It was then that I noticed the ammeter needle flicking back and forth between “discharge” and neutral in a steady rhythm. This did not look right. The fluctuations would stop when I turned off the tail beacon, but the needle stayed on the “discharge” side. It did not take long to realize that the alternator was not keeping up with the electrical load and the battery was discharging. We needed to get on the ground fast.

Cessna ammeter gauge
Press on or time to land?

Just the day before, I had been talking with a fellow pilot about the management of risk when flying. Most pilots can cope with one or two things going wrong if they land as soon as possible. Very few pilots can successfully deal with three or four things going wrong when they choose to press on instead of landing right away. It’s called the “accident chain.” This was playing in my head as I debated a course of action. Prudence won out and I informed ATC that we were going to divert. Of course the controller wanted to know why, so I told him. Borger, Texas (BGD) became our new destination.

After extending the landing gear, I noticed that all of the annunciator lights on the autopilot were flashing. Base leg was not the time to ponder that anomaly, so I forced it from my mind and concentrated on the landing. The first thing we learned after shutting down was that there was no repair service on the field. The next thing we learned was the FBO had a very nice lounge area with a flat screen TV. My passengers were happy to wait there while I sorted things out. Probably two hours were spent calling various places in New Mexico to see if there was a non-towered airport that had both repair service and rental cars available.

I came up empty and decided that Santa Fe was going to have to wait until another day. By that time a huge thunderstorm had formed just east of the field, began dumping prodigious amounts of hail, and was the feature story on the Weather Channel. Not wanting to be a part of that story, we headed for a local hotel as daylight was fading.

The next morning the airport was fogged in. One of my passengers had a business trip to Colorado scheduled two days hence so we needed to get moving one way or another. The best plan of action seemed to be to rent a car at the Amarillo airport and drive home that day. I would then ride back to Borger with my friend and get dropped off since he was going to be driving through there anyway. The problem was getting to Amarillo. We had been loaned a courtesy car for our overnight stay but it was not allowed to leave the county. It was then we discovered the extent of the true customer service that Hal Shevers talks about. One of the linemen offered to drive us to Amarillo in his personal vehicle. We gratefully accepted and were soon on our way home.

I spent the next 48 hours thinking about flying the plane cross-country with little to no electrical power. The weather was going to be iffy because the same low pressure system which produced the thunderstorm was still going to be hanging around. After discussions with my mechanic, we had decided the landing gear should be left down since it was electrically controlled. That was going to be 20 knots less airspeed. However, having three now-empty seats meant I could fill the tanks. There would be over five hours of fuel available for a 2.5 hour flight. Navigation was going to be by magnetic compass and iPad.

We had a nice drive westward while I scanned the sometimes cloudy skies above. It looked like a no-radio VFR flight was doable. Upon arriving back at BGD, I had the tanks topped off and checked the radar summary. By now another round of afternoon thunderstorms had kicked off and they were making their way eastward. I was going to have to time my departure so as to miss the storms, but get to my maintenance base at Muskogee (MKO) before dark. It was going to be close.

King Radio stack
You can fly without these, right?

After waiting about an hour, it was time to go. The line crew extended a helping hand yet again and gave me a jump start from a power cart. At first I was able to cruise at 5500 feet MSL but the clouds lowered with the terrain as the trip progressed. I flew for a while with the master switch turned on but later noticed what had to be erroneous readings for cylinder head temperature and fuel quantities, so I turned it off. The avionics were never turned on. This was an education in exactly which instruments did and did not require the electrical system to operate.

At about 33 miles from my destination, I was down to 1800 feet AGL beneath an overcast but could see clear skies just ahead. I started thinking I had it made when I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. A Cirrus was headed in from one-quarter mile away at my 9:30 position – barely in front of the left wing – and perhaps 100 feet above. I have no idea how long it would have been visible had I been looking off to my left, since I was scanning for traffic more or less straight ahead. It was too late to do anything about it. The Cirrus whizzed past behind me and I never saw it again. One can never look outside too much when flying.

Soon it was time to set up for the landing. Upon selecting flaps 30 degrees (the master switch was back on), they went to 25 and stopped. The battery was dead. I landed with what flaps I had and taxied to the hangar with them stuck in that position. It felt good to be on the ground again. I had a half-hour of daylight to spare.

The old alternator was indeed worn out. The airplane is already fixed and back where it belongs. Theoretically we could have continued on to Santa Fe if I had been carrying a portable aircraft communications radio. Last year at Oshkosh I attended a seminar titled “Breakdowns Away from Home.” The speaker advised doing the minimum required to safely get your aircraft back to its maintenance base, so I ended up taking his advice. My wife had texted my son informing him of our predicament when we were stranded in Borger. His reply: “Improvise, adapt, and overcome!”

8 Comments

  • I think the author did a good job of not pushing it and getting the airplane on the ground, but the biggest question I have is: why no hand-held com for backup?

    I had a similar situation one day in the NY Class B. I got a rare clearance into the B on my return flight to Massachusetts from south New Jersey. As soon as I got into the B airspace, the high voltage light came on. A reset of the alternator master got me a few minutes of normalcy, then the light came on again.

    I called NY approach and told them I had a problem. I needed to shut down the electrical system, leaving me without a transponder, and wanted to exit the B area by the most direct route.

    Obviously, that got their attention and I got numerous “suggestions” about places to land. I turned all of them down and got down to the business of setting up for a no electrical system flight home.

    Besides the hand-held radio in my flight bag, the antenna cable for one of the com antennas is routed through the glove box of our Cardinal with a splice connector. Disconnect that splice, plug the antenna into the hand-held, and you have voice communications almost as good as the panel mount.

    The #1 radio in the panel is a Garmin 430W. It is connected to a Garmin 396 in a panel dock. The course from the 430W feeds the 396. As we left the B airspace, I did one last D-> to our home base. Once the course was in the 396, the master switch went off and stayed that way.

    All the ATC people seemed really worried, and I got a number to call when we landed, but it was really a non-event. I was better equipped for the 1.5 hour NORDO trip than I was in 1979 when I ferried a 1946 Cessna 120 from Tulsa, OK to Bedford, MA.

    • I must admit to having been spoiled by my Bose ANR headset. The thought of shouting into a handheld is not very appealing, but I may look into a portable communications radio as a “just in case”. It would not have made any difference in the outcome of this particular situation.

  • Dan – Everyone has a different tolerance for risk, inconvenience, and repair costs, of course. And each of these factors also varies with the aircraft make and model and installed equipment. A Piper with manual johnson bar flaps is one scenario, but a Cessna with electric flaps and a dead electrical system is very different setup.

    In this instance, my risk tolerance calculator allows that I would not start a cross-country flight in an airplane without an electrical system that also uses electric flaps. Doing so begs the question of, “what happens if I’m landing, I’ve got the flaps down (as you had), and then the battery dies? If I have to do a go around, with un-retractable full flaps, I’m suddenly in deep, deep trouble”.

    An aircraft without the ability to retract its fully (or near fully) extended flaps is effectively no longer airworthy, and can easily kill you in a go around attempt.

    Even if one decides to NOT extend the flaps for a normal landing at your destination, what if you have to make an off-airport landing somewhere along the way? The extra airspeed necessary to avoid an approach-to-landing stall suddenly becomes very inconvenient, to say the least.

    These are significant risk factors that you did not mention in your post. They’re in addition to the risk factors that you actually encountered (the Cirrus traffic, and the lowering ceilings at your destination).

    You’re simply depending too much here, with the obvious risk factors that you’ve already accepted, that nothing else can or will go wrong. That is the all-too-frequent basis of the infamous “accident chain” that is at the root of most fatal aviation accidents.

    The better decision in your scenario would have been to hire a local RCO-based A/P to replace your alternator at BGD. You were already there at RCO anyway, having hitched a ride. There had to have been a qualified mechanic available there or close by who could drive over to BGD to do the work; the driving distance from RCO is less than an hour. A mechanic can grab an alternator and any other related parts off the shelf, and a few hand tools, and do the necessary replacement in short order at BGD.

    You’ll pay the A/P an extra couple of hours of labor for his round trip travel time – but that is still cheap insurance against a potentially very bad ending to your trip.

    You wrote:

    “The speaker advised doing the minimum required to safely get your aircraft back to its maintenance base, so I ended up taking his advice.” I question the “safely” part of your evaluation.

    • First of all, I rarely use full flaps in my airplane. Second of all, the airplane would have continued to fly with the flaps I had if a go-around became necessary. That is the advantage of being in a lightly-loaded 182. Landing with flaps up was certainly an option but my judgement was to use what flaps I could get.

      I am not sure what airport you are talking about here. There is no airport around Amarillo with an identifier of RCO. Perhaps you are talking about the Remote Communications Outlet. Are you a pilot?

      I place a great deal of trust in the mechanic who works on my airplane. He is an experienced pilot as well. I considered a ferry flight to his maintenance base a better choice than trusting a critical repair to someone I do not know.

      All flying involves the management of risk. This is especially true with single-pilot, single-engine operations. I certainly do not claim to be perfect in this regard, but I work hard at improving both my flying skills and judgment. Most pilots do. Each flight should be treated as a learning opportunity, and that is how I approach it.

      • I stand corrected on the three letter code for Amarillo Husband International Airport – it is AMA.

        Other than that I stand by everything I wrote.

        I understand your point about trusting your home base mechanic. Still, changing out an alternator is a relatively simple repair, and it does not invade the internals of your engine. Upon return to home base, you could easily have had your own mechanic inspect the repair to make sure it was to his satisfaction.

        You could certainly verify that the repair worked by taking the aircraft around the pattern, to ensure that the electrical system is working properly before launching on your trip home. That would be a much safer evolution than launching on a cross-country without any electrical system at all, especially with weather and lowering ceilings to further complicate matters.

        I take issue with your basic premise of “improvise, adapt, and overcome” when you are safe on the ground and have many other options.

        That attitude makes sense when you are in the air and have contingencies to manage. But not as a substitute for making sure your aircraft is fully airworthy before you leave the ground.

  • Isn’t the alternator listed as required equipment in that particular aircraft? Departing with one known to be inoperative seems like it would require a ferry permit.

    Flying without your transponder powered might have also contributed to that Cirrus coming so close to you, since ATC wouldn’t have been able to provide him with altitude information about you, nor would on-board traffic been useful to him (if he was equipped).

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