The education of a young professional

I shined the flashlight beam on the radio stack and flicked on the nav side of the old KX 170B nav/com. Slowly the flag pulled, revealing a “To” indication and the needle moved about a needle width left of the doughnut.

I quickly flicked off the nav radio and directed the beam at the whiskey compass then to the DG. At least the vacuum directional gyro was working well enough, as both indications matched. The turn needle was dead, powerless, as I rolled into a five degree bank using the AH then rolled wings level. That should be enough to keep me tracking the course.

I kept the flashlight dancing around the panel… attitude, direction, attitude, altimeter, attitude, airspeed and repeat… with an occasional sweep of the left wing leading edge checking for ice.

It was dark and the air was rough inside the cloud. I was in a tough spot this time for sure. This early spring night, the entire southeast was blanketed in widespread low IFR with weather at minimums or below for much of the region. I was about halfway between Birmingham and the Monroeville VOR at 10,000 feet, en route to Mobile with a load of small packages. I couldn’t spare the juice to check a crossing radial from the Montgomery VOR for a definitive position check. Besides, I had my hands full flying and holding the flashlight. I needed a plan.

Piper Aztec
The Aztec is a reliable machine, but only when maintained.

It all started innocently enough. I was sitting in the Flight Service Station getting a brief and trying to find a legal alternate. Sipping black coffee with the briefer, I was amazed at the length of this guy’s fingernails as he traced the surface analysis, weather depiction and FT reports. I settled on Tallahassee for an alternate. About this time, Jim, our chief pilot, strode in and sat on the stool next to me. He exclaimed that our entire system was fouled up due to the weather and he was pulling me off my regular run and sending me to Mobile and, by the way, my regular ship, a 601A model Aerostar, didn’t make it in tonight and I was to fly the backup, an Aztec.

The Aztec was an old D model that sat forgotten on the ramp not even garnering accommodations in the hangar. I did a quick preflight while Jim helped with the load and pretty soon it was time to climb in and get out of the light rain. Checking the cockpit configuration before engine start, I observed the right generator in the off position with a piece of duct tape covering the switch labeled” INOP.” Yeah, I know, not legal, but I rationalized that I had flown many times in single-engine aircraft with a sole source of power generation and all would be okay. I certainly didn’t expect that the left engine exhaust would soon crack, directing hot gasses onto the wiring harness resulting in a major ground fault and loss of all electrical power.

What’s the plan going to be? It had been about 15 minutes since the first indication of a total electrical failure. I had switched off all electrical items, even pulling the breaker on the turn and slip indicator in an attempt to conserve something in the battery. There seemed to be some juice as I could get faint but seemingly good bearings from the VOR.

First, I was not attempting to get into my destination airport but there was another field in Mobile and it was located on the bay. That formed the basis of my plan as I fumbled with the terminal charts for the correct plate. Even better, there was a VOR on the field. If I could detect station passage, I could pick up a heading and bearing and begin a letdown over the bay and into the gulf. This could actually work if there was anything left in the battery. Slowly the metallic taste of adrenalin faded away.

Mobile airport
There can’t be many obstacles in the bay, right?

I flicked the nav on to see a full scale deflection on the indicator. Perfect, I was overhead Monroeville VOR. Turning the nav off, I noted the time on my W&B form and rolled into a shallow right bank and picked up a 210 degree heading for Brookley Field. Exercising my full authority as PIC in an emergency, I was leaving my last assigned route. It was about 60 miles to Brookley with my E6B indicating 24 minutes to go at my estimated 150 knots groundspeed. ATC should be protecting my altitude and since I was only slightly left of my original clearance, I remained at 10,000 feet. I wondered if the Atlanta Center controller had even noticed my slowly fading blip on his display.

I selected the Brookley VOR frequency, rotated the OBS to 210 degrees and turned the nav unit on. The “Off” flag didn’t move. I retuned the Monroeville VOR. No indication, not even the slightest quiver of life. I set about my dead reckoning earnestly, estimating passage over the Brookley VOR at 10:15 pm.  Suspended within the formless ether, my entire world consisted of the confines of the cockpit and drone of the engines, evoking a primitive feel of man and the elements. The minutes ticked away.

Three minutes before estimated passage, I turned the nav on again. I was not surprised but somewhat deflated to see no indication. Time’s up. I rolled left to a heading of 165 degrees, which I estimated to keep me over the bay. If I could avoid oil rigs, ships and a couple small islands I had a chance. I reduced speed to 120 knots indicated and began a descent at 1,000 fpm. I would descend to 500 feet and hope to break out. That would put me about 20 miles out into the bay, headed out to sea and certainly into an indescribably black hole.

I held the flashlight in my right hand, resting on my knee, to illuminate the rows of instruments. My attention was focused on only attitude, heading, the unwinding altimeter and airspeed. Descending through the murk, I decided to level off at 1,000 feet and execute an abbreviated procedure turn. Forty- five degrees left for thirty seconds then a right turn of 225 degrees to pick up my reciprocal inbound heading of 345 degrees. Level at 1,000 feet and on a heading of 345 degrees I slowly began a shallow descent… 900, 800, 700, 600, 500 and level off. The blackness was complete.

I was still enveloped in thick, moist, heavy cloud. I must be within fifteen miles of the shore and there was nothing left but to continue feeling my way downward. 400… nothing. I hadn’t had an altimeter setting since leaving Birmingham and as now deeply concerned about smacking the ocean. At 350 feet I discerned a difference. The sky outside was still black but not quite as black as before. The air had a slight chop to it. It must be the ragged base. Another 50 feet could do it.

I eased down to 300 feet and smooth air. I took a second to concentrate outside. Yes, I could make out the uneven surface of the ocean below. There was an almost unidentifiable demarcation between the cloud and ocean ahead. I felt a rising level of exuberance. I might make it.

Runway lights
A beautiful sight after a long time in the soup.

I held my altitude and heading tightly as I flew on towards land. Imperceptibly at first but with rising confidence, I could make out a lighter horizon ahead. A light! I could see a red light passing off my left wing. I turned a little more northerly to give myself room from any obstructions off to my left. I looked down and could definitely see the oily black surface of the sea. Almost unbelievably, I had dead reckoned myself to this position in the bay.

Now there were identifiable lights ahead and then a green light blinked. I concentrate on the location of the green light. There it was again followed shortly by a white flash. It was the beacon only a mile or less to my left front! I followed the procedure to lower the gear and turned for the airport, straining to keep the beacon in view. A few more seconds and I could make out the approach lights to runway 32.

The tower had no inkling that an unlighted aircraft had just landed. I had been here a time or two before which helped a lot as I made my way through the maze of hangars and unmarked taxiways leading to what passed for an FBO, operated by Continental Motors. I shut the engines down in front of the shack and opened the door. A lineman peeked out as I climbed down off the wing. They had an outside speaker setup as some FBOs used to do. I was amazed to hear Mobile Approach calling in the blind my call sign.

I went inside the line shack and placed a call to Flight Service. I identified myself and location and a brief explanation of events and requested he close my IFR flight plan. The briefer asked me to hold the line and after a short wait he informed me that the Coast Guard had been recalled. He gave me the number for Approach so I gave them a courtesy call. They had painted a primary target enter their airspace from the northeast, then make a turn to the south approximately over Brookley field. They had followed the contact until it disappeared from their scope headed out to sea and then they initiated a search and rescue effort.

The experience and mistakes made that night were duly deposited into the reservoir of wisdom and knowledge of a very young freight pilot. It would prove a meaningful experience that was helpful in meeting many more challenges in a professional career of corporate, major airline and big iron bizjets.


  • David,

    Loved your article! I am an old and recent private pilot with some 116 hours. Reading articles like yours gives me insight as to steps taken to execute a flight that has become impaired. I am only a fair weather pilot, but should I get myself into a jam, knowledge of some eccential navigational steps is likely to make a positive outcome more of a possibility. Thanks for sharing!

  • A very well written post. So good, in fact, that it made my skin crawl just reading it. I think a pilot’s got the right stuff when they can keep their cool in a situation like that, make use of the available tools, and get home in one piece.

  • Interesting story, but there’s really a lesson to be learned. The lesson here is not about dead reckoning and nav in the blind, it’s about following SOPs and judgment. Have standards and limitations and don’t bust them.

    This story would have never been written if Dave had adopted and held to reasonable standards.

    I’m sure he has learned, and perhaps some of us, too. Thanks for the confession.

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