An awful sensation – lost above Brazil with no alternator

We went to buy an airplane – imagine that! My wife, a friend of mine, and I went to a small airfield trying to choose something to buy. We looked at some older and newer planes and, after some time, were driving home. My wife asked what airplane we had decided to buy. “That yellow one? That small biplane? That Cessna?” I answered, ” No, that one hanging on the wall!”

Mortal silence…

She then said, “Hanging on the wall? How can it be? That cage of a plane? Only the tubes?”

“Er, yeah… that one,” I answered.

Citabria
A fun airplane, but light on avionics.

We had bought a Citabria, a vintage plane made in 1960 by Bellanca, which had once been a great plane, had crashed some time before and was partially rebuilt – the airframe only.

The former owner gave up on finishing it. My wife thought in dismay that we were totally crazy. Building an airplane?

This was in 1993. The fact is that it took us seven years to finish it. We hired a retired mechanic and he, with only a little help from us and the guidance from a famous Brazilian aeronautical engineer (who was used to writing aeronautical tests of different kinds of planes), rebuilt the airplane.

After a little instruction, my first flight was in December, 2000. I only had about 200 hours logged in planes like the J-3 Cub. Therefore, the Citabria was more like a Super Cub to me regarding performance, but with flaps, and only an old and reliable compass as navigation instrument. Yeah, old school, as I had learned.

It was a beautiful afternoon, summer here in Brazil, December 20, 2000, some time around 17:30.

I was totally by myself. I aligned the plane with the 04 runway, with no one in sight, since it was the middle of the week. I took off and decided to test the new plane with some basic maneuvers and a lazy flight. It’s important to say that I was totally unfamiliar with the area, as I was used on flying my Cubs from another airfield some miles away.

But the fates decided it was a good time to put me to the test. All of a sudden, in the middle of my climb, the craft began to shake and a smell as if something burnt invaded the cockpit.

Instinctively, I leveled the plane and pulled the throttle back a little to feel if it would continue flying. After some moments — I would say an eternity — the shaking stopped, and the smell stopped too.

Apparently, things were back to normal, but of course something should be different, because of the shaking and the smell. Making an inventory of my scarce instruments, I saw an ammeter indicating zero. No alternator, so I knew I should land as soon as possible and I headed to my airfield. Or, at least, that was my intention.

In a few seconds, I noticed that I must have spent a good amount of time, more than I thought, trying to figure out what was going on, because I just didn’t recognize the landscape.

If you think the shaking and smell were frightful, it was not at all compared to the sensation of being lost. And a few miles from home, no less. How can it be? I can say that you feel butterflies in your stomach, shaking legs, a foul taste in your mouth, whatever, but it is an awful sensation.

After some moments, I thought I couldn’t be too far, no matter how long I had flown in some direction, and decided that my best course of action would be flying around trying to recognize some landmark. I took about 20 minutes in that attempt but nothing.

Curious to tell that, just like in the movies and the novels, suddenly I saw myself wondering about my life and beginning to think, “OK, so this is how it’s going to end… That’s a pity with a loving wife and two small kids, one boy of three and a little girl of only one. We could spend so many hours together for so many years. At least I could know them and had a good life.”

Citabria picture
A drawing made by a friend of the author depicts the Citabria in the middle.

I had always loved to fly and it took me a great deal of time and money to get to it, and after all this time I intended to have some good times flying my own plane. We made it so carefully and had it so thoroughly inspected that it’s difficult to accept that something would go wrong on my very first flight.

I continued to think, “I’d love to fly with my children and show them the beauty of the skies. But, if it’s my fate, so be it. I have no regrets in life.”

After some time daydreaming, some precious minutes, and getting dangerously close to sunset (but still having some fuel to burn), something stirred in me and pulled my mind off these thoughts of letting things go and follow the stream. You may say an inner voice, my conscience, God, some angel, some spirit whispering into my ear, whatever. And it came into my thoughts.

Jeez, of course I ain’t no quitter. After all, I had some good old fellas as instructors and had some good training on dead stick landings. What I need is a good plan. Or any plan, but definitely some plan. I won’t let myself go without a fight.

First of all, I should fly a defined direction for some time – let’s say, ten minutes – then another direction for another ten minutes, and so on, again trying to picture some recognizable pattern in this landscape.

I decided that when the sunset came, I would choose a suitable landing spot, as I was used to doing when practicing off-airport landings. And, as we all know or should know, we should treat a forced landing like every other landing. As Bob Hoover said, “Fly the plane to the crash.” I thought that if this were done with some daylight remaining, my chances of getting out of the crash alive would be still good – if I didn’t panic and I pulled myself together.

Having settled this, I began to make my regular turns around the landscape. First in one direction, then in another with the hourglass emptying minute after minute. And what didn’t help is the fact that as the daylight went away, things looked different. The changes in light turn the surroundings into other shapes. And it confounds and misleads you.

Slowly, I noticed a ridge nearby. Have I seen you before? Let’s look closer. Wow! I do know you.

It was a mountain people used to paraglide, near a city I knew. Therefore, my airfield stood some ten or 15 miles from there. The sensation of knowing where I was, as opposed to the feeling of being in the middle of the ocean, with no land in sight – I have no words to describe.

I landed uneventfully some minutes after sunset. I found that a broken alternator belt was caused by a bent alternator shaft. It was a new alternator in a new plane that had been well-inspected. New parts are bulletproof? Tell me about it.

I’ve now flown this very plane for eight years with my wife and kids and performed some aerobatics with them. They just loved it. And understood my love of flying. And loved that airplane too, that is until I upgraded to a bigger one to carry all of them together. But that’s another story.

The old/rebuilt Citabria 7GCB never let me down again.

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4 Comments

  • Great story of the love of flying, and perseverance in a time of distress. HIs commitment to finding his home home base and not giving up is commendable. A good lesson for all pilots.

  • Hi Renato!
    Very good and great story! I´m glad that you share in this Air Facts Journal your harrowing adventure! Congratulations!

  • I love this story, especially finally finding your place in the world getting close to dark. The ending that the alternator was crap… boy, that’s a joke! And we have regs, certified techs, mfgrs and parts for what? perfection? It’s not happening. Great write up.

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