Light gun in tower
4 min read

And creating a near-FUBAR situation

A beautiful October afternoon in 1976 at El Mirage Field, California, saw my daughter and me taking off in our newly-bought old airplane en route to Palo Alto Airport (PAO). We were beyond excited and distracted, so I didn’t recognize clues that we were bound for more excitement than expected. Put another way, this was to become an unfunny, unsafe, head-up-and-locked comedy of errors.


That ammeter has a story to tell…

The first missed clue about what lay ahead was lack of any chatter on the radio between El Mirage and our fuel stop. I asked the FBO guy there if he heard us calling in the pattern. Nope, he said. So we did a radio check and discovered a dead battery. After a quick charge (and a telephone call to the PAO Tower advising them of radio problems and requesting the lights should the problem continue; they agreed), we departed for the Bay Area, leaving the radio off to preserve battery power. But darkness was falling as we neared PAO and we learned it was a total electrical failure. (Testing later showed the air-driven generator was inoperative and the battery too weak to take/hold a charge.)

What to do? The clear night, great familiarity with the topography, TCA and environs – plus Palo Alto Tower knew we were due with some sort of radio problem – pointed to continuing. Furthermore, this idea seemed bolstered by the fact we had no lights or working radio so couldn’t access pilot-controlled runway lights at non-towered airports outside the terminal area. I elected to remain east of San Jose at very low altitude (with sufficient terrain clearance), shielded from San Jose jet traffic by the San Jose Mountains. Then we flew low over the Bay with wary eyes looking for traffic and lights from the tower.

Nothing was showing in the Palo Alto pattern and there wasn’t any surface movement until we turned base to final. Then a twin began moving along the taxiway toward the runway. We hadn’t yet got clearance lights from the tower, but without instrument panel lights, I wanted to land from this good approach positioning. We took the high speed turnoff, quickly clearing the empty runway. Then we shut down on the taxiway because the unlighted surface couldn’t be seen. Suddenly a white spotlight blinded us and a security truck appeared. The driver asked what our intentions were. He agreed to light our way by his headlights to our new tie down spot while we pushed the airplane there behind the truck.

Light gun in tower

It’s hard to get the light gun if the tower can’t see you.

Once we were tied down, he announced “they want to see you in the tower.” With heart in mouth, I mounted the stairs to the tower cab. The crew gave me the stink eye and demanded to know what happened. I reminded them of our earlier phone conversation and request for lights. They responded that they couldn’t see me until I crossed the threshold. And they said I could have landed at an uncontrolled field. I replied that without a landing light or radio to turn on runway lighting, I felt best choice was to continue to familiar PAO, and since there was no traffic in the pattern, to land. After they delivered several stern admonitions and warnings, I was dismissed with no further action taken.

The next day I called my old boss and mentor, Tex Johnston, and told him the sorry tale. He said, “sounds like a dumb SOB with a new airplane; you’re lucky they didn’t violate you or that something worse didn’t happen!” Tex was right!

My conclusions from the flight:

  • Never again!
  • Pre-flight preparation always should be unhurried and thorough, including pilot readiness, aircraft readiness as well as good flight planning – including weather and time of day considerations.
  • Be alert, consciously excluding distractions.
  • I certainly should have thoroughly “pre-flighted” all systems on the ground at El Mirage!
  • Failing that, I should have called it a day at the late afternoon fuel stop. Then, with a new battery installed, resumed flying onto the Bay Area in daylight after a good night’s sleep. The failed wind generator could have waited until Palo Alto if repair wasn’t available at fuel stop and if VFR conditions prevailed.

Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: [email protected]

Gregg Reynolds
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8 replies
  1. Chris Papageorgiou
    Chris Papageorgiou says:

    A nice introduction to ORM.

    1. Identify
    the Hazards
    2. Assess
    the Risks
    3. Analyze
    Risk Control
    4. Make
    5. Implement Risk
    6. Supervise
    and Review

    Thank you !!!!!

    • Ed
      Ed says:

      I’ve got a shorter version of this I like to use:
      1. Fly the plane first!
      2. Regain and maintain control
      3. Diagnose the problem
      4. Treat it

  2. gregg reynolds
    gregg reynolds says:

    Thank you, Chris. It was – you should pardon the expression – an illuminating experience.


  3. Ed
    Ed says:

    Been there, done that!!

    Flight home from Prineville, OR to Poplar Grove, IL in my new (to me) Bellanca Super Viking. Noticed an odd smell in the cockpit during my check-out flight with CFI/A&P/IA. Couldn’t find the source, checked everything over, no squawks found. Chalked it up to a musty smell in the vents due to the plane not being flown in a few years.

    On the first leg to Coeur d’Alene, ID, first sign was one radio died. Then while transitioning thru Spokane Class C, suddenly noticed things were quiet on the frequency. Total electrical failure!!

    No gear operation, no flaps. Broke out the trusty handheld, did an emergency gear dump, landed fast. Breathed a sigh of relief as the nose settled down and the nose gear was there to catch it.

    Called FSS to let them know I landed so Spokane wouldn’t think I crashed, found a hotel and a local A&P thru a friendly fellow aviator. Two days later, all fixed up and on my way again!

    BTW, that funny smell was the battery cooking itself to death after the charging system went berserk and was running at 16V, just below the overvoltage relay threshold.

  4. Dave B
    Dave B says:

    All good info – thanks for sharing. Another good idea is to buy and keep a handheld aviation radio (with fresh batteries and spares) easily accessible during flight.

  5. Dave Macdonald
    Dave Macdonald says:

    I second the recommendation to carry a handheld radio as a back-up. A lesson I learned when I suddenly found myself without a working radio or Transponder just after being cleared to enter Class D airspace in a rented plane due to an electrical system failure. Ordered the handheld the next day!

  6. gregg reynolds
    gregg reynolds says:

    Thank you, Dave(s),

    Good advice. I did that soon afterward as well as bought a good aviation flashlight and carried a supply of spare batteries.


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