Although my brother and I have lived in Fremont and Toledo, Ohio, respectively, for decades, we are Montana natives and like to fly out to Big Sky Country at least once a year. For several years, the two of us flew out in his Cessna 182, but in recent years we have been joined by spouses and sometimes by adult children. We have a brother in Helena, Montana, so that has been our usual Montana destination in recent years.
This past summer, we decided to take his 182 and the 182 that my eight-member flying club owns. His wife, son and daughter – all pilots – flew in my brother’s plane. He, my wife and I flew in my plane.
Usually, we do the trip in one day, but this time we stopped to visit friends in Grand Marais, Michigan, on Lake Superior.
Two days later we took off for Montana. To minimize the headwinds going west, we typically fly low, which gives us a good view of the country unfolding in front of us: from the fertile Midwest, with large tracts of forest and green, we fly past the 100th meridian and see the corn and beans giving way to wheat and then pasture. The only trees seen in the semi-arid country of the western Dakotas and eastern Montana are along the infrequent creek beds.
Shortly past the Missouri River, the land starts rising and so must we. My home airport, Toledo Suburban, is 669 feet. Starting this day at Grand Marais near Lake Superior at 1803 feet above sea level, we traveled five hours to refuel in Glendive, Montana (KGVD) at 2458 feet.
The major altitude increase was yet to come. Before Helena, we had mountains to cross. Continuing on our IFR flight plan, we flew direct from Glendive to the Lewistown VOR, to join the Victor 113 airway. The MEA is 11,100 feet. Over central Montana, we looked down and saw only occasional ranch houses. The biggest towns along our 190 nautical mile route between Glendive and Lewistown are Jordan (population 343) and Mosby (population 101). It was a sunny, hot day on the high plains. We saw some cattle and some wheat fields, but mostly rolling pastures.
We were talking to Salt Lake Center, but in our part of their sector not much was going on. We enjoyed the sightseeing. We did have some weather moving toward Helena and some to the north near Great Falls, but we had plenty of time to brief the daunting ILS Runway 27 approach, with its 20-mile DME arc and then a rapid descent from 11,100 feet on the arc down to a runway elevation of 3845 feet.
Lewistown to Helena is 107 nautical miles. At 50 miles east of the Lewistown VOR (LWT), Salt Lake Center told us to report 30 miles east of the VOR and to expect a clearance to 12,000. At 30 miles east of LWT, as I pressed the push-to-talk button to report our position, all the lights on the panel went dark. I reached for the avionics toggle switch. It was very hot and the switch showed no resistance when I moved it up or down. My brother was busy enjoying the scenery, including the mountains in the distance which towered above us.
As I dialed in 7600 on the transponder, I told my brother that we had a problem – that we had lost all our electricity on the panel and that I thought it was because of a burned out avionics switch. (Of course, the transponder was dead so ATC would not have seen us squawking 7600, even if there were radar coverage.) We had an iPad with ForeFlight and a Stratus, so we could still navigate and see the weather.
Simultaneously, we both said, “What shall we do?”
I moved the switch back and forth and up and down and suddenly the lights went back on. Trying to hold the switch in exactly the same spot, I told my brother to call Salt Lake Center. Just as he got his hand to the push-to-talk button, the panel went dark and no amount of fiddling with the switch would bring any more life back to the panel. He exclaimed, “That toggle switch is probably original with the plane, but why does a 50-year-old switch have to burn out here?”
Because we had some weather approaching Helena and we had mountains in front of us, I asked, “Should we consider diverting to Great Falls?” After just a second of hesitation, he responded, “No, I think we should continue to Helena. Salt Lake Center will expect us to follow our flight plan.” I agreed and continued the climb to 12,000.
Then, he pulled out his cell phone and tried calling his wife 30 miles back in the trailing plane. We were nearing 12,000 feet and I doubted that he would have a signal. However, the terrain was rising and we were probably at 5000 AGL. He did get a faint message. “How appropriate,” he muttered sardonically, “she has it on airplane mode.”
He then asked me if I had the Helena airport number. In the A/FD tab of ForeFlight, I found the number for the airport manager. He did have a faint signal and the call went through, but not to the airport manager. He got an answering machine. As he profanely expressed his contempt for all answering machines, he went through his box of charts and found a business card for the Helena FBO. The call wouldn’t go through.
In the meantime, Salt Lake Center had called my brother’s 182 and asked them if they could raise us on the radio. In this area, Salt Lake Center loses radar contact, so they were seeing nothing. They had to report back their lack of success. Salt Lake Center also called several airliners in the vicinity to raise us. Nobody could get a hold of us. Later, they told us about the concern in their plane as they contemplated the morbid possibilities. They said that Salt Lake Center was equally concerned because at this stage, there was no communication with us and no blips on their radar that could be us.
While my brother was trying to make the calls, I had some time to think about options. Why not try 9-1-1? I suggested that to my brother. He was skeptical. But he tried it. Immediately a strong, clear, and helpful voice answered, “9-1-1.” He explained the unusual nature of our call: “Hello, I’m in a private plane on an IFR flight plan to Helena. We are between Lewistown and Helena at 12,000 feet, and, because of an electrical failure, we have lost communications with Air Traffic Control in Salt Lake City.”
She interrupted: “Do you want to make an emergency landing in White Sulfur Springs?”
“No,” my brother answered, “the plane is flying and we have an iPad for navigation. We want two things: Could you call Helena tower and tell them that we are about 30 minutes out and will do the 27 ILS approach. After you relay this message to the Helena tower, would you call back and give us the Helena tower phone number?”
It was surprising to us that the 9-1-1 call came in louder and clearer than the other calls from our plane. Perhaps, we have the FCC to thank. It requires all wireless carriers to transmit all 9-1-1 calls on to a call center, regardless of whether the caller subscribes to that provider’s service. Another carrier won’t show up on your cell phone’s signal meter, but it will accept your emergency call. So, our call to 9-1-1 was picked up by the nearest tower, not the nearest tower of my brother’s carrier.
About five minutes later, she called back and reported that Helena was expecting us on the 27 ILS approach and that they were clearing the airspace for us. My brother called the Helena tower and was able to confirm the information, even though the signal was weak.
We both were relieved and only then realized that we had kept my wife in the dark about the issue. She obviously realized that there was a problem, but did not know its severity and needlessly worried more than the problem warranted. We should have kept our passenger fully informed. Later, we both apologized profusely.
In the meantime, Helena tower told Salt Lake Center of our situation. To the great relief of my brother’s family, Salt Lake Center relayed the message and thanked them for trying to assist in contacting us. It was then that they told Salt Lake Center that they were the wife, son and daughter of one of the pilots in the other plane. As they approached Helena, they were diverted to a holding pattern until we landed.
We made a couple of cell phone position reports to the Helena tower, did the 20-mile DME arc, and came in on the ILS 27 approach. On the ground, a mechanic confirmed that it was the avionics switch and replacing it was an easy and relatively inexpensive fix.
A couple days later, I was out at the airport checking on the repair and settling up with the attendant in the FBO when a stranger walked by and exclaimed, “Oh, you were the one who used the Cellphone 27 approach into Helena!”