It was day six of a seven-day VFR cross-country trip over 2800 miles and nine states. We could make it home, but it was going to be late. It was February 2017, and this was the longest trip I had ever flown in my 39 years of flying: 15,500 feet MSL and yet only 1500 feet above the ground at times, many snow-covered mountain peaks that came up to greet us the first few days.
We thought our most exciting memories were behind us. Everything was going great; the sun was about to set and, in an instant, we lost everything but the motor. No radios. No lights. No electrical instruments. And no ideas – yet. We got through the checklist and decided we had lost our alternator. We could make it home, but the smart money was on getting to an airport that could fix our problem and get us back in the air safely again.
We both had no place to be for a week and no reason to push it or take any chances. My copilot was an Air Force vet, and he was missing his wife, but feared an onboard fire so he wanted to be on the ground now.
We saw Salina, Kansas, ahead to the left, an old military base. We had ForeFlight on my iPad so we had all we needed to get to the airport. By the time we reached Salina, it was still VFR, but a dark, cold, moonless night. We were there first, but we had no way to inform anyone of our location or our problem. My first thought was, we lost power so we have the right-of-way as we lined up for a straight in shot to runway 35.
My copilot had a strong flashlight and was trying to signal the twin on base leg to the same runway. It was clear he didn’t see us so we peeled off to the left, clear of his flight path. We then saw two other single-engine planes about to enter the pattern. We created our own holding pattern waiting for everyone to land.
I felt I needed to let the tower know we were there, but the only way I knew how to do that was to buzz the tower in the dark. We did and it got his attention – but not in a good way. We landed in the dark – no landing light, no lights for gauges, and no electric gyro – so just basic seat-of-your-pants flying. However, this was one of my better night landings.
One important point: a strong flashlight in the cockpit is of no help as it takes time for your eyes to adjust back to the darkness and you are going to need your eyes to land in the dark.
We taxied right under the tower to the FBO, and out came the lineman asking us if we’d seen the idiot out there flying with no lights and buzzing the tower as they wanted his N-number to turn the fool into the FAA.
I turned and pointed to my plane and read him my N-number. “This is that plane, and I’m that idiot,” I told him. He instructed me to call the tower and explain my actions at once.
This was the coldest night in recorded history for Salina – well, at least it felt like that to us. One of the linemen was a linewoman, and she had on two pairs of insulated coveralls and a coat and a lot more under that so she could hardly put her arms down. She also had on two pair of gloves and two stocking hats. All I could see was her face – she looked like the female version of the Pillsbury Doughboy.
She was sure we were in big trouble and wanted to be there when I called the tower. She was sure they had caught their man and I was going to spend the night in jail, or at least be grounded. She had already found me guilty before hearing all the facts so I made sure she was close by as I phoned the tower with my explanation.
The tower told me the Paul Harvey version of a few college students who were buzzing the tower at night with no lights on. So, he never gave me any light gun signals, and I don’t remember many of them anyway so I was glad he didn’t. At that point, he felt bad for assuming I was part of their problem, not someone with a problem.
When he said he was sorry, I made sure the two-pair-of-everything linewoman could hear him. He then told me who to call and they would get to work on my airplane first thing in the morning. I was glad to hear that.
After hanging up the phone, I heard, “Oh my God, you were in real danger not just big trouble.”
“No,” I said. “We were never in danger or trouble. We just lost our alternator and landed here to get it fixed. We need to spend the night somewhere, but I prefer a nice warm motel if you can help us get a car, and you can fuel my plane tonight or in the morning.”
When I looked outside, my airplane was fueled and already being towed to the shop. The linewoman wanted to know more and offered to drive us to a motel and even picked us up in the morning. She was very kind and very helpful.
“How do you know your airplane will be fixed in the morning?” she asked.
“All we need is the battery charged, and we can make it home in the daylight,” I said. She was not so sure.
That night, my copilot and I started doing all the “what ifs” we could think of from renting a car to drive home to flying back on a good battery. I had been to many flight safety meetings and heard a number of times that it is not the first thing that goes wrong that kills you, but what happens next, so getting on the ground to get the bird looked at was the wise choice.
Salina was very friendly – a few days here could not be all bad, but my copilot was missing his wife even if it did take her three days to notice he wasn’t home. She called me to ask if I knew where he was three days ago, as his phone was dead. I wasn’t sure what to say at first, and I thought she knew our plans and saw a golden opportunity to play a trick on both of them.
However, it was now bitter cold outside, and these two were like teenagers: every minute apart was like a year. I had one love-sick puppy on my hands. We were one vote away from renting a car that night and driving four hours, 180 miles on icy roads, to get him home so she could kill him for not telling her where he went or how long he was going to be gone.
The next morning, we went to the shop where they were working on my plane. Of course, the double-everything linewoman wanted to go along. She was on top of everything. What she didn’t know, she wanted to know. I was very impressed even if she did think I was either wrong or guilty from the moment we met.
When I talked to the shop foreman, he had a small brass bushing in his hand. He said that fell out of my airplane and didn’t advise flying it till it was fixed. I own a boat repair shop so I knew what he was trying to do. A little fear and visual aid can go a long way to opening a pocketbook. I asked where he found the part, and he showed me under my starter.
It was the nose bushing to my starter, and I asked for a hammer. I now had everyone’s attention. My copilot said, “You can’t just pound it back in.”
I said, “No, I’m going to tap it back in as it only has to work one more time. It is not a vital moving part of the plane once it starts and, if it won’t start, then I’m not flying anyway so it is worth a try.”
For some reason, it went right in, like I had done it a million times before. When I turned around, everyone was looking at me like I just shot the president. The linewoman looked at me and said, “You are not going to fly that now, are you? I would never fly in that plane till it was fixed right.”
At this point, my love-sick copilot was ready to fly, drive, or walk home. Everyone looked at the shop foreman for his OK. “If it starts, he can make it home,” he said.
They had the battery charged up overnight and we had a good plan. I called my friend in the tower. It was a different guy, but he knew the entire story. We may have even made the local news. For sure, we made the coffee shop grapevine.
I told the tower if the plane started, I was going to Squawk 7600 and fly home with everything shut off but my transponder. I called home to inform the FBO if I had no radios, I would buzz the office and make LH traffic for Runway 31 so they could inform any planes in the area we had no radio or lights.
Cozad, Nebraska, is my homebase. I consider everyone there a good friend, and they need to know ahead of time what is going on. They are like family: when I first landed my “new to me” Mooney there, the FBO owner’s wife called me the moment I landed. I hadn’t even got to the hangar yet. She asked me to call or text her every time I landed just to be sure I was safe.
It was a very clear VFR flight and we did not have one problem all the way home. We had plenty of power for the radio when we entered the Cozad airspace. I was impressed when we landed, as Flight Service called the FBO to make sure we landed safely.
Allison is the second-generation manager of the FBO at my homebase of Cozad. Flying is in her blood. I like to tease her by saying I have been flying longer than she has been alive. She was a huge help in getting my second bird, and getting me back into flying. I have told her many times what a positive effect she has made on an old man’s life, giving me a second chance at my love of flying. Thank you, Allison!
A postscript about second chances:
One of my first memories in life was my first second chance. It was the day before my third birthday when my mother stopped the car on a railroad track and we were hit by a freight train that dragged us for almost a city block. By the time I learned to drive I had already been in 12 car accidents. I added a few more in my bulletproof years. I have no idea why some of us get so many second chances and some never get even one. I feel every second chance makes it likely you will get another second chance because of the knowledge you were just given. Second chances are a massive gift; don’t take them lightly.
You still have a lot of living to do and a second chance to follow your dreams.
- Flying over water, from Nebraska to the Florida Keys - December 14, 2022
- How many second chances do you get? - October 21, 2019
- Military flybys: rules and mistakes - April 1, 2019
It was years later after the we were hit by the train that I noticed not one window was cracked or broken and yet the motor was gone gives you the feeling someone was protecting us, everyone in the car that day is still alivem, you can read a lot into that if you want. That is my second Mooney pictured, and they are all happy times would not trade a moment of my life to this day.
David, that’s a good story. And well-written. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for taking the time, there were a number of choices made then that I question now, it is easy to get caught up in the fear of the unknown in the moment. I enjoy reading accident reports and asking what would I have done. Many Pilots think they would do the right thing, not always that easy to do.
Thanks again, your parents gave you a great name!!!
I have made many long cross-country flights in my PA-28 Warrior, including New York to Alaska twice, and have to wonder why, on a flight like this, you wouldn’t have, in the plane and easily available, two (not just one!) battery-powered sources of GPS data (I use two yoke-mounted Garmins), a battery-powered comm radio, and a battery-powered 406. Additionally, for a night flight, or one that could extend into nighttime, a red-light headlamp.
This is not being overly cautious. I had to use all the above (except the 406) when my alternator failed on a night flight, over water, heading to a Class C airport. It ended up as a non-event, since I was so well-prepared.
We spent a lot time looking outside the cockpit for other Planes in the dark, not being seen and getting on the ground was top on our list. We should have been thinking of many other things that night to help ourselfves and others see us. Salina had college kids flying in the dark with no lights now and then. Glad they were not flying that night we would have never seen them or they seen us.
Barry thanks for your comment you make a great point even for short trips. I have a back com now and I had my cell phone then along with my ForeFlight IPad. I could have looked up the Phone number and called the airport. Looking back I would do many things different, I took too many chances that night on many levels it could have ended far worse than it did. My point is I was very lucky, I got another second chance and I did learn a lot, for some reason others don’t get a second chance, very unfair. I hope others read this story and like you do see how simple and easy it is to be prepared for the unexpected. The list is very long of things that could go wrong. It took 39 years for this to happen to me. What will go wrong next is the unknown question we all want answered, life just doesn’t give us that answer. There was a plane crash near my home a month ago by my neighbor in a SR22 the “safest” Plane ever built caused by a gust of wind during a cross wind landing, would like to know how that went so wrong so fast. They walked away unhurt the Plane is totaled. When things go wrong we don’t always do the right thing at the right time. He just missed a house, a train track, a highway, a number of trees he could have done everything right and was just lucky or he was that good. He got a second chance.
It all kind of brings to mind the adage about your pilot’s license coming with a full bag of luck and an empty bag of experience, and hoping the experience bag fills up before the bag of luck runs out.
Barry very well put I thought I had heard them all. I was once told every hour you fly puts you one closer to your first accident. I missed my first engine loss by just one hour, but that is another story…my partner flew our plane for one hour after I flew thru high wind at night a week before, he lost the engine came up 1000 feet short of the runway in a cornfield. Had I lost that engine that night, well it was 16 years before I ever flew at night again. Joe is right some things are just not worth the risk.
Its one thing to get a second chance, but to take a chance and fail then say you got a second chance, is ludicrous !! Personally I don’t think I would ever take off knowing I have a none working alternator. In fact I think there is something about that in the rules of flying, the danger of it turning in to a very dangerous situation is very valid when doing that sort of thing, short, wiring starting to burn causing a fire, ruining your radios, etc…You go on to say you have had multiple second chances??? Wow. you are one very lucky person, I have to say, of course with a lot of prejudice. Good luck in the future, you sure need it…thanks
Thanks Joe. We didn’t just flip a coin Joe, and I don’t want you or other pilots to think we didn’t give this a lot of thought first. We landed and had the airplane looked at, at Salina. I took off with the tower, the shop and the FBO in full knowledge of our problem. I even talked with my instructor, my mechanic at my home base first. I looked at the weather and many other things. Once we landed in Cozad I had the plane annual we rebuilt the prop, new starter, new alt, new exhaust and many other items that even looked like they needed replace. Every flight has risk I was very comfortable flying home. If you are not willing to take a risk or have fear of the unknown no one would ever fly or drive. I do understand your point but we did give this a lot of thought and asked a lot of questions first, of the right people to get the correct answer. Looking back I have more of a problem flying in the dark and not landing at the first airport even if there was no one to fix the plane. I repair boat motors for 35 years so I have some knowledge of motors and how they work. Flying home on a clear VFR day with a fully charged battery did not bother either of us. Any thing less than totally clear skies and flying over the flat land of Kansas and Nebraska would be a totally different issue, IFR or even VFR mountain flying would have been very different. This was all country we both have flown over many times in our 39 years of flying.
Glad it all turned out OK, but you didn’t lose your alternator when you lost lights and radios, you lost it a long time before that.
A scan that includes ALL instruments is needed periodically, VFR or IFR.
Good point Ed, I did notice a weak charge of our battery but it was still possitive for the 6 days we were flying, never a problem starting the bird once. I did install a new gage also, that may have been part of the problem. When we started replacing things we didn’t test each item we replaced wires, gage, equipment anything that looked weak or a problem was gone. I don’t like to do repairs this way as you never know for sure what happened. However Doug made a very good point if you replace the weak link in a chain you just move the weak link, I trust Doug, I told him not to try to save me $5. The repairs were not cheap and I never questioned the cost or his work. Doug also installed an idiot light that comes on when not charging. I could have done a lot things better or different. We were sure at first the belt had either broken or was loose, it could have been tighter but was not the problem. It was time to make some up grades and I did.
The joy of owning your own plane is you never run out of things to either fix or upgrade.
Great article David. I once lost a generator in a C-175 at night on the way home from Florida. I turned everything off including the lights. Needless to say we were watching carefully for other lighted traffic.
We didn’t have GPS back in those days so we had to navigate visual. We flew into Shelbyville Illinois knowing they had a salvage yard and spent the night. The folks at the salvage yard put our battery on charge and found a generator from an old 172. Problem was, the 175 engine turns opposite rotation. Fortunately I had an electrical engineer in the back seat and we rewired it to work opposite rotation.
The generator was working fine as we had to shoot a missed approach into our home airport, Clow International, and then had to shoot the ILS into Du Page and have my buddy’s wife pick us up.
Ah, the adventures of flying light aircraft.
Thanks for taking the time Don, I never gave it a thought that there would be 2 of us in the air with no lights at the same time, untill the tower told us about the college kids buzzing the tower at night with no lights. Had this been their night to pull a prank it could have had a very different ending. I have given this night a lot of thought. I LOVE night flying and did it a lot years ago, flying over big cities all the lights, now I need a very good reason to fly in the dark.