Cessna with trucks

We own our own plane, a beautiful 1979 Cessna 172XP with less than 3,000 hours total time, of which we’ve enjoyed 1,750. Though our aircraft is meticulously maintained, over the course of my brief, 2,000 hour flying experience, we’ve had failures of: the DG, the AI, the transponder, the autopilot, an altimeter, three alternators, two batteries, a starter drive, and several tires. And here’s a flash—except for one of the tires, none of them failed on the ramp at the “home ‘drome.” Failures inevitably occur when you’re flying AND generally under less than pristine conditions.

As we all know, flying is minimally about operating the airplane; it’s mostly about decision making, and the further ahead of the plane you can fly, the safer and more comfortable your flights will be. In the event of a major system failure, if you’re a good pilot, you won’t make perfect decisions. Perfect decisions, in my experience, are only made well after the fact, sitting in a recliner with beverage in hand. However, if you’re a good pilot, you’ll make sufficiently good decisions to survive. If you’re a good pilot and blessed, after the event, you’ll even be able to use the plane again.

Now that we’re retired, my wife and I fly “somewhere” every two weeks. Most of these are day trips, exploring, visiting museums and attractions within three flying hours. Each year, we take 3-4 weeklong (or so) trips. One of these such longer trips two years ago was to Oklahoma City. Lots to see and do and the food is wonderful! Well, the morning we were to leave, the weather local to OKC was decidedly IMC. No problem—we’ll climb through about 5,000 feet of cloud and be in the clear on top. So, we launched.

Well, about midway through the clouds, my JPI engine monitor began alerting us to a rapidly dropping bus voltage. Shortly after, we watched our GTN 650 GPS turn into a screen of flashes and hieroglyphics. While the GTN (and our two G5’s) all have built in back up batteries, in an event such as ours, where the voltage regulator is cycling on and off, enough electrical noise is put on the bus to thoroughly confuse the avionics.

Cessna with trucks

Just because they rolled the trucks, doesn’t mean it’s a big deal.

I immediately leveled the wings, stopped my climb and leveled off (Rule 1 – Fly the plane!). I turned to my co-pilot/wife who was manning (womanning) ForeFlight on the iPad and asked her to give me a vector to the IAF for 35R, the runway we had just left, which she instantly did.

By now, the battery had completely given up the ghost and quit altogether, allowing the avionics backup batteries to take over. I punched in the RNAV 35R approach and prepared us to land. Before we reached the IAF, when I had more of an opportunity to think and analyze, I thought, I wonder what happens if I shut off the strobes and thus shed some unnecessary load?

Voila! The battery voltage once again began to rise. I immediately called the tower, declared an emergency and told them of my intentions.

The response was, “Do what you need to do, the airport is closed for you.” (I found out later that when we stopped communicating and they watched our transponder blink off, they correctly suspected a total electrical failure.) I got my ATIS only to hear that reported conditions were now 100 and ¼ mile. Well, not like I had a ton of options.

We picked up the approach lights before minimums but didn’t actually see the runway itself until we crossed over the numbers. I made a nice landing and rolled out, flanked by two of the biggest fire trucks you’ve ever seen (apparently not terribly confident in my ability to not scatter Cessna debris on their runway). We parked at the FBO and began to try to find a mechanic.

So, what is the fallout from declaring an emergency? In my case, 20 minutes after parking at the FBO, a tall, serious-looking, well-dressed gentleman approached and inquired whether I was the pilot who had just landed after declaring an emergency. I swallowed hard and admitted, yes, I was. He introduced himself as the controller who was working our flight. He shook my hand and said, “Nice job. Very impressive.” End of story.

I finally found a mechanic, who promised to drive out. A while later, we saw a Beverly Hillbillies-looking pickup pull onto the ramp. My wife looked askance as I said, “Must be our mechanic”. Turns out he was a very skilled, third generation A&P. The first question out of his mouth—before we shook hands and before he asked what was wrong—was, “Are you a conservative or a liberal?” I promptly said, “conservative!” My wife (as wives will do) panicked and said, “OMG, was that the right answer???” My “new best friend” smiled and said, “Yes ma’am, this is Oklahoma, that is the ONLY answer!”

Now, mentally analyzing the situation once we were safely on the ground, I was puzzled. After all, the alternator is sized to be capable of carrying the entire load with a completely dead battery. So, what caused the bus voltage to plummet? Turns out, one or more battery cells had shorted, causing the battery “normal” voltage to fall from 24 to 22 or 20. Thus, the alternator not only had to carry the entire bus load but also was vainly trying to boost the battery back up to 24 volts which, of course, it never could. Well, a bushel of money and 24 hours later, we were back in the air winging home to Colorado.

In concluding this telling, I would be remiss if I didn’t extend huge kudos to my wife/co-pilot for keeping her cool and doing her job through the entire ordeal. To my readers, I would advise: if you have a spouse that you haven’t or aren’t training to be a proficient co-pilot, first you’re missing out on greatly enhancing the flying experience for you both and second, he/she may just help save your life one day.

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18 replies
  1. David R. Janssen
    David R. Janssen says:

    Good story, good job in saving the day, and sage advice. However, I’m afraid that my wife will never measure up to the task. I retired from the majors last year and bought 1/2 of a really nice Seneca II – loaded – thinking that two engines would change her mind about flying with me to uncharted lands. We could cover a lot of territory in a weekend… Nope. She says she’ll never set one foot in the airplane. She’s a simi-pro photographer who could capture amazing images if she could get over her fear of flying. She’s never once gone with me in almost thirty years together. If you have any suggestions please pass them along. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Steven K
      Steven K says:

      David, I empathize. I developed a highly-successful program to overcome fear of flying and get them in the airplane. Since you asked out of your palpable disappointment, I’m responding and can be reached at [email protected]

      Reply
    • Mark
      Mark says:

      Well David, this reminds me of the old hunting dog joke. ( in addition to flying, my other passion is joining my Brittany in pursuit of pheasants) Apparently, a man’s wife was totally fed up with her husbands hunting dog. In a tirade, she finally gave him the ultimate demand, ” Harry, it’s either me or that dog”. Harry thought it about it and told a friend, ” I am really going to miss her sometimes.” OK …just joking. Good look . Maybe if she took some lessons from an independent instructor. The only other answer is a Cirrus and the parachute…also called , “shut the F up” device. Good luck. LMK if your Seneca is for sale.

      Reply
  2. Karrpilot
    Karrpilot says:

    I was doing some pattern work in the 182 RG when the over voltage light came on. Luckily i was just doing local refresher flying, and was on my way back from another airport 20 miles away. Not that big of a deal to lose an alternator in a fixed gear plane, but certainly in the RG. I have never had to manually pump down the landing gear, and really do not look forward to that issue.

    Reply
    • Rich
      Rich says:

      Nice job on handling the emergency.

      With battery backup on the G5 and GTN, did you consider just shutting off the master and alternator switch, and flown on the individual instrument batteries for the quick return?

      Reply
      • Frank
        Frank says:

        Nope. Didn’t occur to me at the time. As mentioned to others, when it first occurred, I was in a climbing turn in IMC. My first decision was FLY THE PLANE and my second was stabilize, turn to an IAF and prepare for the approach and get in the ground. This all occurred in a very few minutes. Troubleshooting came in third place.

        Reply
    • Scoo
      Scoo says:

      I understand the sealed(recombinant gas) batteries can fail rather promptly, unlike lead acid batteries that usually give notice before major trouble. So when my sealed battery gives any indication of issues I replace it. That said battery load testing is often overlooked at annual inspections but is probably the best way to measure battery health, and very important given our electronic cockpit’s reliance on them.

      Reply
    • Frank
      Frank says:

      As a career electrical engineer and having already had 3 alternator and one regulator failure, when the buss voltage dropped to near zero, I dismissed it as an alternator problem so no, I did not. Keep in mind, in a turning climb in IMC, my first decision was to fly the plane and second was return to an IAF and get in the ground so time was limited.

      Reply
  3. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    One of my biggest fears about traveling in my plane, is a mechanical issue away from home.
    Several years ago we were visiting Big Bend National Park in Texas. There is a small town called Terlingua that has an airstrip. Sitting there was a 210 with serious engine problems. Those folks were good and truly screwed. I never learned the outcome, but I hope they had deep pockets

    Reply
  4. Scott Sanders
    Scott Sanders says:

    Interesting story, and fortunately with the preferred outcome. Great CRM. What I don’t understand is why the mechanic first asked what your political leanings were. What does that have to do with this particular situation? If you’d said you were liberal, would he have walked away? It kinda sounds like he would have. I believe that if I had been in that situation, I would have asked the mechanic if it mattered, and if he had said it would, I’d keep looking for another mechanic.

    Reply
  5. Dave Keen
    Dave Keen says:

    The mechanic/engineer from Oklahoma was joking. And from a long career flying everything from a Shorts SD-330 to an Airbus 330-300, I learnt that a sense of humour is essential in the aviation world. (Except perhaps with stern-looking military or the Feds)

    Reply
    • Frank
      Frank says:

      I started my wife out slow. First explaining how to read sectionals. Then how to follow on the iPad and have her point out landmarks. Then have her programming the transponder and then switching frequencies. Finally, I put my checklists; cruise, prelanding, instrument approach, etc. on the iPad. She reads and I respond.

      Reply

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