iPad and ForeFlight were a big help during my emergency situation.
ATC Atlantic City had given me a squawk code, and I was done flying the photo op under its Class C airspace. Climbing to 2,000 feet. I radioed ATC, “Arrow 42 Papa Gulf leaving 1,200 feet to 2,000 feet heading 280 direct to Millville.” ATC was busy, yet it calmly worked in a confirming reply as I remained outside of Class C’s airspace in VFR conditions. My two friends had been having a relaxing scenic flight over the historical Cape May, New Jersey, lighthouse; United States Coast Guard Training Center (the birthplace of the United States Coast Guard Enlisted Corps); the shoreline past Wildwood’s amusement park on the boardwalk; and Atlantic City under Class C airspace for some beautiful shoreline views and photos. It was one of those short, fun, scenic hops with friends on a beautiful cool Sunday afternoon in a severe clear blue sky day.
The wife in front was talking out every flight control movement as she processed the idea more and more about starting flight lessons. When her husband heard the headsets go quite, he smiled and thought I was just tired of the talking.
All electrical went down hard at the same time. Not a flicker; just off. No navigation GPS, VOR, or communication; black lights and screens on the S-Tec 30, JPI 700 and JPI 450. Only the Aspen 1000 had back-up power, and that was a 45-minute battery. I reached across and checked the circuit breakers, and all seemed to be in.
I recycled the red battery/alternator rocker switches in denial that all electrical was off. It was the first time in 30 years that such a thing happened for real instead of during practice and check rides. First lesson was “fly the plane!”
Turning south and increasing power from our leisurely power from 2,100MP to 32MP and 2,450 rpm, we descended to Cape May airport with the quick turbo speed on our side. Over the Delaware Bay shoreline we flew, just in case any more things were going to happen. The ELT switch at my side had its own battery, and the 406Hz GPS signal would have the Coast Guard from Atlantic City over us in minutes, if needed. But we were fine flying along within sight of home.
Rising concern of an in-flight fire grew as the husband smelled the forward-moving odor of melting hot plastic, and the wife in front whole-heartedly concurred. It was a pungent odor from the rear behind him getting worse. Was it an electrical fire? That little red fire extinguisher under the pilot’s seat was ready, but not needed.
I’m sure the kind Atlantic City ATC controller was not amused as I turned south and did not reply on the radio when my squawk code suddenly disappeared. I felt lucky this didn’t happen six flight hours ago while in the D.C. SFRA. Fortunately, it was in VFR conditions. But it could just as easily been in solid clouds, on top or in IMC in a busy Class B airspace, like D.C. SFRA and Baltimore airspace, where only six flight hours prior I was flying. I had Labor Day weekend and September 11 weekend IFR flights in solid IMC through D.C. SFRA to attend a workshop in D.C. Had this happened then, it might have been a handful or a little more paperwork on the ground. Heightened security that 10th anniversary of 9-11 weekend over D.C. would have noticed a small aircraft turning off its transponder and not communicating, I’m sure.
What happened? In less than 25 hours after an annual, a small connecting relay ($500) on the Piper stainless steel battery box burned up. It could have been due to a loose connection that caused more amperage load on the one terminal and increased resistance on the other terminal, which heated up the solenoid; it lost magnetic power and dropped the load. Dead! Zap! That fast. It was the first time in 32 years flying that I lost all electrical power.
What was working? Had only I remembered the handheld radio on board like it has been on all cross-country flights, I would not have lost communication. The Continental 201T engine was running just fine. Vacuum gauges all worked, and air pressure gauges worked fine. The Aspen 1000 was working with a clear directional gyro, attitude indicator, airspeed, and altimeter for another 45 minutes, so a nearest airport would have been quite feasible. The iPad showed N42PG approaching KIMBA intersection and 1,700 feet, which put us on the VASI guide slope to runway 19. ForeFlight was showing on the iPad my location on the RNAV 19 approach plate, giving me the moving map as a little blue plane on the plate, ground speed 120 knots, track 185 degrees, and altitude 1,700 feet. Had it been IMC, this was CRM (crew resource management): aid for a pilot to use all available resources. Piper Arrow’s auto-extending gear activated fine as power was backed down and airspeed settled to 90 knots. I pulled the wheels-down lever as normal; without electric, there were three green lights missing, but the wheels locked down in place. The Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum airport has a history of far more interesting landings during World War II dive bomber pilot training. So much was working that it made for an uneventful landing and reminded me of the recent online safety course I’d taken as part of the Wings program.
Flight safety in the Wings program has a great online course, “BRIGHT-SPOT-CD-CFIT-VFR/IFR- How Not to Hit Stuff! Part 2 – Avoiding CFIT.” By Eugene M Benson, that notes 17 percent of aviation accidents come from pilots making a controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). Due to risk factors of omission, flight handling, poor professional judgment (such as complacency on a short local scenic flight that left a hand-held radio in the car), “get-there-itis,” and position awareness, CFIT happens.
Gene Benson’s course covered threat error management (TEM), which avoids the error, traps the error, and mitigates the error. The electrical meltdown was an extended risk factor, which was a distraction by a flight-related item that took away navigation and communication. One mitigates the distraction by flying the plane or proper flight handling. The iPad device with ForeFlight secured position awareness and terrain awareness. Feeling of “get-home-itis” – pressing on instead of accepting an inconvenient safe landing in one piece – was not an issue, being north of my home airport on a familiar approach. I wanted to land as soon as possible, and my passengers were quiet. They said that I seemed so calm, but catching that I wanted a “sterile cockpit,” they let me fly the plane. I felt blessed to have had so many available resources and only $500 “tuition” for the part and lesson.
Lessons learned? The handheld radio is back in the side pocket where it belongs, fully charged, on all flights. Pre-briefed passengers are a support toward the safety and join the team effort as valuable members of the flight crew. Reviewed emergencies online and on the ground prior to flight help the pilot and passengers stay calm. Don’t imagine it can’t happen today.
Have you noticed how the art of flying keeps teaching another lesson during each sortie no matter how long or how far you fly? What, when, and where is your next in-flight emergency going to happen?