When Screaming Won’t Help

Problem: The Federal Aviation Regulations cover two-way communication failure quite nicely, but a total electrical failure can give you a nice front row seat in purgatory. If you’re IMC, as far as those FARs go, you’re also in the Twilight Zone.

The Hunted
Labor Day, 1998. We were flying back home to Maryland from Schroon Lake in upstate New York after having checked out a prospective summer camp for our son. Ceilings were about 2500 feet, and we were at 4500 and climbing to 8000 in solid IMC, in the middle of the Adirondacks — when I lost all electrical power. I had gone on the gauges just south of the Glens Falls VOR as I said a silent farewell to the Glens Falls airport, located in a fairly wide valley and where we had stopped for lunch the day before on the way up. The standard briefing that I’d gotten that morning was for widespread IFR along most of our route.

The Rescue
Luckily, I had a backup ‘handheld’ nav/com transceiver, as well as the headset adapter cords most pilots don’t think about. (Have you ever tried shouting into a handheld in a noisy cockpit, then planting its speaker against your ear to hear the response?) I considered following the regulation covering two-way radio communications failure in IFR conditions — but not for long! The route would have been the one I’d filed and was cleared for. The altitude would have been my filed altitude, since it was higher than any minimum altitudes along our route. I’d have to start my approach as close as possible to my ETA as I could. That would be the hardest part, if it had been just a communications failure and not a total blackout. Home was over 350 miles away, and I knew that most (maybe all) of the ride would be IMC. The possibility that those little batteries and the backup pack (which I always carry) might not make it to VFR weather was very real … and the consequences could be non-habit forming. (And darn if I hadn’t done a VOR check on that handheld!)

The FARs
I remember wondering momentarily if I’d forgotten some other FAR covering total electrical failure in IMC: was there one? (There isn’t, nor is it in the AIM.) Worse, the prospect of blundering into convective weather under conditions of hindered — or nonexistent — communications was even scarier. Just how would I maintain control if we had a vacuum failure?! All this went through my mind in a matter of seconds.

The Plan
I did a ‘180’ and headed North back to Glens Falls. I decided to descend slowly back into the scuzzy VFR weather when my ‘to’ indicator became ‘from’ at Glens Falls (where I would be safely over lower terrain). Then, I’d call and explain what was going on. Moments after I was established on our retreating course (and before I could switch to a comm frequency) I heard Burlington (Vermont) Flight Service on my handheld, over the Glens Falls VORTAC’s frequency. They were asking me, if I could hear them, to key my mike for 5 seconds.

I got a DF steer back to Glens Falls and I made an uneventful landing. I didn’t know it then but the temperature/dew point spread had been very small in that area, and if fog had formed things might not have been so favorably resolved. Being in the middle of the Adirondacks on Labor Day, there were no rental cars to be had, so we spent another night — though not at a lakeside lodge. We got a rental the next day and drove the 400 miles back home. The plane was fixed by Thursday (bad voltage regulator) and I flew up (again!) with someone else and ferried the plane back home.

The MORAL(s)

  • First, even though we would miss school and work, I clearly recall the warm, satisfied glow as I turned towards that runway. I knew I’d done the right thing. That conservative response rule (when in doubt, pick your most conservative option, and do it … NOW!) helped to win the day.
  • Being prepared with a backup nav/com in the first place (with fresh batteries and a headset adapter cord) was the real winning ticket, though.
  • I now include the ammeter in my scan — not just as an ‘ops check’ every 15 minutes.
  • Also, this adventure helped to reinforce another aviation maxim, which is to always keep thinking (but be attentive to your gut feeling), and use a liberal dose of common sense before rushing headlong down the path of precedent.