After you go through the checklist, you're still not finished assessing the airplane. You should maintain constant vigilance realized this the hard way on a beautiful fall day in the Pacific Northwest.
The forecast called for clear and 75 degrees, with winds aloft from the south at 13 knots. I left Vancouver, Washington, at 6:45 a.m. for an appointment in Grants Pass, Oregon. As I started the Cessna Cardinal 17713, it turned over more sluggishly than usual, which I blamed on the cold weather. I finished the checklist and taxied to Runway 8 for takeoff. Small pockets of fog filled in the valleys between the hills and revealed themselves as the sun rose. As I enjoyed the view, I called flight service to open my VFR flight plan and then switched to Portland Departure to request VFR traffic advisories. The flight down was great.
After my appointment, I climbed back into the bird, and it wouldn't start. I blamed it on the fact that the engine was still warm, and I wasn't proficient in performing hot starts. Not thinking about or connecting the morning's hard start to my current troubles, I commented that the battery was grumbling. So I got the mechanic at the FBO to give me a jumpstart. That worked, and I left for Vancouver. I climbed through 5,000 feet and contacted Seattle Center for advisories.
Here's where I begin to wonder how much this fellow understands about his airplane's systems. If it's a stock airplane, it has a battery ammeter (which he never mentions up to this point in the narrative), it has no voltmeter, no ACTIVE NOTIFICATION of LOW VOLTAGE, an alternator b-lead breaker that is DESIGNED to nuisance trip, a flooded battery that hasn't had the water checked in months, has NEVER had a capacity check, and to top it off, the engine is fitted with an alternator that has a dismal history of performance compared to modern automotive products. Certainly ALL reasons to do more worrying . . .
As I was over Roseburg, Oregon, I noticed that the autopilot was slowly turning the aircraft to the right, away from the heading I had set. I disengaged it and turned back to the planned heading. I then noticed the horizontal situation indicator (HSI), which is coupled to the area navigation unit (RNAV), was turning slowly to the west even though I was flying straight according to my magnetic compass. I turned off the RNAV to keep the confusion down.
Seattle had just handed me over to Cascade Approach in Eugene, Oregon, as I tried to figure out what was going on with my instruments. I thought that perhaps I had left my cell phone on, but no, it wasnt that. . . .
There has never been a demonstrated case of a cell phone causing any problems with an onboard system in an airplane . . . but because the FAA has decided to WORRY about them a lot, they've taught 100% of the flying public to worry about them too. This guy is doing his civic duty under bureaucratic guidance but he has YET to look at his ammeter . . . .
. . . . Cascade asked why I was deviating from my altitude. I looked, and I was level at 8,500 feet, my airspeed was constant, and the vertical speed indicator (VSI) read zero. When I responded, the controller said they had lost radar contact with me. I was about 15 miles from Eugene. I radioed back that I was having some electrical problems, but they never heard me. They kept calling for me, but I couldn't respond. I was at 8,500 feet over Class D airspace with no electrical system! I set my transponder to 7600 in hopes that it would work. No success there. I scanned the instruments and noticed that they were not working either. All the gauges were shut down and the alternator was discharging.
Here's the first time he looks at the ammeter . . . but he says the alternator is discharging . . . which gives us another clue as to his level of understanding. Alternators charge or they don't. They don't discharge. The battery ammeter was somewhere left of center which told him that energy was coming OUT of the battery. This first acknowledged observation was AFTER the panel went black meaning that the battery was below 10 volts. Current draw by the system at these voltage levels will be much lower than when the battery had a useful state of charge in it. The negative excursion of the ammeter needle was more pronounced earlier in the flight but still unnoticed.
This would be a good time to have a portable radio, I thought.
The only way I had to contact anyone now was with my cell phone. I dropped to 3,000 feet and called flight service. I told them my circumstances, and they said they would call Cascade Approach and let them know my situation as well as any intended airport I chose to divert to. I said I'd call them back with a plan.
He's lucky. I've experimented with my cell phone while airborne on several occasions. In some cases it refused to allow operation when I was over terrain I knew was prolific with service had I been on the ground. I suspect that some systems may reject contact with cell phones that are hitting too many cells at once.
I was a new pilot with about 40 hours in the Cardinal. I felt that I was forgetting something, so I used the cell phone to call a friend who was also the most proficient pilot I know. He walked me through an electrical failure checklist. Even though I didn't know why the alternator breaker had popped, I noticed that the radio would come on if I held the breaker in. I thanked my friend and told him I would call back.
. . . it may have popped because he started the trip with a soggy battery and the alternator opened the breaker while trying to recharge the battery after the engine started on the outbound leg of his trip. The breaker may have been bad . . . you're not supposed to be able to HOLD a properly working breaker in if it's just tripped due to overload. In retrospect, this breaker may have been open from square one. There's no mention of having looked at the ammeter after the engine started on the outbound leg to see if the alternator had come on line.
I know of one case where an airplane was flown several times a day for several days with a failed alternator. All the battery had to do was crank the engine . . . a good battery may well rise to the task for several flights. Without adequate tools for notification of the failure, the pilot is at a decided disadvantage . . .
I radioed Cascade and told them the engine was OK, the magnetic compass was working, and I had a backup GPS, so I felt comfortable flying to Hillsboro, Oregon, where I knew a mechanic. They said that they would notify others along my route. I was told to call the tower over the cell phone when I was five minutes out. When I did, the tower told me to approach Runway 30 straight in and call again when I was five miles out.
I looked at my cell phone, thinking about how glad I was to have it, when I noticed the low-battery indicator was flashing. I thought about that handheld radio again. At the five-mile point, I called the tower, and they cleared me to land.
As I approached the strip, I noticed the green light from the tower, and I smiled. I never thought that I would have to use light signals. Rolling onto the taxiway, I received another green light-I was cleared to taxi. I called the tower and thanked them as well as flight service. Then I taxied the airplane to the maintenance hangar.
I realize now that I should have put two and two together. All the magazines write about the ongoing mental checklist that we should develop, scanning instruments and gauges during a flight. I completely failed to do that. Had I done that, I would have noticed that the alternator was not charging the battery-it was, in fact, discharging.
I now have a handheld transceiver that I ordered as soon as I got home. It serves as a constant reminder that even though I've gone through the checklist, I'm never through checking the aircraft.
This story fits right in with the classics. After the writer goes through his self abasement for lack of understanding and piloting skills, he goes out an buys some more stuff and/or acquires a deeper understanding of his duties. The purveyors of these publications think they're doing us a public service by encouraging us to follow the storyteller's lead.
What we seldom read at the end of these stories is an accurate diagnosis of system performance and an analysis of the conditions that lead up to this harrowing experience. We seldom are told what, if any, defective parts are replaced an why. And last, we NEVER read a critical review of system design and materials that forced this pilot into this situation in the first place. I've don't recall ever reading one of these stories where the pilot speaks to ADDING ACTIVE NOTIFICATION OF LOW VOLTAGE to his airplane. That light on the Cessna's panel labeled OVER VOLTS or LOW VOLTS is seldom useful . . . but it IS certified.
None the less, our brothers in the amateur built aircraft industry dutifully take these stories to heart. However, instead of taking time to locate, acquire and apply components and design philosophies that all but ELIMINATE situations like this, we often resort to ADDING still more goodies into the system with the mistaken notion that we're adding useful redundancy.
A good friend of mine was the proud owner of a pressurized Cessna 210 that had redundant everything . . . If ever there was an airplane fitted to prevent or at least extract pilot and passengers from an unhappy situation, this one was it. None-the-less, on a flight back to Wichita early in 1999, problems and circumstances became too deep to swim in and we lost another kindred spirit along with his two passengers. Click here to see the NTSB report on this accident.
I suggest you treat everything you think you've learned about how airplanes operate based on experience with certified aircraft with suspicion. Understand that ADDING features to a system may in fact REDUCE system reliability due to increased operational and physical complexity. We know that added stuff INCREASES cost of ownership, weight and REDUCES space on the airplane.
I hope you'll agree with me that it's better to have a handful of components that we can trust as opposed to a basket full of stuff we've come to understan is junk. It's also better to be a knowledgable pilot with both tools and a plan to deal with ANY contingency.
Our hero's story above is but one of thousands that have been written over the years by pilots who believe they're in better shape to deal with the same problem in the future. I'll suggest that bureaucratically approved tools and plans that evolve from these experiences fall far short of what is possible.
. . . . fly comfortably.