November 1, 2004
I departed South Texas in my Cessna 177 Cardinal with a passenger in the right seat to return to Houston after a hunting trip. This airplane is well equipped for IFR with a standby vacuum pump, an alternate static source, and a Garmin GNS 430 GPS/nav/com.
The weather was overcast at about 1,500 feet agl with a low-pressure system just to the northwest and a cold front stretching across central Texas into Arkansas. Low-level moisture was flowing in from the coast to feed the system, but winds aloft were still mostly from the west.
Clouds in Houston were broken to overcast with the forecast for scattered to broken near my arrival time. I filed an IFR flight plan to the San Antonio VOR (to avoid military operations areas along the route), then direct to Houston's Clover Field. On climbout, the radio was a little scratchy and I had to ask air traffic control (ATC) to repeat a couple of calls. I attributed this to the isolated area as radar and radio coverage are minimal at lower altitudes in much of South Texas.
We were soon in a solid overcast and climbing to my cruise altitude of 7,000 feet. After a few minutes in the clouds, my passenger said, "What's wrong with this thing," pointing to the transponder. I glanced at it and noticed the altitude readout giving random signals. I told him that I didn't need that during the climb, as it is only a backup for keeping a constant altitude in cruise. I quickly put my scan back on the primary instruments.
A few seconds later, ATC called me to say they lost my Mode C. I looked at the transponder and was shocked to see a big "FAIL" in the squawk readout. About that time, the whole panel started flashing, the radios flashing on and off. I glanced at the ammeter to see the needle jumping back and forth.
My first thought was "electrical fire" and without hesitation I immediately killed the master switch. ATC was still talking away about making a report once I reached 7,000 feet, but they would have to wait. Sometime during this we broke out of the overcast into broken layers and the tension was somewhat eased.
At this point, my concentration shifted back to flying the airplane. My airspeed had dropped a little in the climb but was still more than 90 knots. I had drifted off course, but worse, I couldn't even recall what heading I was last flying. I was so used to just following the GPS that my brain wasn't paying attention.
The next action was to turn everything off at the switches and try to bring the radio back on line. I checked all the breakers and turned on the master, searching for smoke or anything unusual. I decided to use the 430 because I felt like it would give me the most information for the power draw.
It came on fine, and I immediately heard Houston Center making somewhat irritated calls for me. I told ATC that I was having an electrical problem and I needed to sort it out. The controller was cooperative; he asked me again to report 7,000 and to let him know if he could help. He handed me off to San Antonio Approach. I contacted them and told them my situation.
As an extra precaution, I pulled the breakers on the radios that I wasn't using. I also rechecked everything to make sure all unneeded power was off.
I reentered the VOR waypoint into the 430 — at least I thought I did. In the confusion, I actually entered San Antonio International (KSAT) rather than the VOR (SAT).
ATC called and said, "November-Seven-Six-Zero, say heading." I looked at the GPS and immediately recognized the reason for their request. Now rather than admit my error, I tried to guess the heading I should be on. Needless to say, I was off by 30 degrees. ATC promptly gave me a little scolding and a vector to the VOR. They asked if my radios were OK, and I finally confessed that I was just now getting it together.
At this time we were still over a solid overcast. The ammeter was indicating a slight discharge, so I assumed the battery would give up at some point. I decided to turn on the transponder to see if it worked. It came on but ATC still did not have Mode C. I had forgotten to hit Alt but didn't realize this at the time. I turned it off again to save power.
I informed ATC of my intentions to fly until reaching VFR conditions, then canceling IFR and completing the trip VFR. San Antonio Approach said, "Just make sure you cross the San Antonio VOR and join Victor One-Niner-Eight," and handed me off to Houston Center.
With some cruise time to plan, I turned on my handheld Garmin GPS. It was already on the yoke and ready to go to work. I also carry a handheld radio that has a VOR function. Ever so proud, I pulled it from the flight bag and checked it out. It seemed to work fine. I planned to use this radio when the Cardinal's battery gave up.
I didn't have to wait long. About one hour after the initial problem, ATC called to change my clearance. They could barely hear my response. My next transmission was, "Cancel my IFR flight plan." After two attempts, I barely heard them respond with, "IFR cancellation received, squawk VFR." As if I could!
I switched my headset over to the handheld via the dual jack accessory, only to find out the batteries were completely drained. With only four batteries in my flight bag (the radio requires eight), I decided to save the batteries for the GPS in case I needed them.
The clouds were breaking up now, and I spiraled through a suitable hole to 3,500 feet. We were about 70 miles from Houston. I continued VFR with a good look out for traffic with the help of my passenger.
The only thing I needed to enter the Houston area was a transponder (at least to be legal). I decided to retest the transponder with everything else off. This is when I realized that I had not hit Alt (altitude) previously. The Ident flashed as it took hits so I turned it back off until I reached the Houston terminal area.
I really wanted the handheld to use to make traffic advisories approaching Clover Field, but without it we made a precise pattern entry and kept a sharp eye out for traffic. It was a slow day so nobody got mad at me for cutting them off.
A broken alternator wire turned out to be the problem. This explains the random voltage it put out as it was coming apart.
As a result, I have learned a few things and changed some of my personal minimums.
Flying in instrument meteorological conditions with no radio, no navigation, no lights, no transponder, and no turn coordinator would be no fun. It would be even worse at night. Without some way to back up the electrical system, I don't plan to fly any lengthy IFR at night.
Handheld radios are useless without good batteries. I plan to use a battery meter to check the batteries before any IFR flight. I will also put a sticker on the radio to date the last battery change.
I knew in this case that my destination was forecast to be good VFR with scattered clouds. I will no longer launch into IFR without electrical and vacuum backup systems unless similar good VFR is forecast within range of my route and destination plus VFR reserve fuel. If an IFR alternate airport is required, my range will be from the alternate to good VFR with reserves.
Mark Robertson, AOPA 1223337, is an instrument-rated commercial pilot with more than 600 hours. He has owned a Cessna 152 and a Grumman Tiger.
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