Never Again

In the dark in the ADIZ

June 1, 2005

Dave and I have known each other for almost 35 years. We had begun an annual college fraternity reunion and golf outing at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and the year this story took place we would celebrate in Pinehurst, North Carolina. These would mark our first flights together.

My 1976 Beechcraft Sierra was my pride and joy. It had a 150-hour factory remanufactured engine and prop, new paint and leather interior, and a Meggitt/S-Tec 50 autopilot coupled to a Garmin GX60 GPS. It was a fine cross-country IFR traveling machine, complete with an Insight Strikefinder. I offered to bring Dave from Manassas, Virginia, to the outing, and he readily agreed. After an uneventful arrival flight, we played four days of relaxing recreational golf at the finest Carolina courses. By Monday afternoon, it was time to return to work and families.

On the day of our departure, the summer thunderstorms kept us on the ground at Fayetteville, North Carolina, until 6:30 p.m. A line of showers west of Washington, D.C., that developed over the ridges west of the city moved stubbornly to the east, but late in the afternoon it was evident the showers would clear our route by early evening.

The fixed-base operator's computer showed the en route weather to be 5,000 feet scattered with isolated thunderstorms and visibilities three to five miles in haze. Our two-hour IFR flight plan had us arriving at Manassas about 30 minutes after sunset, but with my current instrument rating and a forecast for VFR weather, I had no concerns about the trip. I checked the Fayetteville automatic terminal information service (ATIS) on my handheld receiver and launched into calm, summer haze, heading northwest toward Roanoke, Virginia, to give the line of storms a wide berth. Shortly after takeoff, we received an amended clearance direct to the Raleigh-Durham VOR, Victor 155 Lawrenceville, direct Flat Rock, V155 to the COATT Intersection, and the COATT Four Arrival to Manassas. As so often happens, before we were near Lawrenceville we received, "Direct Gordonsville, direct Casanova, direct," and we were flying along in smooth air at 7,000 feet, pleased with a fine weekend of golf and some well-renewed, cherished friendships. We easily circumnavigated a shallow thunderstorm cell with tops to 10,000 feet 50 miles southwest of Gordonsville, Virginia.

By the time we reached Northern Virginia, the showers were well east of our route, and evening was falling. We watched the returns on the Strikefinder and saw the lightning flashes within the pink towers of collapsing, mature cumulonimbus more than 20 miles off our route to our right in the glowing twilight. We were blessed with a 140-knot groundspeed, and all seemed well. The only glitch was the autopilot's inability to hold altitude, which I first noted 60 miles from our destination, even though it did an admirable job of maintaining heading. I assumed it was a minor malfunction that I could get repaired at home.

Since not long after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, all flights into the Washington ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) must be on a flight plan, and we were pleased to be talking first to the Washington Center and then the Potomac Approach controllers as we neared the Washington airspace. Just north of Gordonsville, we were cleared to descend to 5,000 feet, and we were below the clouds at the lower altitude. We could see the lights of the early summer evening twinkling in the Virginia countryside.

Potomac Approach advised us we would get vectors for the ILS 16 Left approach at Manassas and asked us to descend to 3,000 feet. As the GPS ticked down to 16 miles from the airport, the Potomac controller abruptly announced, however, that he had lost our transponder and asked us to recheck it. When I reached to recycle the radio, I noticed that the ident light that usually flashed brightly was now blinking only dimly. In the next five rapid minutes, I observed multiple, sequential failures of the radios and instruments. I lost the intercom and could no longer hear my passenger. The panel lights dimmed, and the autopilot stopped flying the airplane altogether. In a final act of mortality, the Bendix/King KNS 81 RNAV panel dimmed, then glowed brightly for an instant, then went completely dark.

We had just penetrated the Washington ADIZ and had lost radio contact. I reached for my handheld radio, unplugged my headset from the jacks beneath the panel, and attached them to an array of wires that included a push-to-talk switch. I tuned the Potomac Approach frequency I had just been using, laid the radio on the top of the glare-shield, and pushed the switch. After briefly hearing the sidetone of my own transmission, this radio died too!

Now we were in real trouble. We were on a heading that would take us straight into the heart of the Washington ADIZ, a place I surely did not want to be in the dark with no radios. Visions of F-16s with missiles darted through my overloaded consciousness. Because I have flown in the Washington airspace many times, I was familiar with its layout. I knew that if we turned north, we would be moving in a direction away from the city and its prohibited areas and toward Washington Dulles International Airport and other airports in the northern tier of the ADIZ. I told Dave my plan, assured him that we had enough fuel to fly for an additional three hours, and asked him to look for an airport rotating beacon. He wondered if we should land on a highway, but I assured him that would not be necessary.

In about 10 minutes, level at 3,000 feet, we saw a beacon rotating in the distance at about 10 miles. We had plenty of flashlights, and I put Dave to work reading the emergency checklists, particularly the emergency gear-extension procedure. Then I saw runway lights appear just as I realized I had no means to turn them on. My initial thought was that we were approaching a controlled field. We turned away from the airport as we went through the gear-extension procedure, wanting to avoid traffic conflicts in the pattern. When we turned back to the airport, the runway lights were gone. It was then that we saw a large helicopter pass from right to left about three miles in front of us and 1,000 feet below. In an instant, the runway lights reappeared. I was not sure what airport we were looking at, but it was a welcome sight as we descended to 1,000 feet msl to enter a left downwind for a landing to the north. The wind had been reported as calm on the Manassas ATIS, and I prepared for a night landing with no landing light.

I asked Dave to shine the flashlight on the panel to check my airspeed. With throttle and flaps configured for landing, the airspeed was right on target at 85 knots. As we approached the runway, I knew the runway lights would appear both to flatten and move laterally. I told myself to control the airspeed down to the runway, avoid a flare, and just fly straight and level down the centerline until we settled on. If you flare a Sierra too far above the runway, it arrives with a disconcerting thump, but if you don't round out and arrest the descent, it is prone to porpoise. I cautioned Dave that if things did not look good near the runway or we bounced, we would go around and try it again. By God's grace, I made one of the smoothest landings, day or night, I have ever made. A somewhat nonchalant woman smoking a cigarette outside the flight service station building responded to our query, saying that we had landed in Leesburg, Virginia.

The U.S. Coast Guard Blackhawk helicopter arrived just behind us, and two very stern-looking young men in olive-drab flight suits approached us. One was holding a cellular telephone, and he said Potomac Approach wanted very much to talk with us. The controller on the phone assured me that he was very happy to learn we were safely on the ground. I thanked the Blackhawk pilots for their assistance, and they left without saying very much at all after asking only to see my pilot certificate.

What would I have done if I had not found Leesburg? My plan was to fly north for 20 miles or so and then turn northeast to find Baltimore and its many airports, still in the ADIZ but away from immediate trouble.

There were several lessons learned from this ordeal. I will recharge the battery on the handheld radio more often and add a backup alkaline battery pack in the cockpit. I will check the ammeter more frequently in my instrument scan. I will ask more critical questions the next time the autopilot fails to hold altitude. I will no longer delay buying the obviously useful handheld GPS unit, especially when I contemplate this scenario recurring in instrument meteorological conditions. It was challenging enough at night in visual conditions. On my next flight review, I think I will practice some more landings with the landing light off; it's a great confidence builder. In the future, I will balance a late departure to avoid weather with the realities of arriving at an unfamiliar airport in the dark. I am glad I knew my airplane well and had just completed both a flight review and an instrument proficiency check. I am also forever grateful for a passenger with a cool head who was a great help in managing the crisis. This would have been exceptionally challenging alone, a sobering thought to me as I contemplate my frequent single-pilot IFR flights.


Victor Vogel, AOPA 693199, is an instrument-rated commercial pilot with more than 700 hours. He owns a 1976 Beech-craft Sierra.


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