Never Again: Dark night in Michigan

September 1, 2008

The weekend had been wonderful: I was able to visit family and friends and still make it back to work on Monday morning. At least that was the plan. It was the summer of 1999 and I was enjoying a breathtaking view below me of the great expanse of forest making up much of northern Wisconsin. The early evening sun highlighted the many small bodies of water interspersed among the long, unbroken stretches of woods.

This weekend getaway was possible courtesy of my 1972 Cessna 172, which I had purchased only six months earlier. I was living in the upper peninsula of Michigan, just north of the Mackinac Bridge, while my family and everyone else I knew was still in rural Augusta, Wisconsin, about two hours east of Minneapolis/St. Paul and eight hours by car from my Michigan home. At age 24, I had finally realized my lifelong dream of being a private pilot and owning my own aircraft, allowing me to take three-hour flights home rather than eight-hour drives. And, with more than 250 hours and an instrument rating under my belt, I felt pretty confident in my abilities. Little did I know that those flying skills would soon be put to the test.

I had departed from the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport (EAU) in Wisconsin about 6 p.m. and was heading home to Chippewa County International (CIU), a small airport with a big name just minutes south of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and the Canadian border. It wasn’t my first time flying this route in my 172, nor would it be my last. But it would be the most exciting single-engine flight I’ve made to date.

Somewhere near the Wisconsin-Michigan border, about an hour or so north of Green Bay, I caught my first inkling that something wasn’t quite right. I had glanced over at the ammeter on the right side of the panel and noticed that it was indicating a slight discharge. For those who haven’t flown something old in a while, the aircraft’s ammeter measures alternator output, and by inference, the status of the battery. A negative reading on the ammeter is generally a bad thing, since it indicates a greater draw on the electrical system than what is being generated. This should have caused me to land right away and fix the problem, but I was stubborn.

For some reason, I pushed aside the fleeting thought that something was amiss and kept on flying. After all, I reasoned, it was a beautiful VFR day, I had plenty of gas, many airports along my route of flight, and only 90 minutes or so of flight remaining. And I had to work the next day. What’s the worst that could happen? I asked myself. Answer: I run out of juice and make a great VFR landing with no radio or strobe light. This didn’t sound too horrible; it’s not like the airplane would fall out of the sky.

I rationalized some more. Surely I would have to make this kind of landing anyway if the battery discharged completely—so why not do it at home? This way I’d reach my planned destination and, besides, my local maintenance would be available. This all sounded pretty good, so I pressed on.

In an effort to conserve what battery and electrical power I had left, I started turning things off in the order I deemed least necessary. I started with the VORs, transponder, and strobe. Later, I killed the radio. I was flying almost in all class G airspace anyway, so I just cancelled flight following and went on my merry way. Then went the rest of the lights and, as darkness set in, the cockpit lights. Yes, the sky was getting darker by the minute and the realization slowly dawned on me, like slowly spreading lava: I would need my landing light after all. Oh, yes, and my radio to activate the pilot-controlled lighting at Chippewa County. I had passed my last usable alternate, so I flew on.

A quick note on the area I was in: Northern Michigan is almost completely black at night. There are very few large cities; sky-glow is not a factor. Moreover, only a few main highways have traffic on them, so a VFR pilot has not many options for ground-based pilotage and emergency landings. The upside was that I could see the lights of my destination more than 30 minutes away. I never got worried about navigation since I could make out plenty of towns, roads, and other visual waypoints.

The problem finally hit me about 15 minutes from the airport. I had turned the radio back on and was frantically trying to activate the PCL but to no avail. Somewhere along the 3.2-hour flight I had almost drained the electrical system. Since I had turned everything off earlier, I thought the radio would work fine, but I now realized that I was go-ing to have to land without any runway lighting. Maybe the landing light would help; maybe another aircraft would be in the pattern; maybe someone on the ground would hear me. Undeterred, I continued to click the radio mic, silently praying that some stray electrical signal would energize the lights.

The airport, surrounded by woods and farms, is far enough from town to be completely black at night, a distressing fact I had never before realized. As I set myself up for a downwind pattern to Runway 16, I tried to soothe my racing mind with thoughts of the size of the airport. This was an old Air Force bomber base with an original 13,000 by 200-foot runway, although only 7,200 feet is usable now. Enough runway, experience told me, that I had plenty of leeway on this landing. Of course, I had never tried landing without lights before.

Tension mounted as I turned base, still unable to make out any usable features on this pitch-black night. I was navigating solely by reference to the town and roads I was familiar with. Would I remember everything correctly, or fly too low and clip a tree? Was there enough light to see any part of the runway as I flared? It dawned on me that I was a test pilot—and not getting paid for it.

As I turned onto what I thought was final, four small lights caught my eye. Although I had never seen them before, I knew what they were. Chippewa County has four small runway corner lights. A pilot would never see them normally, since the runway and approach lights would drown them out. For me they looked like lights on a Christmas tree. Suddenly, I could make out the dimensions of the runway.

On short final, judging my altitude by the four corner lights, I switched on my landing light and was mildly relieved to see a dim glow lighting up the numbers. The landing was anti-climactic but as I turned around to back taxi, every light on the runway sprang to life. Fear suddenly gripped me anew—it was after 10 p.m. and a regional carrier that makes a nightly run must be about to land! I frantically turned on all my lights, punched the throttle, and yelled my information over the common traffic frequency. What seemed like 10 minutes was only a short time before I was clear of the active. Oddly enough, no aircraft landed or taxied for the next 30 minutes as I shut down and stowed the airplane in my hangar.

To this day, I have no idea how those lights came on. I know now that a simple wire rusting loose from the battery terminal caused my problem. My lessons learned? A simple check under the hood would have prevented a harrowing landing on a black night in Michigan. Giving in to “get-home-itis” can make a wonderful weekend truly frightening. How thankful I am that four small lights saved me when my pilot skills failed.

Darwyn Klatt, AOPA 5756086, is a C-17 pilot with the U.S. Air Force. He has logged more than 1,800 hours in military and civilian aircraft and holds a commercial pilot certificate with multiengine and instrument ratings.