Never Again Online: Dark instrument panel

December 1, 2009

On a clear winter day, I departed Burlington, N.C., for Jackson County Airport at the western edge of the state for a visit with my fiancée.

I had just reached cruising altitude at 6,500 feet, established flight following with Greensboro Approach and engaged the autopilot for what I thought would be a smooth, comfortable, VFR flight. Then I felt a slight tremor in my A-36 Bonanza and glanced at the instrument panel.

To my astonishment, it was completely dark. There wasn’t a single light or flicker anywhere.

The engine continued to run smoothly, but every electrical instrument was dead.

I recycled the breakers and attempted to engage the standby alternator, all to no avail. Using the magnetic compass, I reversed direction and started for home. Burlington was only about 15 minutes away.

With my destination in sight, I lowered the gear handle which, of course, did nothing. An electric motor raises and lowers the gear, and it wasn’t working. Bonanza pilots periodically practice cranking the landing gear down, and I prepared to do the task I had practiced many times.

But this time, I noticed something very unusual—and it raised my stress level considerably. The gear handle was in the proper place, but the console that holds it had been bolted down improperly and blocked me from raising the handle and turning it as designed. Evidently, the mistake had been made during the most recent 100-hour inspection, and I had failed to notice it until I needed to use it.

I couldn’t imagine having to execute a gear-up landing simply because I couldn’t extract the handle.

Adrenaline can be a wonderful thing, though, and in this case, my anger (mostly at myself for failing to fully preflight the airplane) strengthened my resolve. I reached back over the armrest, got a firm grip on the housing, and ripped it out of the floor. Now I could extend the handle, although it was slippery from the blood of my cut hand.

I cranked the landing gear down and I landed without incident. Later, I called the manager of the Beech shop on the field and asked what could have caused such a problem.

It turns out that six weeks earlier, I had replaced the five-year-old battery. It was old, but it had been working just fine, and I replaced it with another battery from the same manufacturer. It turned out the new battery was dead as a stump, even though it had started the engine less than 30 minutes before it failed completely.

The battery was so dead, it wouldn’t even power the standby alternator. The alternator, it turns out, requires at least a trickle of life from the battery to activate. Alternator output, and the rest of the electrical system, checked out fine.  Total and immediate battery failures are extremely rare, but they do happen.

I also vowed to thoroughly check out all aircraft systems—especially emergency systems—after maintenance and annual inspections.

—Keith MacLean, AOPA # 00841643