Never Again: A snap and smoke

February 1, 2009

I was in California for business in the early 1990s and decided to fly from Palo Alto to Lake Tahoe with a coworker for the night.

I had checked out in a well-equipped Piper Archer on a previous trip and had some mountain flying instruction. I learned to fly in Chicago, where if you can avoid the Sears Tower, you will pretty much run out of gas before hitting any kind of terrain, so mountain training was an eye-opener for me.

After the day’s last business meeting, we jumped in the Archer and flew to Lake Tahoe in stunningly beautiful weather, and the forecast was equally promising. We landed at Truckee-Tahoe Airport, elevation 5,900 feet. But it seemed as though I had simply held the airplane at altitude while the runway rose to meet us.

The next morning, the weather was gorgeous at the local airport and our destination, Palo Alto. But the forecast called for solid cloud cover throughout the Sacramento Valley. I felt that VFR would be fine because our destination in the Silicon Valley area was VFR.

We launched into a clear morning sky, circled to gain altitude, and crossed the first of two mountain passes on our way back. The terrain below us fell away, and the valleys were covered with a solid cloud deck beneath us. I set the autopilot and sat back to enjoy the flight.

After about 20 minutes I heard a very loud snap and noticed a burning smell even before smoke started coming out from under the instrument panel. I immediately shut off the master electrical switch, and the smoke stopped almost instantly.

The autopilot disengaged, but we were in a clear sky, and I could see the peaks of distant mountains that marked the path to Palo Alto. There was a tower on a mountain slightly off of our path, and I decided to head for that distinctive landmark.

All of the engine instrument indications were normal, and the engine felt healthy. The flight controls were unaffected. All the circuit breakers were in, and even though I couldn’t determine the source of the smoke, I knew it had to be electrical.

Should I turn back toward Truckee? No. I didn’t want to fly in the mountains without a functioning VOR, and ground services there were limited. I didn’t have a handheld radio or a portable GPS. There were no holes in the clouds beneath us, and I didn’t have an instrument rating, so dropping down through the clouds wasn’t an option.

The best course of action was to continue to Palo Alto. I had topped off the fuel tanks in Truckee, so I had plenty of time, range, and options. My coworker and I talked through what might have caused the electrical problem, but we didn’t come to any conclusions.

I shut off all the electrical equipment in the airplane and turned on the master. No smoke. I shut it off again and turned on the alternator side of the switch. Again nothing. Leaving the alternator on, I started to add load—the navigation radio first, then other electronics. Everything worked fine.

I turned on the battery and everything continued to work normally. I tuned in a VOR fix and put the airplane on course for Palo Alto. As I was about to tune in a local ATIS frequency, it happened again. There was a snap, then smoke. Again I shut off the master, and that again solved the problem.

The next 30 minutes or so were some of the longest of my life. I aimed the airplane at my landmark and watched every instrument, looking for even
the slightest indication of a problem. My landmark was well south of Palo Alto, and when we got there, I was relieved to see the weather was clear the rest of the way to our destination. I powered up the electrical system and only the communications radio to call the tower.

I explained that we had intermittent electrical problems and didn’t know how long the radio would function. A controller cleared me for a straight-in landing. We touched down and taxied to parking. There we found that the main ground wire had come loose, and it had caused the electrical problem.

Driving to the hotel, my coworker said he had been very nervous, even scared, during the ordeal, but my calm and practiced actions kept him from panicking. He also suggested that if ever I felt compelled to shut off the large, red switch in the center of the instrument panel again, I should inform my passengers that the engine will continue to run. He said when I shut down the master switch, he thought we were going to crash.

That didn’t occur to me at the time, but he was right. I should have done a better job of briefing him on what was taking place.

Also, since that day, I’ve always carried a handheld radio and GPS to back up the aircraft systems. I also avoid flying VFR above clouds. Without the complication of a solid cloud layer beneath us, I could have easily landed, corrected the problem, and continued on our way.

I was extremely fortunate to have a calm passenger that day who helped me work through our options. While the decision was ultimately mine, the discussion and feedback were invaluable.

But I think the biggest lesson that I learned is to be ready for anything, and always have a way out. Full fuel tanks, a clear sky, and obvious landmarks gave us many options. I will make better decisions in the future as a result of this experience.

Reed Ibrahim, AOPA 1216762, has been a private pilot since 1994 and has about 250 flying hours. He’s a national sales manager for a large manufacturing firm and says he’s “diligently working” to change his company’s ban on using personal aircraft for business travel.