Never Again Online: Seeing Sparks

February 1, 2010

It was a beautiful autumn afternoon and I was enjoying it. I’d dropped off my passengers—the airplane owner’s family – in Asheville, North Carolina and was flying back to Orlando.

I was an experienced flight instructor and aspiring professional pilot and knew the second leg of the trip would give me time to admire the efficiency of the Mooney 201 and to build more valuable cross-country experience – especially since the later half of the flight would occur at night.

About two hours into my flight, I was near Jacksonville. It was dark outside, but the air was smooth and the airplane was performing flawlessly. The cockpit enveloped me like a comfortable cocoon. On the left, I spotted the familiar city lights along Florida’s coast. The Mooney’s IFR-equipped panel made the trip comfortably routine. Thirty minutes later I passed west of Daytona Beach and started my descent.

Sanford’s lights were slowly coming into view at my eleven o’clock position. Lightning struck in the distant south and southwest, but it appeared to be beyond my destination. My journey was nearing an end and it was uneventful. Or so I thought.

Jacksonville Center handed me off to Orlando Approach and I dialed in and activated the new frequency on the King radio. I keyed the mike and reported my altitude and receipt of the ATIS. Just as the controller acknowledged my transmission and provided my next clearance, everything in the cockpit suddenly went dark. Everything outside took on the brightness of a movie screen in a darkened theater.

Sixty seconds. It all happened in about 60 seconds. The radios, the autopilot, the panel lights, the exterior lights were all gone. Yet the engine continued to purr without a hiccup. I was dumbfounded.

What’s going on? Think. What is going on?

My thoughts raced back to my training sessions but I couldn’t remember a scenario like this. I knew the controller was awaiting my radio transmission. I tried to gather my thoughts.

Thankfully I was in VMC. I grabbed my flashlight, which was strategically placed nearby, and aimed it at the lower left panel where the master switch for the electrical system was located. It was in the OFF position. I was surprised.

The switch is in the wrong position.

I flipped the switch back to ON.

And that’s when the real trouble began.

The panel and avionics came back to life but as they did, sparks flew from underneath the right half of the panel. Then something – whatever it was, it was glowing – dropped to the floor.

I flipped the switch back to OFF and the entire panel went dark again.

The adrenaline kicked in and I fought to remain clear-headed. I kept my left hand on the yoke and with my right hand, grabbed my knee board, and swatted away at the glowing object to keep the carpet from catching fire. Fumes and light smoke filled the cockpit.

I recalled the controller’s clearance to 2000 feet so I continued my descent, leaning forward once in a while to read the altimeter while keeping an eye on the floorboard. I could land at Sanford airport, which was off to my left, but did I need to?

I saw no more sparks or smoke, and I knew the controller was aware of the planned destination, which was now only four or five minutes ahead. I kept heading southbound.

The avionics were gone, but the lights of the surrounding area helped me to navigate. I used the flashlight and checked my altimeter.

In the distance skies, I saw lightning again, and for a moment I questioned my decision to continue to Orlando. But I remembered the ATIS—back when I had electrical power and radios—was reporting VFR conditions.

I leveled out at 2000 feet and pressed on.

Slow down, don’t rush things. Everything is going to be fine.

I expected the approach controller to notify the tower he’d lost contact with me, but I was not comfortable simply showing up at night without lights or radio. Plus, the gear had to be pumped down and a no-flap landing had to be made. I descended to pattern altitude and orbited north of the airport for a minute or two and then cranked the gear down.

There was no green light from the tower and I was determined to communicate with them. I decided to turn the power back on for just a second then turn it back off. If anything abnormal occurred, I would leave it off and land. If not, I would quickly radio the tower and advise them I was on the downwind for landing.

I flipped the master switch on, then immediately off.

No fireworks this time.

I turned it back on, dialed in the tower frequency and communicated with them, and then shut the power back off.

OK that worked.

I setup for a no-flap landing and cycled the electrical power a few times before landing so I could see the airspeed indication and allow my wing tip strobes to provide the tower with my position. At this point the power could have remained on, but I was calm and in control. I left it off. Why take the chance?

The approach and landing were flawless. I exited the runway just like any other flight and taxied to the hangar. After shutting down and pushing the Mooney back into the hangar, I looked underneath the panel and inspected the floorboard. The charred remains of some wires were on the floor, but I didn’t see much else.

So I called it a night and headed home.

The next day the mechanic told me that previous work done underneath the panel wasn’t up to par and the main electrical bus wire had been rubbing against the sharp edge of a metal box. So it was only a matter of time before it would cut through the insulation. Thankfully, it occurred when no passengers were onboard and the conditions were VMC.

Passengers could have been an additional distraction and IMC conditions could have led to a loss of control.

Flying alone – at night – when a plane goes dark is more likely to incite panic than calm, but if I had given myself just a little more time to think through the situation, I may have done things differently. As it turns out, finding the master switch OFF was an indication that the system was working as designed. I learned that systems have built-in safety features and when something occurs out of the blue there most likely is a good reason.

Years later when I started flying jets, I learned to be slow and deliberate when flipping switches or pulling and pushing circuit breakers.

Rich Harris, AOPA 00994367, started flying in 1981 and earned a private pilot certificate before graduating from high school. He is corporate pilot with an ATP and several jet type ratings and has logged about 5,000 total flight hours.