Never Again Online: Lights out at 7,000

October 1, 2006

I was a 100-hour private pilot working on an instrument rating. David, a certificated flight instructor, was with me on this training flight, and we were on an IFR flight plan although weather conditions were perfect for a nighttime VFR flight.

About 15 minutes into the flight, David remarked that the panel lights were really dim, and he wondered if the alternator was charging. Seconds earlier, I had noticed a heading flag pop up in the horizontal situation indicator and I had wondered what would cause the flag to appear. David was already ahead of me and of the situation, and within seconds he called air traffic control and set the transponder to 7600. I focused on attitude control.

We were flying level at 7,000 feet when we lost all electrical power. Navigation lights, strobes, beacon, radios, GPS, autopilot — everything was lost. I remembered that on an IFR flight plan I should maintain last assigned altitude and heading to our next cleared location, but I wondered where that location was. I mentally processed the information to the next waypoint, when David exclaimed, "We need to land!" I now began to realize that this was not a training drill — this was a serious problem.

I started to scan for an airport beacon and identified a white-and-green strobe light directly ahead, about 20 miles out. I continued to focus on flying the airplane while David pulled out an IFR en route low altitude chart and a VFR sectional chart. He identified the beacon as Hillsboro Airport, 46 miles southeast of Fort Worth.

We began a controlled descent from 7,000 feet toward the welcoming rotating beacon. At about 10 miles out I could begin to see the runway lights. David was feeding me airport information off the sectional chart using his penlight, "Airport elevation 685 feet and the runway heading is 160 degrees. We will do a fly-by at 1,700 feet on the upwind leg and then turn crosswind for a left downwind, base, and short final." David then called out the pre-landing checklist.

We turned onto final approach and everything was black. I mean black! You have not seen black until you come into an airport at night in north Texas with no lights. My private pilot training had included night landings and at one point my flight instructor had me practice landing without lights. Although I was at least prepared for what was about to happen, my experience had been at a towered airport with lots of ambient light. But, this strip was different. It was black other then the dim lights down each side. With no electrical power we could not activate the pilot controlled lighting. There was no ambient light and absolutely zero reference to our height. We descended down through 800 feet, and I was using the flashlight to monitor airspeed, descent rate, attitude, and so on.

As I prepared to flare — wham — we bounced. I could not see the runway but I did not expect to hit it when we did. David was shadowing me on the yoke, and he was surprised as well. David called out, "Get her down, get her down!" I eased in a little power and then pushed the yoke forward. This time the airplane settled with a slight bump, but we were firmly on the ground and the landing gear was still with us.

We could not see a thing as we applied the brakes to stop so that we could turn around to back taxi on the runway. I turned on the flashlight's high power beam, stuck my arm out the little side window and shone the light on the runway, and at last we pulled up to the ramp.

Although I don't necessarily want to repeat this experience, I have come away with a valuable set of lessons and a huge amount of real-life training. As a young pilot I was lucky to have a very experienced pilot with me. This is the kind of training you simply cannot simulate, and no matter how many emergency checklists you practice, the actual experience is overwhelming.

Afterward, David and I analyzed what happened and reflected on what actions we took and what actions we should have taken. While we both believe we did everything right, there were several lessons learned.

The first lesson to take home is to practice good cockpit management. When the situation was upon us, the first action was to maintain positive control of the airplane. Although I was prepared to do this, nothing was visible, and a flashlight was required to see any instrumentation. Fortunately the flashlight was on a lanyard on the center post within easy access. Had we not both had flashlights immediately available, the situation rapidly could have become life threatening.

David had IFR and VFR charts close at hand so that he quickly could identify the nearest airport after the loss of our GPS. Had I been alone, without a flashlight close by or without handy access to the charts, the situation would have been very difficult.

When I fly VFR during the day, I am already in the habit of constantly monitoring my location with respect to landmarks and the nearest airport. I now realize that at night, I need even better cockpit management and need to be more keenly aware of my position, even when flying under ATC control or on an IFR flight plan.

Early recognition of pending radio communication failure is crucial. David rather astutely had recognized our problem immediately and dialed in the appropriate 7600 squawk code. I did not realize he had done so until after we had landed.

We did not know if Fort Worth Regional ever saw the squawk code before we lost the transponder, but we were hopeful that they had and would recognize that we were experiencing trouble, and at least clear any conflicting traffic.

Private pilot training includes a degree of preparation for being lost and finding your position. But none of this training prepares you for an immediate loss of all radio communication and all navigational equipment in the dark. You need to be also mentally prepared for this possibility.

The last lesson learned was the importance of the decision to make a precautionary landing. At the onset of the situation, I was still processing how to comply with the last IFR clearance. Instead, I should have recognized the nature of the situation and began sooner to prepare for a precautionary landing. Technically, the airplane would continue to fly, and we might have been able to continue on. But, we had no navigation or recognition lights, so it would be impossible for other aircraft to see our position. We also didn't have any navigational equipment, so we had no way to navigate to the next intersection. And, without any electricity, the complication of additional systems failure, like loss of a fuel pump or an on-board fire, would be significant.

Other than highly elevated adrenaline, this experience was manageable. The circumstances could have turned dire had we been in actual IMC with the same sequence of events — we might not have been able to find the nearest airport and land.

Sam Wilson, AOPA 5542811, is a private pilot with more than 150 hours of flight time. He is currently working toward his instrument rating.

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Look for the latest installment of Never Again, in the November issue of AOPA Pilot. Read how these pilots negotiated the weather trap they found themselves in.

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Posted Wednesday, October 11, 2006 2:35:08 PM