November 1, 2004
Ronald E. Stone
Our daughter, who lives in Orlando, Florida, had called for help late on a Sunday evening as my wife and I were having supper with our son and his family in Kennesaw, Georgia. Our daughter had already missed a week of work caring for our sick grandson, and he was now worse instead of getting better. My wife going to baby-sit would allow my daughter to return to work so she wouldn't lose her job.
It was the prefect excuse to fly. After 35 years of renting and partnerships in airplanes, I finally owned my dream airplane — a 1972 Bellanca Super Viking with low engine time and nice IFR-capable avionics.
We originally talked about flying down Monday morning. However, our son-in-law would miss a day of work and I would also. So I came up with the bright idea of flying down that night. By the time we finished supper, returned home and packed, drove to the airport, checked the airplane, loaded it, and took off, it was way after 9:30 p.m. I had only made the minimum required night landings in the still-unfamiliar airplane.
After taking off from Cobb County-McCollum Field, in Marietta, northwest of Atlanta, approach cleared us right over the top of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and I tuned the loran for a direct course to Valdosta Regional Airport. I could not help but think how lucky we were, after 35 years of hard work, to have a dream airplane and be able to do this. We were cruising along about 40 miles south of Atlanta when my dream began to unravel.
I did another routine check of the engine instruments and realized the ammeter gauge was showing a slight discharge, instead of a charge. I called approach and told them I might have an electrical problem. They gave me a vector to Crisp County-Cordele Airport, which was at my 10 o'clock position.
I was not convinced that it was a discharge and so did not turn all electrical items off immediately. Instead I began a slow shutdown of radios and lights so as not to alarm my wife. But, of course, she soon realized there was a problem anyway.
However, once we reached the field, I looked down at the beautiful runway lights of Cordele and did not land. I was still not convinced that the ammeter was discharging. And besides — the little town below might not have a repair shop and a rental car and my Bellanca was so fast — we could surely make Tifton's Henry Tift Myers Airport, just over 36 nautical miles down the road, which probably would have a rental car and a repair shop. And so I continued on.
About halfway between Cordele and Tifton, the radio went out and then the last of the lights. Total darkness, inside and out! My wife slumped down in terror next to her window and cried out. I tried to calm her down and had her get the flashlight. I was highly concerned, but not terrified. After all, Lindbergh had found Paris without lights....
Fortunately, we had Interstate 75 right beneath us and could follow it to Tifton. Soon I saw the runway beacon and then the real terror began for me, the pilot. No runway lights. And I did not have a handheld radio to turn them on! My mind was racing. I had failed to land at the first sign of trouble and now the problems had compounded to a critical level. I thought about my options: Turn around and follow I-75 back to Hartsfield and try to land between the airliners? Not good. Land on I-75? No good either. Follow I-75 all the way to Valdosta and hope they have lights?
I decided to try Valdosta, and then, if I could not land there, I would fly all the way back to Atlanta and land. Thankfully, I remembered to switch the fuel tank, because the Bellanca had five tanks and each one did not last long. And there was no electrical fuel pump working if the tank did not take — but it did.
As we approached the lights of Valdosta at about 7,500 feet, I had trouble finding the airport beacon because the green light had faded and recent forest fires in the area had made visibility very bad. And then my heart sank again — I could not see any runway lights. I decided to descend to pattern altitude in a last desperate hope that I might be able to see something before I had to fly all the way back to Atlanta.
I believe to this day that my wife's prayer was answered. At pattern altitude, I could suddenly make out runway lights on very low intensity, and two white approach lights on the south end of them. I told my wife to not lose sight of the approach lights as I went way out to the south to get lined up for an attempt to land on Runway 35. My wife asked, what about your landing gear? I put the switch down and then, when there were no green lights, I suddenly remembered that a dead electrical system would mean I would have to quickly do the emergency gear-down procedure and would not, even then, have the green lights to give me the comfort of knowing for sure if they were down.
I was trying to make the approach without the flashlight to save my night vision for landing in the dark. But I forgot and asked my wife to shine the light on the airspeed indicator so I could see if I was below flap extension speed. And she didn't shield the light — not good! I was at flap speed, so I reached to put them down and guess what? They were electric! I would now have to land this monster with no flaps at 100 mph instead of 80. As I got close to the runway and began to reduce power, I instinctively pulled the electric trim switch back, and guess what? No electricity means no electric trim either.
I reached up to spin the manual trim and, because I had rarely used it, turned it the wrong way. A quick correction and then I stopped my descent about 20 feet off the deck and began to slowly reduce power and pull back on the yoke to continue to slow my descent.
Luckily, I made contact before I ran out of elevator. It was as smooth a landing as ever, but fast. Now, in my excitement, I'm thinking, what if someone lands in the dark and runs over me? I have got to get off the runway quick! I grab the flashlight from my wife and poke it out the side window and shine it on the runway centerline and look for the yellow taxiway line so that I won't run off into a ditch.
I pull onto a ramp area in the dark and shut down. I let my wife cry for a few minutes and then a fireman comes up to see why we have landed on a dark runway with no lights. I tell the fireman, "The Lord must have heard my wife's prayer because I know I was not a good enough pilot to have come through all this without a scratch."
So, what have I learned and should you learn from this? If you fly at night, check your instruments often; know your manual for troubleshooting and emergency procedures. Know your airplane well before you fly at night or IFR. Spend the money for a handheld radio. And, of course, land immediately at the first sign of trouble because one thing can snowball into a monster!
Ronald E. Stone, AOPA 1414313, is an instrument-rated private pilot who began flying in 1959. He has about 1,600 hours.
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When examining details for VFR operations in and around major terminal areas, a must-have resource is the current local terminal area chart.
The Santa Paula, California, airport evokes an old-time airfield, complete with antique airplanes dating back almost a century. Consider visiting the field when you attend the AOPA Fly-In at Chino, California, on Sept. 20.
A VFR pilot enters instrument conditions shortly after takeoff. Air traffic control gets an instructor on the ground involved to help talk the pilot through the serious situation to narrowly avert tragedy.
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