Never Again

Another 23-hour day

December 1, 2006

I am an aircraft-fueling engineer for a military and civilian fuel farm manufacturer and regularly use my Cessna P210N on business trips. This time I had arranged a three-day back-to-back schedule in the 210.

On day one, the alarm clock went off at 4 a.m. for a short flight from In-dianapolis to an 8 a.m. meeting in Knoxville, Tennessee. The weather was OK, but windy and bumpy. We didn't finish the meeting until late and I got back to the airport around 5 p.m. for the return flight home.

After landing, I picked up materials needed the next day, drove back to the airport to load the airplane, and got home around 11 p.m. I was tired.

I was airborne again by 5:30 a.m. the next day and picked up my passenger in Hilton Head, North Carolina. We stopped for fuel at Fayetteville and then continued to Simmons Army Airfield (AAF) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

We took care of business by 3 p.m. and departed for Mackall AAF, also in North Carolina, to inspect work there. We then returned to Hilton Head to drop off my passenger and have dinner. During dinner it started to rain. My passenger offered to put me up for the night, but I declined.

My next stop was Charlotte, North Carolina, to drop off equipment. While there, I topped the tanks for the next leg, to Trenton, New Jersey. The weather had turned to heavy instrument meteorological conditions with thunderstorms and ice reported at lower altitudes.

It was midnight when I accelerated down the runway, seeing lightning flashes off to the east. Charlotte Departure asked if I could avoid the weather. I confirmed that I could, and the controller turned me loose. Working my way around the illuminated cumulus clouds, I managed to get above them and reported on course.

Climbing through 19,000 feet, I had just gotten comfortable when — bling! — the autopilot disengaged. While I searched for some reason why the system went offline, I was handed over to Greensboro.

Then it happened. The control panel flashed violently. It popped and snapped-and my new Garmin radios jolted off and on. In almost 11,000 hours of flight time, I had never seen anything like this. I mashed the master switch immediately, quelling everything.

Thank God the engine droned on. I reached for one of three flashlights I always have with me in the cockpit and inspected the panel. I was puzzled. Everything looked fine. Afraid to turn the electrical power back on, I gazed at the circuit breakers and tried to isolate as many functions as I could. Then I flipped the master switch back on and everything lit up, as normal. Greensboro's frequency was still active.

It was now 2 a.m. "Greensboro Approach, 7311P, Flight Level 230, over!" The controller responded immediately; my heading had wandered 100 degrees east of course. "Greensboro, 7311P, I think I've got a problem!" The controller asked my intentions, and in total denial I first answered, "I think I'll continue on course to Trenton," followed by, "I should land, right now!" While Greensboro instructed me to turn on a heading of 270 degrees to Piedmont Triad International, and descend to 4,000 feet, it happened again: The radios flashed and popped, as did everything else. Once again, I secured the master.

I looked at the compass, hoping it worked, pointed the aircraft west, and pulled power back for a descent into the icy clouds below. Just as I contemplated dealing with icing, sheets of ice whacked the windshield. In the flashlight beam I could see ice piling up on the leading edge of the wing. Then the airspeed dropped. I lowered the nose more, but the airspeed went to zero and the gyros spun down and tumbled.

Here I was: IFR, no radios, lost, iced over, with no electrical power, flying into a UPS cargo-hub airport at peak period. I had to concentrate heavily on maintaining heading and vertical speed, and keeping the wings level-that was all there was to work with.

I dug out a sectional chart and noticed there were mountains west of Greensboro. I tried to remember how long I'd been descending, but was unsure. I guessed maybe 15 minutes at 700 fpm. I would turn a slow left one-eighty, away from the rising terrain.

The aircraft was pointed east and still descending when out of the side windows I saw lights. At that moment the ice banged off the airframe, all at once — a loud noise and then it was all gone.

The engine ticked over smoothly as I looked for an airport beacon or some clue as to where I was. A freeway passed underneath and I felt a little less stressed. Then I directed the flashlight beam over the main fuel gauges. Both sides read empty.

I had not crossfed fuel from the tip tanks before I lost electrical power; the fan was going to quit at any moment! I uttered a panicked, "Oh my God, oh my God." Then I remembered — I had an old Garmin 195 in my flight bag. I was able to reach back and snake it out, and with trembling fingers punched the power button: It lit up, to my relief.

I selected Piedmont Triad using the Go To function, and the directional arrow pointed off the right wing. I could see the overcast reflecting green, white, and red runway lights. Certain the engine would quit at any moment, I immediately turned toward the airport and manually extended the landing gear.

When I landed at Greensboro, it was 3 a.m.; another 23-hour day had passed. I found an exit off the runway and pulled onto a taxiway. I was tense and lost. I shut down the airplane and a security truck pulled up. The driver asked if I was OK. I was feeling somewhat better and wanted to talk to the tower, which had been busy holding dozens of UPS jets until I was safely on the ground.

There isn't any reason to push a flight like I did. It almost cost me my life. I ignored two basic rules: Don't push limits to personal exhaustion, and don't rush a schedule because of real or perceived pressures. I cheated fate this time. I will not take such a risk again.

The cause of the electrical failure? A wiring error involving the voltage regulator, alternator, and amp gauge. It is difficult to know which failed first, the alternator or the voltage regulator. Since then I have installed a voltage-amperes-battery-condition display.

Jake Magish, AOPA 501221, is a Cessna P210 owner who holds a commercial pilot certificate with multiengine and instrument ratings, and Boeing 727 and Douglas DC-3 type ratings. He has accumulated more than 11,400 hours of flight time over 45 years.

"Never Again" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for pilots to learn from the experiences of others. Manuscripts may be submitted via e-mail to [email protected]; or sent to Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.