January is the rainy season in Northern California, and when a cold front arrives off the Pacific Ocean the weather observation often calls for VFR conditions with mountain obscuration — if you wish to fly out of the San Francisco Bay Area this means you'll have to file IFR. Those were the conditions on a January day in 1996 when I flew my wife, my mother-in-law, and a friend from Palo Alto Airport of Santa Clara County to the Monterey peninsula for a business event that I was to host. The trip in the Cessna Cardinal RG to Monterey was a routine IFR flight with the majority of the 45-minute flight under actual instrument meteorological conditions, ending with an ILS approach that turned out to be a piece of cake.
After a very pleasant dinner and reception at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, we headed back home at about 10 p.m. All seemed perfectly normal, just another routine flight like the one earlier that day — except that it was now night. And then, as I sat there happily awaiting an air traffic control (ATC) clearance for the descent, I noticed the cockpit lights going dim. A quick glance at the ammeter showed a discharge.
This was one moment that caused the most intense adrenaline rush I have experienced as a pilot — I was watching the battery die while flying in actual instrument conditions over mountainous terrain. Thank God, I almost instantly recognized and corrected the problem. A quick glance at the instrument panel showed the electric fuel pump in the "on" position. The Cardinal's fuel pump is supposed to be used only sparingly as it drains a lot of electricity if you leave it on. With all the lights and radios on, the addition of the running fuel pump was enough to overload the alternator. I turned it off, cycled the alternator, and — voila — the lights came back up to full strength and the ammeter was happily showing a powerful charge. I even managed to keep my cool so no one had a clue that my pulse was pounding heavily and my mouth was very dry.
Five minutes later I received ATC's clearance to descend, and after breaking out of the clouds at 2,000 feet agl, I made a visual approach to Palo Alto.
There are several things I have learned from this adventure. First, I have learned to keep a close eye on the ammeter when flying in actual IFR. Second and just as important, I have learned a lesson about using checklists.
At the time of this episode, I was already an experienced pilot; I had more than 2,700 hours, 1,000 of which were in a Cessna Turbo 210 I had owned for eight years. When you own an airplane and fly it a lot, you get so familiar with it that you may easily fall prey to neglecting the use of the checklist as you've gone through that same checklist a million times before, and it seems redundant. However, I had sold my airplane and was back to flying rental aircraft. A quick look at my logbook from that period shows that within a few months I flew the Cardinal RG, a Piper Archer, a Piper Warrior, a Cessna 172, and a Cessna T210. Each has its own idiosyncrasies, such as whether the aircraft has an electric fuel pump, and if so, when to use it. I had adopted a bad habit of not using a checklist, something I could get away with in one situation but not in another. That bad habit became much more serious and potentially fatal as soon as I began to fly several different types of aircraft. I don't like to speculate what might have happened if I hadn't figured out the problem and fixed it as quickly as I did.
The old adage is really true: The superior pilot uses his superior judgment to keep him out of situations that require the use of his superior piloting skills. Not using a checklist — even in an airplane you know well — is just not good judgment.
Barry Leff, AOPA 5350282, is a CFII and MEI who started flying in 1974. He left the corporate world of Silicon Valley and is now part of the fraternity of flying rabbis.
You can find additional information about the use of checklists and handling emergencies at the following links:
Look for the latest installment of "Never Again" in the February issue of AOPA Pilot. The story relates one pilot's urgent desire to get back to work and how it clouded his judgment during the go/no-go decision process.
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