The attitude indicator twirled and tumbled in ways that I wasn’t even aware it was capable of. My immediate thought was not that our chance of returning home that night was doomed, but instead how ironic it was that only hours before we were standing in a room surrounded by brand-new attitude indicators.
While cooler than the 103 degrees Fahrenheit we had left in Wichita a few hours earlier, the ramp at Terre Haute, Indiana, was still steaming as the sun was about to set at our fuel stop en route to home base in Maryland. The Bonanza’s pneumatic pressure gauge (many Beech airplanes use pressure rather than vacuum to drive gyros) was well into the green—no pump failure. I shut the engine down and tried again, hoping that…well, just hoping. No go. And, of course—more irony—my electric standby AI was out for overhaul after 10 years of service during which it was not once needed. Why hadn’t I smuggled a new one off the shelf at Mid-Continent Instruments and Avionics, which we had toured and videotaped earlier in the day in Wichita?
The AI had been slow to erect a couple of times on the trip, but I had hoped it would behave until we got home. The promise of several days of severe clear weather bolstered my thinking that all would be fine.
The helpful staff at Terre Haute’s Hoosier Aviation in their spiffy new terminal called nearby airports to see if a maintenance shop with an AI on the shelf might still be open. With none available I made the decision not to fly over the Appalachians at night without an AI.
The next morning we were directed to Williams Aviation, a tidy two-man maintenance shop on the field. Owner Chad Williams had an AI on the shelf, but not quite the right one. After a thorough weather briefing showing CAVU all the way home, we appropriately deactivated and placarded the AI and launched for an uneventful flight home. I was surprised by how much I didn’t miss the AI; and also was grateful to have a rate-based S-Tec autopilot driven by the turn coordinator to fly the airplane. With an attitude-based autopilot, I would have been hand-flying those three hours.
Fast forward a couple of weeks. The AI has been overhauled and on this also-steamy Saturday morning I’m in Manassas, Virginia, where my A&P-IA Adrian Eichhorn is installing it. Thunderstorms are forecast for later in the day and a presidential TFR pops up at 3:15 p.m. that will close the airport for more than three hours. Let’s get this done and get home. The AI goes back in without much of an issue, and we begin the simple task of rewiring a panel-mounted clock. Three wires. How hard could this be?
Four hours later at 3 p.m. we give up and button up the airplane so I can get home. But alas, the airport has closed at 3 p.m., despite the TFR notification saying the airspace goes hot at 3:15 p.m. With three free hours now on hand we dive back into the wiring issue and, alas, 3.5 hours later with the help of numerous hangar buddies, the task is done. But now a thunderstorm is threatening just to the west of the field. Bad juju, this AI failure.
The preferred departure procedure points me west right at the boiling mass of clouds and rain, as the datalink radar shows. Remember, a presidential TFR has just closed, this is inside the Washington Special Flight Rules Area, and just under the Class B—some of the crankiest airspace in the nation. It’s VFR at Manassas and I launch on an IFR flight plan, hoping to negotiate with ATC.
On first contact, the Potomac Departure controller tells me to turn east. “I’ll save you some time tonight,” he volunteers, as he runs me up the east side of Dulles International and direct to Frederick—and well away from the heavy rain that quickly engulfs Manassas. Eureka! This doesn’t happen often.
The AI purrs nicely. The clock works. I exit the SFRA with Frederick in sight on a glorious evening for flying. I think I hear harps playing. Has the bad juju been broken? The next flight will tell.