AOPA Pilot (October, 2006)

 Close friends for 30 years, John and I had flown together a few times in my Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. We both had busy medical practices so we decided to fly to South Dakota to participate in a pheasant hunt rather than drive the distance and take the additional time away from work. We had scheduled to meet our hunting party at 8 a.m. on October 15. This required a departure from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, at 5 a.m.

The airplane had just come out of its annual inspection two days before the planned trip. Very few problems had been found except for the alternator, which was replaced. The head mechanic had mentioned that the discharge light for the new alternator stayed on longer than before, but it charged fine and otherwise checked out OK.

I knew it was good practice to test fly an airplane fresh out of its annual. But my work schedule was full and the weather was terrible those two days before the trip with steady cold rain and poor visibility. However, the weather forecast was excellent for the hunting trip.

I collected my hunting gear and soon was on my way to the airport, the car winding through the quiet, rolling farmland. As I drove up to the lighted hangar, I saw my friend standing hunched against the cold wearing a cap with “No Fear” in big white letters on the front. “Great cap, John!” I said. “This is my airplane hat,” he replied, as he winked and planted it more firmly on his head. We loaded our gear into the aircraft. I performed a careful preflight inspection and found everything was in order.

The early October morning was cold and black. The engine started easily, and I completed the taxi- and run-up-checklists. The load meter and voltage meter showed normal indications and the alternator’s discharge light went off — or was there a faint pink glow as we took off into the black night?

John snapped pictures as the aircraft climbed out. Soon we were 8,000 feet above the dark countryside, the occasional farm lights blending perfectly with the stars, leaving no horizon. Then, the alternator’s discharge light illuminated bright red, and ChicagoCenter lost our transponder transmission. While I talked to Center, communication faded away and the lights went out as if on a rheostat.

We were in the darkest of darks — like sitting with a running engine in a pitch-black closet. I felt for the small flashlight in the pouch between us, picked it up, twisted it on, and handed it to John — being careful to not move the controls. John focused the light beam on the instrument panel while I turned the aircraft very slowly to the right — guided by the attitude indicator and the altimeter — as I kept the ball centered until we had completed our turn back toward the Cedar Rapids airport, about 50 miles away.

The lighted city near the airport provided a horizon, and we flew toward it while I retrieved the handheld radio and entered the tower frequency to report our total electrical failure. We remained over the city lights while I reached back between the seats, removed the manual gear extension cover, and cranked 50 counter clockwise knuckle-scuffing turns, finally reaching the manual gear extension stop. John stared silently straight ahead gripping his seat with both hands. My mouth was dry as I thought, “You got yourself into this — now get out of it!”

Communication was difficult because of the loud engine noise. There was no connection between the handheld and my headset so I had tossed the headset into the backseat to put the radio closer to my ear. Without the headset the familiar sounds of the engine and relative wind were replaced by unfamiliar ones. “I want to over-fly the airport to verify full gear extension and closure of the inner gear doors,” I shouted into the handheld radio. “Roger 55Q, fly parallel to Runway 27; we will have lights available there,” was Tower’s response.

I slouched to avoid being blinded by the fire trucks with their spotlights as we flew 500 feet above them. The Tower confirmed that the gears looked fully extended and the inner doors were up. I shouted a thank you into the radio.

We were cleared to land as we entered a downwind for Runway 27. We were again on instruments because of very few ground lights nearby the airport. On short final, John unlatched the door so we would be able to exit the aircraft in case the gear collapsed on touchdown. The loud roar of the wind took away the last audible clues of the engine and airspeed, and with it John’s “No Fear” cap and most of our charts. The runway lights appeared straight ahead, suspended in blackness. I flew the final approach using the VASI lights, flared the aircraft, and made a firm touchdown without flaps or lights.

A fire truck guided us back to the ramp. After we had pushed the airplane back into the hangar, John and I climbed into the car and sat there for a while. “Where is your cap, John?” I asked. “Somewhere back in a cornfield with most of the maps and a couple of my magazines,” he replied.

I learned several important lessons from this flight.

Do not make a trip in an aircraft with new equipment without a careful checkout first. Don’t be in a hurry and forego this step, no matter how urgent the next flight might seem, even if it means you have to cancel the trip.

Practice dealing with emergencies so your response is automatic and appropriate, and keep emergency equipment current and handy. Install standby electrical power in your aircraft if you fly at night or in instrument conditions.

A connection from your handheld radio to your headset can be invaluable. Keep your headset on to help preserve familiar engine and airspeed sounds — even if the radios are nonfunctional.

William G. Meffert, AOPA 808828, has flown for 21 years accumulating more than 1,700 hours of flight time. He is an instrument-rated commercial pilot and flight instructor.