Total Electrical Failure – IFR

There are only a few emergency situations that really get a pilot's attention – fires, collisions, and engine failures, of course.  But for instrument-rated pilots, flying in the clouds, a total loss of electrical power has a way of focusing one's attention. It certainly focused mine.  Did I handle the situation correctly?  Here is your chance to critique.

Saturday, Kansas City area, weather, per the Lee's Summit MO (LXT) AWOS, is 1,000 scattered, 4,000 overcast, with 10 miles visibility.  Weather at OJC, twenty miles to the east, is 600 to 800 broken to overcast, with 2 miles visibility.  The scene is set but the situation, as always, begins long before takeoff.

Our Lee's Summit MO EAA chapter has a standing Young Eagles rally once every month during the summer.  Rain or shine, we gather for pancakes and sausage, and if the weather is good we pile the excited kids in the planes and fly.  And if the weather is bad, we tell them, "Come on back next month."

On this May day, the Beech Debonair I own with friends was hangared at the Johnson County Executive airport (OJC), about twenty miles west of the rally point.  As I always did for these events, I rose early, checked weather, and headed out.  Weather was overcast at Lee's Summit, but promised to be flyable in the morning.  There was a forecast of deteriorating weather as the day went on, but I thought that we might be able to get a few flights in.  Generally, we have eight or ten pilots and about 75 kids, so there seemed to be a chance for at least a partial success for the day.

(The view of the entire world, it seems, when the electrical system fails.)

The Johnson County Executive airport (OJC) is about 25 driving miles from my home, and when I arrived at the airport, the day seemed flyable.  The ATIS indicated VFR conditions, although just barely – 3 miles visibility with mist, 1,000 scattered, with a broken layer at about 3,000 feet.  However, by the time I pulled the aircraft out the hangar and finished my preflight, I could see the airport beacon rotating.  Better check that ATIS again.

Now I find that the cloud layers remain the same, but the visibility has dropped to two miles with mist and light rain.  A quick check on the Lee's Summit weather to the east shows no change so I ask for a special VFR clearance to depart the Class D airspace at Executive and I head for Lee's Summit.  And sure enough, by the time I clear the Class D airspace to the east, the lower level clouds have dissipated, the visibility is 10 miles or better, and we have only the clouds at 3,000 feet or so.  So, it looks as if we will be able to pull this off.

I arrive at LXT, get my standard dose of coffee and pancakes, meet my first load of excited kids, and get on my way.  I have two eleven-year old ("almost 12!") twin girls who have never flown, and a CAP cadet who is an old hand at this.  He tells me of his plans for continuing to get his license as he gets older. He is quiet, well-mannered, but every bit as excited as the girls. 

We get airborne, make our 30 minute flight over all of the local landmarks and return to LXT.  But it is obvious that the weather that I had left at OJC was now moving slowly eastward.  I could still get back into LXT, but this situation was only going to get worse.  So, I return excited kids to parents, and we decide to cancel the rally for the day.  And I decide that I need to file an IFR flight plan to return back to my home at OJC, twenty miles away.

I did not call Flight Service for a weather check.  After all, I figured that I knew what the weather conditions were.  I had just been there. I knew the cloud levels in the Kansas City area, I knew the visibilities, and I knew that the winds were out of the east at about 10 knots.  So, I pulled out the approach plates for the Executive Airport (OJC), loaded the Garmin 430WAAS with the GPS Runway 36 approach, contacted Approach Control for my clearance and prepared to depart.

The Lee's Summit airport is untowered, so the local procedure is to get an IFR clearance on the clearance delivery frequency.  I get this, and I am cleared to depart LXT on runway 11, climb to 3,000 feet, and turn to a heading of 240 for a vector to a runway 36 GPS approach at OJC.  At 10:35 local time, I push the throttle forward, and I am off.

My first indication that this is not going to go as planned – I raise the gear, pass 500' AGL, and contact Kansas City Approach Control.  "Kansas City Approach, Beech 334Z is airborne off of LXT, turning right to 240, passing 1,600 for 3,000."  And as I press my mic button, the GPS screen goes blank.  UGH. I hear Approach Control say, "Radar contact, climb and maintain 3,000," And just about this time I am entering the clouds.

So, I turn off and turn on the GPS, and quickly reprogram it, while I wonder why the press-to-talk switch affected it.  Approach Control passes on some weather information which I acknowledge, and the GPS screen goes blank again.  Now I am figuring that I am not going to have a GPS or the number one nav-comm.  Fortunately, I have been transmitting and receiving on the number two comm, and I have a number two VOR-LOC.  Time to dig out the approach plates, and set up for the localizer 36 approach. 

I tell Approach that I have lost my GPS and one radio, and I ask for the localizer 36 approach at OJC.  Approach tells me that if I continue for that approach I will enter some moderate to heavy precipitation, and suggests that I accept the localizer 18 approach instead (winds are out of the east at 8 to 10 knots.)  I accept that advice, and then accept a heading of 320 which will put me a few miles northeast of the OJC airport. Time to dig out yet another approach plate and dial in new frequencies.

By now, the display on my number two nav-comm is flickering, and the radio, which has been real busy just a minute ago, has become pretty quiet.  And I am not picking up the localizer yet.  So, with another disgusting comment to myself, I figure that I ought to switch the transponder to 7600 while I still have some electrical power. Approach control picks that transponder code up, and after a couple of minutes tells me that if I hear them I should turn to a heading of 220 and maintain 2,700 feet. I do hear that, and I comply, and that is the last transmission that I hear.

So, now it is real obvious that I am on my own, in the clouds, without communications and navigation radios.  Time for some decisions.  I am at 2,700 feet, well above all obstacles, and I am traveling away from the Kansas City metropolitan area, with its buildings and various towers.  I am on an intercept for the localizer 18 final approach course for OJC.

I have always preached, when planning for a flight into IMC, that a pilot needs to know where he can find VFR conditions, whether that is below or toward some point on the horizon.  So, in my condition, I know that I probably have VFR conditions about 30 miles to the east.  But my last assigned heading was southwest.  I also know that if I descend I can expect to break out at 800 to 1,000 AGL.  I initially turn back to the east, and then remember that I have a hand-held GPS in my bag, specifically for this situation.  Time to pull that out and figure out exactly where I am. 

I decide that I am better off back on the heading to the southwest, as I recognize from the GPS that I am fairly close to three very familiar airports – OJC, my planned destination, New Century Airport (IXD), a large, towered airport about eight miles due west of that, and the small, non-towered airport at Gardner KS, which is about four miles west of New Century.  Gardner has a paved east-west runway, and takeoffs from Gardner to the east lead straight to a left base at New Century, runway 35..

So now, I sort of know where I am.  And I am wishing that I had used this hand-held GPS a little more recently, because I have forgotten which button performs which function.  But, thinking that I know where I am, and thinking that I will break out at traffic pattern altitude, I start to descend from 2,700 feet.

At 1,800 MSL (about 800 AGL) I am seeing patches of ground, I am heading south-southwest at this point, and I start to look for familiar spots of ground.  But this is the Midwest, where we have lots of fields and lots of north-south and east-west roads.  But then I see the distinctive hangars at the Gardner airport ahead and to the left, and I realize that I am set up perfectly for a left base to runway 11 at Gardner.

I start to extend the flaps, and quickly reverse that decision.  I may not have much electrical power left, and I still need to get the gear down.  As I line up on a one-mile final, I lower the gear handle, and a number of considerations run through my mind.  In less time then it takes to describe the options, here are the thoughts. 1) I hear the familiar thunk, thunk, thunk, of three wheels locking into place, but I have no gear-down lights; 2) I can pull out the checklist and run through the emergency gear extension checklist, while trying to stay VFR at about 600 feet above the ground; Or 3) I can climb back up to a safe altitude back into the clouds and perform an emergency gear extension.  Either way, the emergency gear extension in this airplane involves moving into the contortionist position to reach the handle behind the seat, while turning the handle about a gazillion turns.

And then, I also realize that I really don't want to have a gear-up situation at Gardner, when there is a big runway, just four miles ahead of me, and they have things like fire trucks and maintenance and other real nice services.  And if I just maintain my current heading I will be on a left base for that runway.  So, I leave the gear down and overfly Gardner.

I approach New Century Airport on a left base at about 500 feet AGL.  I have no idea if they see me or know if I am coming, but I really don't care.  I am assuming that Approach Control has said something to them.  I don't have any gear-down lights, so I plan on making a very gentle landing, with a little extra airspeed, and I will see if I get that nice, wheel-to-concrete sensation when I am at the correct altitude.  And I do.

So, at 10:53, just 18 minutes after takeoff, I land at New Century Airport.  I park at the FBO, and call Tower on the phone.  And yes, Tower was expecting me.  And he had turned the runway lights up to full for me, although from my position from the airport that had not helped me.

After I finished talking to Tower, I called Kansas City Approach Control on the phone and told them I was down, and explained the situation.  (Tower had called them as soon as I landed, so they knew I was safe and sound.)  After listening to me, they told me that they were happy that all was well.  I asked if they needed anything else, and they said, "No.  We were just happy to help." (Over the years, I have had a number of abnormal situations.  No controlling agency has ever asked for anything in writing.  The phone conversation is recorded, so they have all of the documentation that they need from the phone call.)

So, what was Kansas City Approach Control during this 18 minutes period?  As soon as I lost communications, they notified their emergency network.  They would not tell me who all is included in this, but they did say that since 9/11 they take all lost communications situations very seriously.

They cleared all traffic out of the area ahead of me, but not behind me.  (I was expecting this and this was one reason why I was hesitant to reverse course, even though I thought I might find better weather behind me.)  Included in their communications network, were the control towers at the airports that they thought I might use.  And they kept those towers informed of my progress.  And finally, I was delighted to hear, that although it seemed that I had lost all of my electrical equipment, Approach Control told me that they were able to pick up my 7600 squawk until landing.

So, now firmly on the ground with a cup of coffee, it is time to critique.  What did I do right, what did I do wrong?  Each of you will have some thoughts, based on your own experience.  And my reactions are based on my flying experience.

I have been flying for forty years, and I have had at least five previous total-electrical failures.  I can remember at least one at night VFR, and one in daytime IMC conditions.  So I've been there and I don't panic too easily.

First of all, I get sort of good points for knowing the overall weather situation in the Kansas City area.  But I would have given myself more points if I had made myself more aware of conditions to the south and west.  I only really knew the conditions below me and to the east and north.

Second, I do give myself credit for near-full fuel tanks.  Fuel was never a worry – I knew that I had a couple of hours to figure something out if I had to. I give myself good points at telling Approach Control very early on that I had lost my GPS and one radio, and then squawking 7600 as soon as I thought that that might be appropriate.

I give myself pretty good points for aircraft control. (Don't forget about such things as switching fuel tanks, if appropriate.)  I did not have an auto-pilot, of course, but I trimmed the airplane for cruise airspeed and did a pretty good job of maintaining heading and altitude.  I did a good job of cockpit organization.  I had all of the instrument approach plates handy, so switching from the GPS approach to the localizer 36 approach to localizer 18 approach was not a big deal.  And pulling out the handheld GPS was not a big deal. And I give myself plus points for ensuring that I had fresh batteries in the hand-held GPS. 

However, I give myself minus points for my relative unfamiliarity with the hand-held GPS.  I fumbled around with this a lot more than I should have.  And I give myself big minus points for not carrying a hand-held comm radio.  That would have made the entire process easier, because Approach Control would have given me a radar approach to OJC and the entire process would have been a non-issue.

And finally, I have to give myself minus points for continuing after I first had the GPS failure.  Granted, I did not know that I was facing a total electrical failure when the screen first went blank.  But I was still only a mile or so from the Lee's Summit Airport, I was just entering the clouds, and I knew that flying without the GPS and one radio could not be a good thing.  It would have been real easy to pull the power back, descend to downwind altitude, and land.  Then, I could have figured out if I had a problem or not.  I would have needed to call Approach Control and told them what I had done, but that would not have been a big deal.

And what was the cause of all of this angst?  A broken alternator belt.Fly safe



Don't Practice Until You Get It Right - Practice Until You Don't Get It Wrong

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updated August, 2020