The first time I had a total electrical power failure in an aircraft was at dusk in a tired old Cessna.
Its alternator gave up the ghost, and a few minutes later, the battery signaled its goodbye too.
I had a momentary panic.
The flight was to an unfamiliar, uncontrolled airport, so I radioed that I wanted to land straight-in, downwind. Someone on CTAF asked if I still had power, wouldn’t it be just as easy to follow the traffic on downwind, in the pattern, rather than jeopardize two airplanes by landing the opposite way? I stopped panicking and agreed. I landed without incident.
The second time I had a total power failure I was in a brand new Eclipse microjet, the EA-500. Forty seconds after descending into a thick, wet overcast of clouds in the new aircraft, all of the fancy electronic displays in our glass cockpit sputtered.
Big red Xs covered my primary flight displays, and then all three screens went dark. Instantly we snapped from satellite-era, technologically advanced navigation back to the biplane-era cockpit of the early airmail days. All that was missing were goggles, leather helmets and a cold wind blowing our scarves. Even the backup AHRS went dark.
AHRS, the attitude and heading reference system, consists of sensors on three axes that provide attitude information, including roll, pitch and yaw. The AHRS was designed to replace traditional mechanical gyroscopic flight instruments and to provide superior reliability and accuracy. Except for us, it didn’t. It was battery-powered, and for whatever reason, the battery didn’t kick in at first.
The pilot of a Pilatus PC-12 faced a similar predicament. He wrote in his report to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System: “Aircraft was in heavy rain and light turbulence at the time. A brief period of greater severity turbulence was experienced, at which time the aircraft went totally dark with not a single screen or annunciator illuminated. After briefly checking circuit breakers and attempting to reset power switches, I switched my scan to the standby gyro and altimeter.”
Not only did the Pilatus pilot lose avionics, he also lost both transponder and radio communication. His next move was to convince a passenger to use his cell phone to contact a company pilot.
Contact made, he instructed that pilot to call Approach. Then he turned westerly and headed out over the ocean, hoping to gain some visibility and lose some of the turbulence.
In our Eclipse, the backup battery engaged after several seconds — which seemed like days — and we regained our standby AHRS Comm 1, and captain’s transponder. I knew KBDL was below and just behind us, so I declared an emergency and asked for immediate vectors to any available runway. We were assigned a Precision Approach Radar approach and vectored around and down.
Our approach was cake compared with the Pilatus driver, who wrote: “The aircraft was extremely difficult to control in the turbulence solely on the standby gyro, and large altitude deviations were encountered.”
During one such deviation, the pilot spotted not only the ground, but also a highway. He decided to orbit the highway to obtain better situational awareness. From that position, he spotted parallel runways, and fearing further loss of visibility, he aimed for one.
Nearing short final, he and his co-pilot saw a plane also aiming for the same runway. The pilot performed a “side step” maneuver to the other runway. The aircraft landed hard and all power was restored.
In our case, we broke out of the clouds and rain at about 300 feet MSL. After landing, on the rollout the power came back, and our displays came back to life.
Mechanics for the Pilatus determined that the guarded master power switch must have failed internally. The switch is intended for use in the event of a water ditching or a gear up landing. The mechanics surmised that turbulence must have caused the switch’s contacts to open unannounced. That dropped all power from the airplane. They concluded that the firm landing closed the open contacts, restoring power to the airplane.
Our mechanics could neither repeat our scenario nor fix it. Ultimately, they blamed the static wicks for failing to dissipate the buildup of static electricity on the airframe. This caused a power surge and blew out our electrical systems. The mechanics suggested that the landing and rollout discharged the static electricity, allowing the systems to recover.
We were fortunate that one of our communication radios came back online. Our cell phones were tucked away in our flight bags behind the last seat row. Honestly, it didn’t even occur to me to consider using them. That was quick thinking by the Pilatus pilot, and it no doubt helped ATC understand the situation.
A Cessna 310 pilot cleverly used his cell phone during a total loss of electrical power inflight. He was at cruise at 5,500 feet when he lost his instruments, his transponder, his lights, flaps and landing gear controllers.
“I texted my son and gave him the phone number to the KHUM tower. I instructed him to call the tower and tell them I was NORDO and no electrical.”
He also texted his son to give the tower an estimated time of arrival and to tell them he would need light gun support for landing clearance. The pilot was able to communicate all that because he’d memorized the phone number for the tower!
In range of KHUM, he manually lowered the landing gear. Then he called the tower on his cell phone and requested a landing clearance. It was granted, as well as clearance to taxi to the ramp.
The pilot of a Beechcraft BE 36 Bonanza mysteriously lost all electrical power as he rose above approximately 5,000 feet MSL.
“My last clearance from Approach was a 360 heading and climb to 8,000 feet. The aircraft is equipped with a glass panel, which left me only standby attitude and airspeed indicators and an altimeter.”
Meteorological considerations included marginal VFR, a line of thunderstorms just north of the intended course and a congested airspace rife with military activity.
The pilot decided that given the weather conditions at the time of takeoff, returning to his departure airport was not an option. His route brief had been for marginal VFR, so he also ruled out continuing to his destination. He would have to divert to a suitable alternate airport.
He checked the circuit breakers and cycled the master switch several times. Those actions brought some electrical power back. He declared an emergency and with ATC’s help got vectored to a nearby airport for an uneventful landing.
“From my perspective,” he wrote in his NASA report, “my biggest takeaway from this event is I need to carry my handheld radio on every flight. The airplane was safely flyable. My biggest stress came from not being able to communicate with ATC in airspace I assumed to be congested and weather conditions that were less than ideal.”
He also credited his iPad. “With a broken-to-overcast layer below us, I was able to maintain a reasonable amount of situational awareness thanks to the navigation app and the internal GPS.”
“I was under foggles with a safety pilot and conducting practice approaches,” wrote another NASA reporter. “Was inbound on practice RNAV (GPS) 14 approach when we lost GPS and Comm 1 radio when lowering gear. Raised landing gear and conducted missed approach. Just outside the final approach fix, lost all electrical power, GPS and both comm radios.”
The pilots squawked 7600 for “lost communication.” In the climbing westerly turn to 2,000 feet, they lost their transponder, too.
One of the pilots had a handheld radio in his flight bag, in the back of the airplane. He spent a good amount of time fighting with his seatbelt, and then crawling over seats to retrieve it.
Using the handheld, the pilots were able to communicate their situation and return to their departure airport. After manual gear extension, and a flyby at their home airport to confirm gear down, the two landed safely.
These NASA reports prove how useful mobile devices can be in emergency situations — plus an iPad, coupled with other available aviation-related devices, can nearly replicate an instrument panel.
A fully charged smartphone can significantly increase communications range while also providing GPS-based situational awareness. Most of the continental U.S. now has sufficient cell phone coverage to make mobile phones a reliable aviation tool.
The Airport Facility Directory contains both airport and weather station phone numbers. It’s available in hard copy or in electronic PDF format. Perhaps we could persuade the companies publishing sectionals to add phone numbers to them.
In my Civil Air Patrol squadron, we used to require cadets training for Search and Rescue missions to learn how to light a fire with flint. Two years ago a cadet asked why she couldn’t just pack a lighter in her kit. Now that’s the standard.
For electrical failure backups, let’s make smartphones and iPads the standard.