ILAFFT

Fire­works, Flash­lights and Fire­flies

Flying - - Contents - By Kyle John­son

A dark land­ing af­ter los­ing power

With the early morn­ing sun just be­gin­ning to brighten the sky, my 1966 Piper Cherokee climbed from Meri­den Markham Air­port’s (KMMK) Run­way 18. The con­di­tions in Meri­den, Con­necti­cut, were clear, with calm winds — a per­fect day for fly­ing. Armed with a Spe­cial Flight Rules Area VFR flight plan, I turned to­ward my des­ti­na­tion, Tip­ton Air­port (KFME), ad­ja­cent to Fort Meade, Mary­land, and 7 nm south of Bal­ti­more/wash­ing­ton’s Thur­good Mar­shall Air­port (KBWI).

On July 3, the Trump Na­tional Golf Club hosted Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, with his ac­com­pa­ny­ing 30 nm pres­i­den­tial TFR. It was a hur­dle in my path, but not enough of one to de­ter me from reach­ing my fam­ily for a re­union and trip to the Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Zoo. Af­ter all, I bought the PA-28-140/160 for time build­ing, so ground trans­porta­tion was not an op­tion on a per­fect VFR day.

It was an un­event­ful flight down, and a fun day at the zoo. How­ever, I had to get back to Con­necti­cut for work the next morn­ing. At twi­light, I pre­pared for depar­ture from Tip­ton. I had full fuel, a fully charged ipad with Fore­flight, and a fresh SFRA squawk code punched into my transpon­der. Hold­ing short of Run­way 28, I did my run-up and mon­i­tored the CTAF. With a lo­cal news he­li­copter just en­ter­ing a left down­wind, I an­nounced

I would be tak­ing the run­way and de­part­ing to the north. The he­li­copter pi­lot replied he had me in sight and wished me a nice flight.

With take­off power ap­plied and en­gine in­stru­ments in the green, I re­leased the brakes. In short or­der, I was air­borne. The night was stun­ning. In ad­di­tion to the nor­mal sea of shift­ing lights on the ground, there were at least half a dozen fire­works dis­plays in sight. I’m em­bar­rassed to ad­mit that I am not sure ex­actly when the gen­er­a­tor cir­cuit breaker popped, but my first in­di­ca­tion that I had lost elec­tri­cal power was the sud­den in­abil­ity of the Po­tomac Depar­ture con­troller to hear my ra­dio calls.

I pushed the gen­er­a­tor cir­cuit breaker back in, to no avail. I even tried re­set­ting the field cir­cuit breaker, but the am­me­ter stayed at null. In an at­tempt to ex­tend my bat­tery life, I shut off the lights, elec­tric fuel pump and num­ber-two ra­dio. Still inside the DC SFRA, I elected to mon­i­tor the as­signed fre­quency and keep the transpon­der broad­cast­ing. Just short of the SFRA’S bound­ary, I con­tin­ued north­west to­ward the near­est pub­lic-use air­port, Clearview Air­park (2W2).

Watch­ing the num­bers fade from my ra­dio dis­play, I sud­denly felt ter­ror. How would I ac­ti­vate the air­port’s run­way lights and bea­con? The an­swer: I wouldn’t. At 1,000 feet agl, with fire­works go­ing off in the dis­tance, a flash­light in my mouth and Fore­flight faith­fully dis­play­ing my po­si­tion on my knee, I be­gan cir­cling, search­ing a seem­ingly end­less swarm of fire­flies for a 2,500-by-30-foot piece of dark as­phalt.

If I didn’t see it, I planned to con­tinue north 8 nm to Car­roll County Re­gional (KDMW), which at least had a bea­con and a run­way twice as long. But with a mal­func­tion­ing plane, I wanted to get on the ground as soon as pos­si­ble. When I saw six steady green lights I im­me­di­ately lined up on them for a low ap­proach, but I stayed at 300 feet agl and over­flew the dark field, get­ting my bear­ings and hop­ing that some­one was home to switch on the lights.

So, there I was, fly­ing a makeshift pat­tern in what es­sen­tially amounted to in­stru­ment con­di­tions, pre­par­ing to put down on a short, nar­row run­way that looked very sim­i­lar to a black hole. Not know­ing ex­actly where the tree­tops were, I came in high, wait­ing un­til I was di­rectly above the run­way end lights to drop in. With less than 1,000 feet of as­phalt re­main­ing, I touched down and ap­plied max­i­mum brak­ing.

I shut down right there on the run­way and quickly called Po­tomac Ap­proach on my cell­phone to re­lay my tale. The con­troller ver­i­fied my tail num­ber and said, “Thanks for let­ting us know. Have a good night.” The lack of in­ter­est from the con­troller, I be­lieve, con­firms my choice to leave the SFRA rather than make an un­ex­pected turn back to­ward the Flight Re­stricted Zone. It seems ironic that af­ter 9/11, New York City felt its Class B airspace was ad­e­quate pro­tec­tion but Wash­ing­ton, D.C., adopted the bur­den­some SFRA.

What did I learn? I keep a hand­held ra­dio and spare bat­ter­ies in my flight bag now. So, next time, I will at least land with the lights on.

Watch­ing the num­bers fade from my ra­dio dis­play, I sud­denly felt ter­ror. How would I ac­ti­vate the air­port’s run­way lights and bea­con? The an­swer: I wouldn’t.

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