Low amps... no amps
We had just lifted off from Annemasse in the Alps, enjoying our new Bose headsets and their strange sound-deadening experience (which does takes a little getting used to) when there was a roar of noise and I found I couldn’t hear properly. It took a second or two for my brain to process what had happened. The batteries supplied with one of the new headsets had died prematurely and we had no spares. We took one battery out of my wife’s headset, transferred it to mine and hoped we would survive as far as the North of England before they both packed up.
The mountains slipped by serenely, we changed frequency and said goodbye to Geneva then went on to Bâle (Basle) Information. We were just beginning to relax after the mini headset crisis when I noticed the ammeter begin to do things it had never done before. It’s surprising how you just know where all the needles should sit after years and years of flying, and how a simple needle gets your full attention when it doesn’t sit where it’s supposed to.
Sure enough, the low voltage light began to flash as the ammeter needle sulked off to zero, finally shining steady and bright. Mmm — now what…? We are miles from home and, Houston; we have a problem.
We landed as planned at Troyes for fuel, which proved fine — but the ammeter still refused to budge. My son had recently bought me a Garmin Glo device which I had never used, but for some reason we had brought it along this time, as well as an ipad with Skydemon — and both devices were fully charged. We had a handheld radio so if, and when the 430s went off and the radios packed up we should be fine.
We considered the options with French engineers and — due to wrong, or out-ofstock parts and other problems — decided the best option was to fill up and depart for Blighty, but with that feeling of foreboding: all was not perfect as it should be. Also the TAFS north of 50N looked grim, with cloud and rain. Ah bliss; the joys of aviation.
Would it start? Yes; we just managed to catch the Lycoming and we were off. In the climb we switched off the DME, strobes, ADF and box two — the lot — and cruised along with one nav box and one radio. Looking great, I thought. I wonder how long the battery will hold out? I didn’t have to wonder much longer. Just as we called London, the last remaining radio and nav box went black. Aha; squawk 7600, I thought. However, I quickly realised that, with no battery power, this would be a waste of time — but I did it anyway.
We entered the weather just south of Southend at the point we needed clearance to cross their D airspace, and had no means of knowing our precise position relative to it. At this point my wife switched on the ipad/skydemon, and the Garmin Glo. Wow! I couldn’t believe it: we had the lot — full, moving chart ground speed — the works in full colour, so at least we knew precisely where we were. We changed tanks after dutifully switching on the electrical fuel boost pump, although I knew in my heart it probably wasn’t working. Fortunately there was no issue with the tank change.
We tried and tried with the handheld but realised to our horror it had a transmission range of about five feet. Somehow, using the speechless code, we were given clearance through, and were able to answer ‘no’ to “Do you want to declare an emergency?” I knew the aircraft would perform normally and I knew to disregard the turn co-ordinator, as that instrument is electrically driven.
We had good navigation information for now, with about ninety minutes flying time to go and plenty of fuel. At this point in the rain and murk I saw both fuel gauges sink to empty. I knew they were electrically powered but it really is quite disturbing when both gauges are showing empty in IMC. Elapsed time, though, told us we had plenty of fuel. It was strange, as both ANR headsets were working and my wife and I could still talk to each other — so swapping over that battery above Geneva seemed to have worked a treat… Then the intercom packed up and we were reduced to hand signals. I kept thinking we have more than sufficient fuel, a good engine and a pair of wings and, fortunately, a calm wife!
My next concern was talking to my home airport to obtain landing information. I tried using the handheld for various ATIS transmissions from airports close by, but no use. We were still in IMC and I dug out my mobile phone and tried descending to our pre-calculated MDA to see if I could get a signal and call the airport, but after three attempts binned that idea as a no-go.
Eventually, as we were almost on top of our airport, the handheld crackled out the runway in use and I thought I heard a call for all aircraft to remain on the ground and no circuit traffic. Crikey, I thought, is that for us? They must know that we are here and have a total electrical failure.
I was concerned we couldn’t use the electrical fuel boost pump on landing but that quickly evaporated when the tyres kissed the wet tarmac. We taxied in and climbed out stiff and tired. Our home Tower said D& D were following us all the way and had been keeping them updated. Southend were superb and had called to inform of our situation. We never deviated from our track and the suction powered instruments worked perfectly.
What did I learn from that? Plan the flight meticulously and back-up your backup because you never know what might happen. Good, sound and clear knowledge is calming and a life saver, and you have never finished learning with aviation. Oh; and a solid IMC rating is worth its weight in gold.
Just as we called London, the last remaining radio and nav box went black