Lights-Out Landing

Story of a Night Alternator Failure

pilotAllow me to share a flight with you … then we’ll learn from it. A Navion pilot, Jon, and his wife decided to take another couple on a 45-minute flight for dinner. It was just getting dark as they departed. The trip was uneventful and the passengers were enjoying the time together … the pilot, who has opted for the extra eyes and ears of flight following, hears Center talking with another pilot … the destination has just gone IFR. Ready for that, Jon studied the chart for the most likely approach and, calling Center, obtained an IFR clearance and initial vectors.
The descent is beginning and Jon is focused but, from the corner of his eye, sees the JPI EDM-700 flashing an alarm. With some quick analysis, it is clear that the alternator is no longer supplying “juice” to the electrical system. From here on, we’re on battery power.
Sizing up the situation, Jon’s options appear to be: (a) continue the descent into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) and land at the destination airport away from home or (b) turn back, stay in VFR conditions, and return to the home field with known mechanics. It’s an easy decision for Jon; he calls Center, informing the controller that he’s experienced an alternator failure and would like to cancel and return to base.
Center quickly allows the IFR cancellation and asks if Jon needs any ATC help. Fortunately, this is not Jon’s first alternator failure and he is able to predict what will happen and what type of help would be best. He advises ATC that he is likely to lose communications, will probably lose his transponder, and lights; he says that no immediate help is needed other than to call ahead so that Approach and Tower are expecting him to return in this state. Center makes the calls in the background while Jon is setting “Plan B” in motion.
To conserve precious battery power, Jon shuts off one radio, leaving only COM1 running. He kills the strobes but leaves the position lights on in the clear night air. While he’s shutting down the non-essential equipment and stretching his power, he’s shifting more focus to the “backup” systems. The Garmin 196 was receiving casual attention (for situational awareness); it suddenly takes on increased importance and Jon notices almost too much focus going to the handheld GPS. He always flies with a handheld radio packed in his flight bag … and he makes sure it is accessible in flight. If there is a need for it, everyone knows where to find it … in the dark … with no extra confusion.
I talked with Jon about 18 months before this alternator failure. I mentioned to him that one’s handheld radio could be connected to the aircraft antenna system to increase the effective range substantially. Jon had the simple modification performed so, on this night, he connected his handheld radio into the aircraft’s antenna system through that jack. He turned the handheld radio on … and … NOTHING! That’s right, it had not been used in quite some time and the batteries were dead. Fortunately, Jon carries an abundance of flashlights along on night flights and he carries many items that use AA batteries (and he always carries a few spare batteries). His passengers were a big help, stealing some batteries from spare flashlights to get the handheld radio up and running. Success! (it would have been an even better success if he maintained his handheld radio in the same manner that we should maintain our home fire / smoke alarm systems … by periodically installing new batteries).
Center passed him along to Approach. Checking in with Approach, Jon informs the controller that he is now on a handheld radio and no lights are operational … virtually all of his ship’s power is consumed. He confirms the destination and is soon passed off to Tower. It’s a relatively quiet night at the Class D field and the Tower cannot see the aircraft (neither visually or on radar) so Jon’s position reports (based upon both visual awareness and the Garmin 196) take on added importance.
He enters the downwind and wonders, “Will the three green lights illuminate when I drop the gear?” Moments later, he smiles when they do! He’s glad that the flaps and gear run off of the airplane’s hydraulic system as he turns to land. The landing is absolutely uneventful and he rolls off the runway and pauses to perform the few items remaining on his after-landing checklist. It’s slow at the airport so the Tower allows Jon to taxi in on their frequency and advises Jon that the Airport Operations vehicle visible ahead will follow him down the taxiways to provide light. As he parks, he’s happy that the whole event was … well … fairly un-eventful … and he knows it is largely because of measures and preparations he took after his first alternator failure.
Pondering the Lessons
I suppose every person who earns a Private Pilot certificate has heard about planning for managing emergencies such as an alternator or generator failure … even practiced the drill in flight. It is possible, though, to complete a training syllabus without really thinking about all of the ramifications … knowing that, at the end of the drill, you can just recover and return to an alternator- or generator-working state. It would do us well to really think about the potential implications of losing this important source of electrical power:
- when the electricity-creating function is gone, we’re using battery power … we should have some idea of how long our airplane will operate using battery only
- … and that will, of course, depend upon how much equipment we have ON and consuming power; we must think, “What will be essential in various conditions?”
- if we lose the ability to transmit, we won’t be able to activate pilot-controlled lighting. Our landing lights don’t work. What if the nearest airport is a remote unattended field in a dark area surrounded by challenging terrain?
- electric landing gear and flaps may have to be operated manually.
Prepare for It!
You may think, “It’ll never happen to me.” That’s what many pilots thought … before it happened to them. If you think through the possibilities of such an experience before you have one (and better yet, practice working through such a scenario) you will be more at ease and better equipped to handle the situation. You may even find that your airplane, habits, or flight bag need some modifications to support you. Prepare by remembering these three priorities (in order): Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.
Know the minimum electrical equipment needed to safely land, and how to ensure that equipment will be working when needed. Assume the worst case of nighttime instrument conditions and a complete electrical failure. Use this scenario to determine your last line of defense.
1. Recommended Necessities
- An air operated attitude indicator or an electric gyro with its own battery power.
- A battery operated GPS, probably a handheld. Some models have a flight instrument page and instrument final approach courses that would be valuable in an emergency.
- When your lights and transponder go out, all ATC (from Centers right on down to Towers) can’t “see” you (except for a weak skin-paint, maybe). If you can reliably report your position to them, that’s worth a lot!
- A battery operated transceiver with an external antenna connection
- Carry a handheld radio and know how to communicate on it (in the dark while your eyes are outside or on the panel)
How else are you going to communicate? Your handheld radio has limited range … so build in a system to connect it to your airplane’s antenna system! You might increase your range from 5 miles to 25 miles or more. If you do have one, have you ever tried using it? Do you know where the little button is that makes the handheld radio panel stay lighted? Do you know how to key in frequencies?
Jon’s example: “My radio works best when holding it in the right hand, but my cockpit is right-hand-busy (need right hand for everything from landing gear to mixture to prop to throttle to cowl flaps).” So … can you work that radio with your left hand? Have you ever done a radio check with your handheld radio in real or near-real conditions? Tested its range? After Jon had his antenna adapter installed, he tested it with a call or two to Ground Control. They were happy to help with the radio check.
2. Other Essentials
- Get an adapter that allows you to hook your headset up to your handheld radio. In a noisy cockpit, a handheld is almost useless without it.
- Keep fresh batteries in a place you can reach with your hand and where you can locate them in the dark without thinking and fumbling around. Have you ever thought about this in a darkened cockpit, bouncing around at night in IMC? Your handheld radio, with weak or dead batteries isn’t much use. Keep it alive.
- Keep a flashlight or two (or four or six!) handy. A reliable battery operated light (especially one that can operate hands-free) is worth its weight in gold. If you fail to have enough spare batteries, and you have an abundance of flashlights, you can always steal from the flashlights!
3. Early Warning … Recognition
Recognize when it happens : How will you know you’re losing (or have lost) the alternator / generator?
- A voltmeter or ammeter drop will signal trouble, but you’ve got to be in the habit of looking at them frequently.
- Install an annunciator light or audible signal for an alert.
- If you have an engine monitor installed, such as a JPI EDM-700, make sure it is programmed to alarm properly and trust it when you see an alarm flashing
4. Execution
Turn off electricity consuming items. If you notice the power loss immediately and have a charged battery, you may have 30 minutes or more of normal electrical operation before you have to resort to your last line of defense. This battery time will be maximized by using only the minimum equipment needed. (Each pilot needs to determine this for the Navion he / she flies.) What’s your strategy? Do you turn it all off promptly and save some radios / landing lights for the landing, or do you use it as long as you can and land in the dark? Have you ever tried to taxi without landing / taxi lights? In Jon’s case, the Airport Operations vehicle came out and got behind him, allowing him to share the vehicle’s headlights. It wasn’t critical (the taxiways were well-lighted) but it added a margin of safety.
A written checklist is helpful along with practicing using your battery operated backups.
- Check your green landing gear indicator lights. Will your three green landing gear indicator lights work when you’re out of power? If not, what will you do about that? (Jon’s experience was that they still worked even when most of the other equipment didn’t … but do you have a backup plan?)
- Declare an emergency. It will get you priority for landing which could be important.
The risk of alternator / generator loss can be managed by planning what to do and practicing it before it happens.
Join the Dialogue
Poll: Experienced Alternator Failure? In our Forums, members can find this post in the Flying the Navion forum.See how many others have experienced alternator or generator failures and whether the outcome was “relatively minor and manageable” or “very serious and challenging.” We’d also like to ask that members engage in related dialogue by replying to that post. What have you learned that others might benefit from? What tips would you add?
If you have any other tips or tricks, please let us know. Take a moment to complete our three-question poll, “Poll: Experienced Alternator Failure?” You can then view the poll results and other related posts.

photo credit: williamcho via photopin cc