Real versus simulated emergency

 

 

I had an intermittent ALT 1 failure in IMC this morning during an Angel Flight with two passengers from Westchester (HPN) to Boston Logan (BOS). I ultimately declared an emergency and returned to HPN. In the 25 minutes it took to diagnose the problem, decide what to do about it, and then execute an instrument approach in low IFR conditions, I couldnít help but realize the stark contrast between a real emergency in IMC and the simulated emergency situations that we all practice in training. I thought it would be helpful to share this experience with the COPA membership and gain other pilotsí viewpoints and critique on what happened.

Several minutes after takeoff the plane was climbing smoothly at 1,000 fpm to cruise altitude (7,000 feet); as I scanned the right side of the panel and toggled the ammeter switch I couldnít help but notice that ALT 1 was not producing any power, that the battery was draining, and that ALT 2 was not generating any power either. But when I looked back to the left side of the panel I was surprised to see that the ALT 1 annunciator light was not on. I continued the climb (the weather was solid IMC) and was busy dealing with ATC, when a minute or two later I saw the ALT 1 annunciator light go on.

My first reaction was to advise ATC that I needed to return to HPN, so the controller instructed me to reverse course, descend to 2,000 feet, plan for the ILS 16 approach and confirm that I had the new ATIS. I had not told the controller why I needed to return, nor was there any mention of an emergency. A moment later the controller repeated the request that I check the new ATIS and advise him when I got it, or he could read it for me to copy. I was already plenty busy starting the descent, turning and selecting an ILS approach for HPN on the Garmin (which was determined to offer up only approaches at BOS), so quite frankly ATCís interest in the latest ATIS was just not a priority for me. In fact, I was beginning to feel some pressure from the situation, so I told the controller that I unable to copy the ATIS just yet and besides, I had just taken off from HPN ten minutes before and knew that the conditions were quite poor (i.e., 1 mile visibility and 400 foot indefinite ceiling).

As I pulled the power lever back below the detent for the descent, I saw that this caused the ALT 1 annunciator light to go off; the ammeter now showed that ALT 1 was generating power and the battery was not draining. This is quite odd, I thought. Was this a real alternator failure or an instrumentation problem? The Emax page had showed steady power and engine gauge readings, while the analog gauges were now jumping around and the ammeter had a hard time deciding whether ALT 1 was generating power or not. The annunciator panel showed the ALT 1 light on sometimes, then off. There was no consistency among the various instruments. I was caught in a bit of a quandary: I didnít want to cancel an Angel Flight based on instrumentation anomalies, but on the other hand I certainly couldnít continue a flight on a low IFR day with an intermittent alternator and an uncertain battery situation. (Note from the comfort of my armchair: before the static issue was solved, I routinely had instrumentation anomalies of all sorts, and learned to discount them and invariably continue flying).

I advised ATC to cancel my request to return to HPN; I was quickly back at 7,000 feet and on course to BOS. With the benefit of a huge tailwind, I was only 38 minutes away, so I thought that it might be reasonable to continue the flight. A few minutes after the plane settled into cruising speed, I was now with Hartford Approach Control and soon afterward the ALT 1 annunciator light went back on; this time the Emax and analog gauges were all in agreement that the alternator was not, in fact, generating any power. I pulled back the power lever to 2,000 rpm, and lo and behold the alternator came back alive. As I tweaked the power back up, the alternator failed again. I now had enough information to be confident that I had an intermittent alternator at best, and could not complete the flight to BOS. I told my passengers that we needed to turn back.

I then advised ATC that I had an alternator problem and needed to return to HPN. ATC gave me a new clearance, first to the south direct to Bridgeport, then west to RYMES intersection, then vectors for the ILS 16 approach. I programmed this into the Garmin and began heading back toward HPN. I was now flying at reduced power (120 KIAS rather than 160 KIAS), in order to ensure that the alternator would continue generating power. After a few minutes, however, the intermittent failures began again, and once again the Emax and analog gauges started to disagree with one another as to what was really happening.

At this point I considered the possibility that perhaps the alternator had actually failed long ago, at the start of the flight, and that soon the battery would soon be drained of all power. I didnít like the thought of flying in heavy IMC without the MFD, flaps or the second Garmin, so I decided not to turn off ALT 1 and BAT 1 before it was absolutely necessary. But I was now leery of how much longer I would have full instrumentation. Plus, the route I was now flying (especially at slow speed) was at least ten minutes longer than going direct to the outer marker. In the intensity of that moment I also jumbled up the different power shedding features of the plane, and reached the incorrect conclusion that if ALT 1 and BAT 1 failed I would not be able to do an ILS approach. (Note from the comfort of my armchair: this would only happen if the PFD failed; contrary to what I thought at the time, even ALT 2 or BAT 2 would power the PFD and give me ILS capability). The prospect of having to do a GPS approach was totally unappealing, since the entire northeast was at low IFR, probably at or below the minimums for every GPS approach within two hoursí flying distance.

I advised ATC that I had an emergency and needed to go directly to the ILS approach course, rather than the usual, roundabout routing past Bridgeport and RYMES. ATC quickly complied with this request and instructed other traffic to slow down so that I would not have to get in line behind them for the approach.

While I did not feel physically nervous or full of adrenaline once I declared an emergency and completed the approach, in retrospect my brain was numb to the fact that I was at the edge of being overwhelmed by the number of tasks at hand. In particular, thinking about the contingency of switching to ALT 2 and losing various avionics components, while also thinking about the possibility of a missed approach and then a GPS approach into somewhere, while at the same time executing the assigned ILS approach in low IFR and dealing with a shifting 40 knot crosswind at 2,000 feet, led me to make two very serious mistakes: I flipped the VOR frequency switch twice on the Garmin, so I was not tuned into anything as I was being vectored to final; and because of the unpredictable winds ATC turned me too late for the localizer and issued new vectors, which led me to neglect to properly engage the autopilot in time. Thus I managed to fly through the localizer twice. I corrected each error within a few seconds, but it was quite amazing to see, in the real time of a pressured emergency situation in IMC, how quickly things might get out of hand.

We broke out at 400 feet and less than a mile, and landed uneventfully in a stiff crosswind. My passengers were quickly able to reschedule the doctor appointment, and I called the SC to arrange for a new alternator. As I drove home in the pouring rain and replayed the events of this flight, I was not entirely pleased with the decisions (and mistakes) that I made at various points. But given all the circumstances, I think it is inevitable that poor decisions and silly mistakes will happen. I was just amazed at how much messier things can get under actual conditions than in training.

 

Sounds like the Lancair has a very comprehensive and rugged electrical system. But still no parachute or great headroom (or a positive recommendation from Scott P.), so I'll keep my Cirrus. On the other hand, as you point out, having the ability to isolate the bad alternator and use the second alternator's huge capacity to feed both systems would certainly have been nice.

Your observations on task saturation are right on point: in fact, the more I think about today, that's really the ultimate lesson from this experience. Its amazing how insidious and intense it became, and without generating any nervousness, panic or, in fact, realization that that's what I was in the midst of. Perhaps hours of training in a simulator for a corporate or commercial jet can prepare pilots more thoroughly for that kind of scenario. Certainly having a co-pilot would provide immeasurable help: one can fly and communicate with ATC, while the other can think and troubleshoot and double check frequencies, get ATIS, twirl dials on the Garmin.

In retrospect its clear that what kept me from getting overloaded by the saturation of events, tasks and potential problems was sticking to a pre-determined routine for carrying out the immediate task of flying an instrument approach in LIFR. I decided early on (for better or worse) that I wanted to get back to HPN, because I know that "neighborhood" better than any other airport; and that I'd fly a coupled approach. Briefing the approach took no time because I fly the ILS 16 at HPN so often, but I still circled all the key data and wrote them down on a post-it (my usual routine): e.g., inbound heading, decision height and a reminder to ID the frequency. The reason I was able to quickly catch my serious mistakes was because I went to ID the frequency and nothing happened. Rather than assume anything, I double checked the approach plate and instantly realized that I had pushed the button twice, thereby erroneously putting the good frequency into the backup position. Same thing with the autopilot: as soon as it was time to intercept the localizer, I checked what the HSI was doing versus the published course heading: lo and behold I was still on HDG mode and had not properly armed the autopilot for a coupled approach. So sticking to a routine and rigid adherence to those practices ultimately enabled me to push away some of the task saturation which was quickly getting me into potentially big trouble.