I learned a lot about flying today. You can probably guess that’s a nice way of saying things didn’t go as planned.
The weather was beautiful. There was gas in the tanks. I was alert and sharp and had a great briefing and filed my flight plan all the way to New Orleans. Our departure was smooth, and within ten minutes of taking off we were at 4,500 feet, skimming along cloud tops at well over two miles per minute. The 60-degree outside air felt great coming through the vents. Before I knew it, we were over Gulfport, MS, catching glimpses of the coastline below us as the morning sun shimmered on the water and puffy clouds.
But then something else started shimmering. In illuminated red letters, the word “VOLTS” began flickering on the instrument panel. This is the equivalent of a red flashing battery symbol on a car dashboard, and meant there wasn’t enough electrical power in the airplane to go around. At first it flashed only sporadically, but within a few minutes it was flickering pretty regularly. Rocky, my helpful ghost, informed me that it was my decision what to do because he wasn’t even supposed to be there on this flight. I really wanted to see New Orleans today, but I realized the safe thing to do was to turn around and head home. By the time we were established on our return course, the VOLTS warning was glowing steadily.
Airplane engines have magnetos for ignition, and therefore don’t depend on a battery and alternator like a car does just to stay running. The engine would have kept running even if the battery died, but we would have lost our radios. There are procedures for landing at an airport if your radios are dead, and Rocky verified I knew them. To conserve battery power, we shut down one of our radios and some navigation equipment we weren’t using. Closer to the airport, we shut down the GPS so all we had on was one radio and our transponder.
We landed and parked without a hitch. A timely decision to turn around prevented an annoying problem from becoming an emergency. However, I came up short on my required flight time to graduate IFS.
Fortunately, there was another airplane available, so Rocky and I went back out and did some landing practice at St. Elmo. I got a chance to actually see someone in the traffic pattern without a radio- there was an ultralight aircraft flying around. The second flight was a blast because the clouds had blown out and visibility was the highest I’d ever seen. It was a beautiful spring day in Alabama, and I made a few good landings before we came back home.
It’ll probably be about 3 months before I get to fly an airplane again. That’s kind of a bummer, but I’ll always remember the good lessons I’ve learned so far. I think Rocky’s parting advice holds true for a lot of things: “Fly the airplane until the last piece hits the ground.” I guess sometimes we have to just hold on and follow through.
The next few weeks’ entries here won’t be filled with tales of aerial derring-do, but there will no doubt be interesting developments in the story of this naval aviator that even I can not yet imagine, so stay tuned, folks.