A pilot can learn a great deal by stripping his or her flying down to its fundamental roots. Flying an aircraft without an electrical system puts you in touch with the basics of flying by altimeter, whiskey compass, pilotage and pure stick-and-rudder skills. On the mechanical side, it’s a chance to commune with the engine using only the minimum required instruments.
There’s also a certain romance to flying a vintage plane, especially one lacking an electrical system. It harkens back to the barnstorming days when men were real men, women were real women and there was no TSA to verify the difference via pat down. Even in this era of modern instruments, glass panels and gadgets, there’s still room in the skies for a basic plane with minimal systems. Here’s how.
Just Because You Can?
Perhaps it is apocryphal, but there is a story of a recently minted pilot choosing to land in an open field rather than at an available nearby airport because he lost his radio. Although it’s sometimes hard to believe if you listen to the CTAF chatter some sunny Saturday at a non-towered airport, airplanes fly just fine without radios. But just because you can fly without a radio, Nordo, doesn’t mean you should.
Even though my Cub has no electrical system, I typically fly with a handheld radio for use at public airports. I call my position five miles out, call my position in the pattern and I listen for other traffic. Why? Because there’s no good reason not to. I obviously want to know if there are other aircraft in the area and other pilots deserve the courtesy of knowing my position.
The exceptions to making regular calls are when I am heading to a private strip with no CTAF or when I need to conserve battery on a long cross-country trip. Radio silence to preserve limited battery life may seem like an unnecessary extreme, but when traveling from the Northwest U.S. to Oshkosh, Wis., conserving battery power is prudent airmanship. Calling your position at a field that only has coyotes may eliminate your transmitting ability for busier airspace where it offers greater safety benefits.
For example, I tend to neglect making radio calls when visiting a truly remote strip like Cox’s Well Airport in Atomic City, Idaho (U48) or the Greater Green River Intergalactic Space Port (48U) in Green River, Wyo., which may be on a sectional but have infrequent visits. In these situations, I fly what I call “half-Nordo”—lurking on frequency, listening for others with the ability to make a call if the situation (like another plane in the vicinity) warrants. Half-Nordo also allows other interactions with ATC, such as rocking the wings on request.
See And Avoid—For Keeps
Even without a radio, the FARs still apply—not having an electrical system doesn’t confer any special privileges. If anything, the basic rules of see-and-avoid are more crucial than ever, with the Nordo pilot being the one sneaking up on everyone else. Like riding a motorcycle in traffic, the Nordo pilot should fly defensively under the assumption that he has not been seen and that he will be cut off. Nordo pilots also should be extra careful to note the windsock position, even on a calm day, to positively identify the likely landing/departing runway while also being aware that windsocks and radio-reported winds may not agree. One possible result—opposite-direction traffic—can ruin your whole day.
The benefit of half-Nordo ops? You can listen to the weather and sequence yourself behind other traffic announcing its position, thereby avoiding potential conflicts in the pattern. When flying Nordo, you are always better off taking positive control of the situation and actively maintaining visual separation by getting on the “six” of other aircraft. The other pilot may or may not be aware you are behind them, but by remaining there, you are better positioned to keep an eye on them and maintain separation.
The time Nordo pilots need to be most attentive is on final approach or when taking the runway for departure. People fly different patterns with different geometries, so while the airspace above an airport is hazardous, all routes converge at the runway threshold and the resulting probability for collision goes up as you arrive at that point. The laws of physics dictate two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time: When inadvertent superposition is attempted, the results are not so good.
A final note: Vintage personal airplanes, the kind most likely to lack an electrical system, predominantly are high-wing aircraft. Combining high-wing and low-wing aircraft in the same traffic pattern has resulted in the low-wing plane descending onto the high-winger, sight unseen. That’s another way to have a really bad day.
Though not universally true, most aircraft lacking engine-driven electrical systems also lack gyros. In all likelihood, they have the absolute minimum required equipment. My preferred mnemonic for this is A FAT MOOSE: Airspeed indicator; Fuel gauge; Altimeter; Tachometer; Magnetic compass; Oil pressure/Oil temperature; Seat belt and ELT. This is truly bare-bones flying. In my Cub, the fuel gauge consists of a cork with a metal wire that floats higher when full and rests on the cap when empty.
Aircraft lacking electrical systems also tend to be of the low-and-slow, tail-dragger type. This means you will likely be honing or perhaps gaining stick-and-rudder and tailwheel skills you might not otherwise have. You may also lack flaps, so it creates a great opportunity to perfect your technique and comfort with slips.
Low And Slow?
Simple instruments result in a simple scan that leaves you with more time to soak up the scenery. It sounds implausible, but this fact presents its own set of risks. The instruments offer so little data, you may not pay enough attention to them. One common accident scenario is the dreaded moose stall, where you turn slowly around an object of interest on the ground (the moose), forget to watch your airspeed and auger in. If you are truly low, there is little chance of recovering.
One reason moose stalls are common is the difference between stall speed, best climb, best glide and cruise speed tend to cluster around a narrow range of airspeeds in the typical underpowered aircraft lacking an electrical system. The stock Cub stalls at 38 mph or 53 mph in a steep bank. Approach speed is 50-60 mph, best glide is 60-65. and cruise speed is 65 mph. The lack of difference between this suite of numbers is the song of the Sirens luring you into a stall-spin statistic.
Low-and-slow flying has other risks as well. One is the threat of towers, guy wires and hazards to which a GPS displaying and annunciating a warning might alert you. Other obstacles, like meteorological towers used for finding good locations for wind farms are typically built just below the FAA regulatory threshold of 200 feet. They won’t be on a sectional, they may pop up overnight and they don’t need to have lighting.
Lights on towers won’t make too much difference for you, though, because with no electrical, you will need to be on the ground before the end of civil twilight. When planning a long cross-country, this can be a major factor to consider.
Flying with doors and windows open is another temptation. Since this is not the way most of us learned, there are major points to consider. It’s louder, the breeze will make stowing maps and loose paper items imperative, and if you are too high on final and need to enter a slip, the breeze becomes a hurricane. I know from experience, slipping into the open-door side of an aircraft will blow a headset clean off your head, along with your AOPA hat and sunglasses.
It may sound cliché, but there is definitely adjustment needed for those of us who are accustomed to digital data feeds. Unless you have an iPad or some other gadget with you when ATC calls for your location, you simply have to give your best-reckoning position, based on prominent reporting points and good old pilotage.
Know Your Rights
Aircraft not originally certificated with an engine-driven electrical system (and which never have had one installed and certified) are grandfathered to conduct operations without Mode C transponders in more places than you would expect. You may fly above 10,000 feet msl, within a Mode C veil (provided the aircraft remains outside Class A, B or C airspace; and below the altitude of the ceiling of a Class B or Class C airspace area designated for an airport or 10,000 feet msl, whichever is lower.
This ability is embodied in FAR 91.215, which can be a bit confusing. To clarify, the FAA issued an interpretation, sometimes known as the “Knickerbocker letter,” which discusses the regulation’s application to “gliders, sailplanes, and other aircraft that were neither originally certificated with nor subsequently fitted with an engine driven electrical system.” To obtain a copy of this interpretation directly from the FAA Web site in Microsoft Word format, point your browser to tinyurl.com/avsafe-nordo2.
You even can go inside Class B and C airspace, if given permission by ATC. To get that permission, however, FAR 91.215(d)3 states the pilot must make the request at least an hour ahead of the proposed operation. This is particularly true for Class B airspace. I have found controllers quite willing to authorize entry into Class C, on the fly, but you may be given vectors to assure positive radar identification. Since ATC will not have an altitude squawk, you will need to be vigilant at maintaining altitude.
Meanwhile, operations in an ADIZ or security-related airspace such as the D.C. area are governed by people who may lack a sense of humor. While you may be allowed in these areas, you also may want to clarify your understanding of the rules in the specific airspace. In the D.C. SFRA, for example, you may need to arrange a flight with a companion plane carrying a transponder. Whether you are within your rights or not, it is better to clear that up before being intercepted by an F-16, being detained at gunpoint and giving the rest of us an unnecessary black eye.
Ready For This?
Nordo operations—or simply flying a simple airplane far from where things like communications radios, lights and starter motors are needed—is not less safe than flying an “electric” airplane. Nor is it somehow foolhardy or indicate a dangerous attitude. It also may not be something for which you’re prepared: Without an electrical system, you have lots fewer support tools and less flexibility.
But with the right preparation, the right aircraft and a realistic approach to operations without an electrical system, you can be in for some of the most rewarding flying available. Try it sometime.
Mike Hart is an Idaho-based commercial/IFR pilot with 1000 hours, and proud owner of a 1946 Piper J3 Cub and an aerial photography-equipped Cessna 206.