My little Cessna 140 had just gotten out of a four-month top-end overhaul and it was time to stretch its legs, with a 786-sm flight to Des Moines, Iowa, my hometown. It would replicate my late Dad’s flight in the opposite direction with a few more fuel stops.
After watching the weather for 10 days, I launched. Being conservative, I scheduled 2.5-hour legs with an overnight stop, dividing eight hours of flying into two days. Uneventfully, I arrived at my destination the following day.
After a few days in Iowa, I started watching the weather again, launching on a Friday. Climbing out, I was headed high (for my 140!) to 8000 feet for following winds. Things were going too well to believe when I noticed the red flag on my turn and bank indicator. That was kind of strange but I plowed forward. The handheld GPS was working fine, no worries. Then the radio failed with a low, gulping sound in the headset. Ruh, roh!
As I’m contemplating my navel and the regs and my route, the transponder folds. Next, my GPS warned of a power loss and politely asked if I wanted it to stay on. (Yes!) All the electrical equipment I had left was the panel clock, which died three hours later.
I landed at Walnut Ridge, Ark. A kindly mechanic looked at the generator fuse and fetched another, all to no avail. Sunset at home was at 6:21 local, so I had to move through my fuel stop with determination to avoid night flying. I phoned the tower at my destination to inform them that I may be arriving Nordo shortly before quitting time.
Of course, the battery was dead, so hand-propping was the only way home. I tied it down good and it started with a roar, pulling on the ropes. I hopped aboard, took off and climbed to altitude, and then powered up the GPS—immediately eying its sagging battery indicator. I leveled off at 8000, established full cruise speed and noted the wind correction angle needed to track the magenta line. I then switched the GPS off, flying the 3.5-hour leg via pilotage, arriving uneventfully at my destination with 15 minutes of civil daylight left, five minutes after the tower closed. They had switched on the beacon.
Lessons learned: Drink plenty of water and take something substantial to eat for long cross-country flights. My strict water rationing to avoid bathroom breaks on the way up caused headaches and dehydration.
The pressure was on in Walnut Ridge—I was running out of daylight and still fighting the disorientation of having lost the aircraft’s electrical system. Although I tried to pace myself, this half hour of refueling, troubleshooting and hand-propping was at the limit of safety.
Carry current charts! These wound up getting me home and the hours of flight planning were of some comfort after all else failed, even with the onset of twilight.
Planning the flight introduced me to new resources, but there is no substitute for a 20-year veteran at Leidos giving contextual judgments about weather along your route.
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It’s too bad experience stories like this are not accompanied by some good old fashioned scolding by veterans like McSpadden. I don’t know what he would say but I say “foolish”, not “wow, good one”. An 800 mile XC after major work?? In (forgive me) an ancient tin can? And then how hard would it have been to get an accurate diagnosis and curative wrenching the next day? $99 at the Motel6 … you had to get it fixed anyway. You obviously didn’t take the old advice “ imagine how the accident report would read”… this story leaves inexperienced pilots with too many ideas for bad options.
No mention of charging the battery at each stop, or taking an extra day at a mechanic equipped stop for more extensive help. At least then if they couldn’t fix it, you can start the engine normally. Then still leave the electrical system off in flight – use dead reckoning hops A/P to A/P. Then you will have your radio and GPS for a short time if you need it, or if worse problems occur, and you have to declare an emergency, or worst of all, land off airport. From my experience over a short period of 20 years, the ground check and first flight after major work is problematic at best – after an annual, I found a screwdriver, plyers, and pair of work gloves buttoned up inside the tail cone – would have been deadly if not found.
Why fly an IFR altitude after taking off NORDO?
I am confused. Maybe. My first question is: why in the hell would you fly a plane you knew was already limping?
My second: Isn’t get-there-itis a huge no-no?