When we launched my Mooney from Lakewood, N.J., for a fuel stop in South Carolina—before continuing to Key West—there was a 400-foot ceiling with light rain. The surface temperature was above freezing, though, and as we broke out on top without any icing issues, I began to settle in for the four-hour flight.
Within a few minutes, however, problems started cropping up. First, there was a subtle change in the quality of ATC communications. Next, the autopilot refused to engage. My passenger’s headset was no longer functioning. Then, the communication and navigation systems failed. We were on top of widespread IMC with no way to communicate or get down.
When first learning to fly, I purchased a handheld radio to keep in my flight bag. I also purchased a portable Garmin GPS. I never needed to use either one in 900-plus hours. On this day, they both came in handy.
I quickly reached back into my flight bag, grabbed the handheld radio and began communicating again. I had trained my passenger to use the portable Garmin and she selected the “direct to nearest airport” feature on the GPS and remained calm, silent and available for further assistance. We were advised that Atlantic City was VMC, so we headed that way. Sure enough, the cloud shelf broke just before the airport. We began our descent and because I was familiar with the airplane, I knew how to manually lower the gear and manage the other systems.
Ultimately, the landing was uneventful. If not for the emergency response crew on the field, the situation surrounding our arrival would have been much less obvious. Knowing the emergency procedures of my aircraft in advance was imperative. During an emergency is not the time to begin flipping through the pages of a POH.
What did I learn? First, even a comprehensive preflight cannot guarantee that problems will not occur. Second, I cannot express enough how carrying my own personal backup equipment helped to de-escalate the seriousness of our situation. Third, by briefing my passenger, she was able to help mitigate the situation by independently taking action that was helpful and then waiting silently for instruction.
Finally, because my flight instructor impressed upon me the need to always know my emergency procedures, I was able to handle the plane without issue.