When Things Go Wrong…

by Woody Minar
Published in Midwest Flyer – June/July 2017

In my 16 years and 8,000 flight hours, I’ve had more than my share of things go wrong in at least a dozen airplanes; on average, about one every 200 hours. I’ll share some of my equipment failures and what I did to correct each. For brevity, I’ll exclude the right engine that failed in a twin on base-to-final and when the gear initially failed to come down on two different twins.

Let’s start with my 24 alternator failures. No, make that 25.  I just had another one on January 18, 2017. The first one was during my first solo at night right after I got my private pilot certificate. I’ve also had three while IFR in the soup and about a year ago I had three within 24 hours in three different airplanes. If you don’t get a warning light or happen to notice the ammeter discharging, the first indication is usually fuzzy audio when speaking on the radio or the intercom. Other indications are dimmed cockpit lights, unable to key up runway lights or extend/retract flaps, or the GPS shutting down for no apparent reason.

Consider landing as soon as possible. While it varies, I’ve found that you have only about 30 minutes before there’s not enough power left in the battery. Shut down everything you don’t need. A transponder and Nav/Com radio is all you need during the day if IFR; if VFR, consider shutting off all electrical to conserve battery power in case you need it later. What about anti-collision lights? I would say you’ve got a potential emergency; I’d shut them off during the day. Obviously, you don’t want to be flying at night with no lights!

Normal troubleshooting would be to cycle the alternator master switch; sometimes this reactivates the alternator. Check the circuit breakers. Reset no more than two times. If everything is shut off and the breaker pops, it’s most likely the alternator itself. If it resets, turn on one piece of equipment or light at a time; something could be causing it to pop or it was a onetime event. You’ll soon find out.

I’ve had two directional gyros, two turn coordinators, an attitude indicator, and two vacuum pumps fail in flight. If you have an alternate vacuum source, switch to that. Carry sticky notes or instrument covers with you to cover up the failed instrument(s). If you don’t, watching them tumble will drive you crazy.

Admittedly, I’ve had two instances of fuel exhaustion. Little else gets the heart pumping like this. Both times were in our Cherokee Six-300 where there are four isolated tanks. On one occasion, we were on our way to the Indy 500, and I asked a passenger who didn’t like to fly to help me monitor the fuel on a certain tank and to let me know when we were getting to within five gallons. We had a short discussion on him failing the task and I took the blame for not training him well enough.

Another time was an uneventful IFR trip to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Chicago Center handed us off to Oshkosh Tower and we were to report a three-mile final on an unused VFR arrival runway. Soon tower advised us to watch for VFR traffic now arriving in sync with us. It got very busy. When we were told to go around because of a pilot screw up in front of us, the engine coughed and sputtered. Instinct kicked in: switch tanks; fuel pump on. All was well again. This happened because all our attention was diverted to fitting in with the now arriving VFR traffic; our landing checklist wasn’t used. As a result of this experience, we now know it takes exactly one full tank, 26 gallons, to get to Oshkosh from Osceola, Wisconsin.

Setting up an automatic or count down timer on the GPS, Transponder, or external stopwatch works wonders, but you have to acknowledge it. Our Garmin 430 lets us know every 30 minutes to check the fuel.

Have you ever had a magneto fail while IFR in the soup? I first suspected it was carb ice, but I wasn’t absolutely sure. When shooting the VOR approach, my first task was to fly the airplane, then troubleshoot when stabilized. I broke out, landed, and had the magneto repaired.

It’s wise to carry a fire extinguisher in the plane. A friend of mine had a Cessna 182 engine fire on the ground and was able to put it out quickly because of this. For me, the flight school had a Cessna 150, which was historically hard to start in the winter. My student and I were trying to start it when smoke started entering the cockpit. This was a good indication that things were not as they should be. We continued cranking, hoping it was a carburetor fire and that it would be sucked out. It wasn’t. We bailed out, and I ran to the FBO to get a fire extinguisher and put out the flames. For a while, I had visions of a heap of melted aluminum sitting on the taxiway. Fortunately, it all worked out. The Cherokee also had an engine fire on the ground. Winter starting procedures are different than summer…know them!

Not much can be done when the electric flaps won’t retract (three times) and you’re already airborne. Cycle the flap switch and check the breakers. Carefully fly the plane with a low angle of attack and land as soon as you can.

If you haven’t had something go wrong, give me a call.  The odds are, you will someday.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Woody Minar is a DPE, Master CFI, CFII, MEI, CFI-G, ASEL/ASES/AMEL/AMES at Osceola Municipal Airport (KOEO) in Osceola, Wisconsin.


The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and other instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.

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