The Flying Circus: Lesson 2 from Melville
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
"Oscar Whiskey November,” the Toronto Terminal controller said, “call Island Tower now, one one eight decimal two."
Melville Passmore and I were flying along the Lake Ontario shoreline 2,000 feet over downtown Toronto in Melville’s TriPacer. We were inbound to the Toronto Island Airport on a crosscountry training flight for Melville’s night rating.
I pointed to the reply written on the little farmer’s kneeboard radio script.
He keyed the microphone. "Oscar Whiskey November."
As soon as he spoke, the lights in the cockpit went out. We stared at each other in the dark.
"Where's your flashlight, Melville?"
He dug in the map pocket on his side of the airplane. I took the microphone from him. I punched the transmit button and released. There was no click sound on the radio. We couldn't hear the controller's voice talking to us or to anyone else. The engine continued to buzz along. We had lost our electrical system.
Melville turned on his flashlight.
"Shine it on the engine instruments," I said.
He did. The alternator output gauge read zero. So did the fuel quantity gauges in the same instrument cluster.
"We're out of gas!" Melville exclaimed. There was more doubt than panic in his voice.
Having no electrics over downtown Toronto at night was a serious situation but it was not yet life threatening. I was determined to make it a learning experience for Melville.
"What should we do?" I asked.
"Declare an emergency?"
"Did you fill up the tanks before we took off?"
"Did you check them on the walkaround inspection?"
"Is the engine running?"
"Are we out of gas?"
He scratched his head. "No."
"What drives the fuel gauges?"
He shone the light on them. "Electricity?"
"What drives the lights?"
He shone the light on the alternator gauge. "The alternator isn't working," he said.
Illustration by Francois Bogie
"What should we do?" I asked.
He recited the air regulations. "Inform ATC and land as soon as possible."
"Does our radio work?"
Melville turned the squelch knob up on the radio volume to listen for background static. There was none.
"What should we do?"
"Squawk 7600 on the transponder and land at the nearest airport."
"Go ahead. I'll fly the airplane."
I took over control of the TriPacer. While talking, we had been flying along the lakeshore toward Toronto's downtown Island Airport. It was now less than five miles ahead. I set up a descent.
Melville shone his light on the radar transponder and gingerly tuned it to 7600, the radio failure code.
"Does it work?" I asked.
He turned the transponder selector to test. The light didn't come on.
He scratched his head again. "If the alternator is off, all the electrics are dead."
"Now you're getting warm," I said. "What about the battery?"
"It should carry some electrics for awhile."
"But it didn't. What should we do?"
While Melville thought, I flew over the middle of the Island Airport. The lights of the high rise office towers loomed on our left and the cold, black nothingness of Lake Ontario stretched out to our right. The biggest danger was our lack of running lights. No lights inside meant no lights outside. The unlit, fabric-covered TriPacer was invisible, even to radar operators. My objective was to land at the Island Airport without getting run over by another airplane.
"We should land as soon as possible?" Melville asked.
"Probably, but on the way down, try the auxiliary master electric switch."
Melville reached under his seat to the switch on the front of the battery box. As soon as he touched it, he yanked his fingers back.
"It's hot!" he yelped.
"Then turn it off. Use the end of your flashlight."
He knocked the switch to the neutral position.
I looked out the windshield. I could see the navigation lights of two airplanes on the left downwind leg of the circuit for Runway 26. I turned to follow them. If everything went according to government decree, the Island Airport controllers would be expecting us to show up even though we were out of radio contact. The two airplanes ahead would be warned about us and cleared to land. All other traffic in the area would be told to remain clear until we either arrived, showed up somewhere else or had run out of gas according to the fuel time on our flight plan.
"What now?" Melville asked. His voice was calm but worried.
"We'll follow those two airplanes in for a landing," I said, pointing out the traffic. "You have control."
"I have control," he replied.
The airplanes ahead did full stop landings. A green light appeared from the control tower when we were on the base leg. The controllers must have spotted us against the night sky. Melville turned over Toronto harbor and lined up with the lights for Runway 26. He did a good landing without a landing light, something we had practised the week before at Circus. A flashing green light from the tower cleared us to taxi in. We shut down in front of the fixed base operator.
I had no idea what had caused the electric failure but it felt good to have things work out. We were stuck in Toronto but the little farmer probably learned a lot. So did I. The government decreed system worked.
I figured Melville needed a little time to relax. "I'll go in and call the control tower on the telephone," I said to him as we climbed out, "and then we'll see if we can locate the problem."
I walked across the ramp to the fuel dealer office which was also a flying school. Inside, there were several people standing around. They stared at me when I walked through the door. A lineman standing behind the flight desk was the first to speak.
"The tower wants you to call," he said pointing to a telephone on the counter. "You can use the direct line."
I picked up the phone.
"Tower here," a voice said on the other end.
"Hi. It's the pilot from Oscar Whiskey November," I said a little nervously. "Thanks for the visual landing clearance."
"You're welcome," he said. He sounded friendly enough. "I gather you had an electrical problem."
"Yes sir. I don't know what happened but we'll check it out."
"Okay," he said. "I'll hang on to the return portion of your flight plan until you let me know what you're going to do."
"Fine, thank you," I replied.
I didn't have a plan. It was after ten o'clock. There would be no maintenance open in Toronto. Melville was going to learn that operating your own airplane could include the cost of an unscheduled stay at an expensive downtown hotel followed by a morning meeting with a big-dollar Toronto aircraft mechanic.
I went back outside. Melville had the engine top cowlings open and the front seat cushion out on the ground. He was standing by the front of the airplane with a screwdriver in his hand and his tongue hanging out.
"Melville, what are you doing?"
He sucked in his tongue. "I think I found the problem. The batt'ry was hot," he said, pointing to the front seat with the screwdriver, "so I looked at the starter."
He stepped back and rotated the propeller a quarter turn. I could hear that the starter was still engaged.
"The starter gear stayed in when we were flyin'," Melville said. He stuck his tongue out and looked at me to see if he should continue.
"Why would a stuck starter gear blow the whole electric system?" I asked.
"When the engin' turns the starter, it makes it a generator," he explained. "The extra electricity goes to the batt'ry."
At this point he hustled around to the right front door of the airplane. He leaned in and looked back at me.
"The starter solenoid should protect the batt'ry from too much electricity but it got too hot and stuck." He tapped the offending solenoid on the front of the battery box for emphasis. "The batt'ry overheated."
I realized that now I was the student and Melville was the teacher.
"So we'll get it fixed in the morning," I said.
Melville bustled around the wing strut to the front of the airplane. He waved the screwdriver at the nose.
"If we push back the starter gear with the screwdriver, we can hand-prop the airplane. The alternator'll give us electric power," Melville explained, "if the batt'ry is not all dead. We don't know for sure 'til we run the engin'."
He was making sense.
"So we run the engine by hand starting it to see if the alternator will supply electricity. If the battery hasn't been killed completely, it should."
"I think so," he said.
"If the battery isn't dead, it should power the electrics with the engine shut off, right?"
"Yah, but we don't wanna kill the batt'ry by trying it."
"Okay, I think you're right but I'm going to call Darcy for a second opinion."
Darcy was the flying school mechanic. I thought a family man who started work at eight o'clock in the morning might be in bed at 10:30. He wasn't. He answered the phone on the first ring.
"Well sky pilot, what are you wrecking now?"
I explained what had happened and what we planned to do. I could hear one of Darcy's pre-school kids making baby talk on his knee.
"Is that you or the baby making the comments?" I asked.
"Junior and I are watching 'Halloween'. It's his favorite movie. Melville's right. Those starters have a history of doing that. I should have changed the Bendix when we had it in the shop. If the battery is not completely melted, you should be all right to fly home."
"I was hoping for a little more than a 'should be'," I replied.
"Try the battery with just the cockpit lights on. If it will hold those, then hand-start the engine. If the alternator comes on line, go for it. The worst that can happen is losing electric power again."
"I appreciate your confidence."
"It's only because you've got Melville to help you." I could hear him smile.
"Okay, we'll try it."
"Call me after you land at Circus."
"It'll be midnight."
"We'll be up. The movie just started."
I went back outside and related the conversation to Melville. We turned on the battery and cockpit lights. They worked. Melville went to the front of the airplane with the screwdriver and turned the Bendix drive back into the starter. We reinstalled the engine cowling and the front seat and did a walkaround inspection. With Melville in the pilot seat, I hand started the engine by swinging the propeller. I climbed into the right seat. Melville pointed to the alternator gauge. It was working.
"Okay," I said, "load it up with the lights and radios we need and see if it holds."
Melville used the script to call Toronto Island Ground Control for taxi instructions for the flight back to Circus. There was no other traffic.
"I see you got her working," the controller said and then gave us a clearance to the runway.
Melville did the pre-takeoff checks. The alternator was holding. The master switch stayed cool. We launched into the night.
Toronto Terminal Control was not as busy. Melville had no trouble fitting in his transmissions. When we had cleared that area twenty minutes later, the radio work was done. Derry and Circus Towers closed for the night by 11:00 p.m. The weather was clear and calm. The rest of the flight was smooth sailing along the lakeshore.
We landed at Circus and put the airplane away. I called Darcy.
"City morgue, you stab them, we slab them," he said.
"Hi Jason, we're in Circus."
"Tell Melville that I'll be down in the morning with a new starter, solenoid and battery. I'll install them no charge."
"That's very generous of you."
"No, it's called sucking up to a good customer after screwing up. Besides, it's worth it after thinking of you working on the ramp and getting your fingers dirty," he chuckled.
"Well I appreciated your going out on a limb and giving us a maintenance release over the phone."
"Who's calling?" he laughed.
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