The flying reporter suffers an electrical problem while flying the PA28 over Essex. It started like all my past flights – with pre-flight checks. The Ammeter was showing the alternator was charging, no warning lights illuminated. We took off, levelled off, and were settling into the cruise when I spotted the ALT annunciator light on the dashboard of the PA28 had come on. I cross checked this with the ammeter, which showed that the alternator was no longer producing a charge.
I knew it would only be a matter of time before the battery fully discharged, and so I shut down all non-essential electrical systems – the strobe light, second radio, transponder and DME. I informed Southend Radar about my predicament, warned them that I may lose communication at any point, and turned back to Biggin Hill.
I tried to reassure my passenger that there was nothing to fear, as the aircraft will not stop flying because of an alternator failure. I warned him that in time, we may not be able to hear each other over the aircraft’s intercom. The look on his face, and the tone of my voice showed this was no joking matter.
For about a year, I’ve been flying with a battery powered standby radio. I purchased this because I now fly in IMC (cloud and low visibility), and I didn’t want to be caught out in those conditions without power. I fired up this backup radio which I always ensure is fully charged before each flight.
I also have an aide-memoire in my kneeboard, detailing all the air traffic light signals. Controllers can point a high-powered light gun at aircraft to give pilots clearances if they are unable to communicate by radio. I was glad to have this on board too, because I can’t honestly remember all the variations of colours and flashes ATC can use.
The Southend radio controller was excellent. He phoned Biggin Hill to notify them that I was returning, and warned them that I may lose radio communication. Biggin Hill prioritised my arrival over other traffic, and gave me instructions on what to do if I lost communication at any point during the arrival.
This wasn’t an emergency as such, and so I didn’t make an official distress call, but it was important that I landed at the nearest suitable aerodrome. As I flew overhead Biggin Hill’s runway though, it became apparent that the airport fire service had been put on standby. This reminded me of the possibility that what may seem like an innocent electrical failure, could be hiding something more sinister, such as an electrical fire. It was also a reminder that an electrical failure on more complex aircraft is an emergency.
ATC gave me frequent wind updates while on final approach, which was surreal. So much was going through my mind, I wasn’t really taking the data in. I landed safely, and taxied back to parking, with a fire service escort.
My sincere thanks to Southend, Biggin Hill and the fire service for acting so professionally, and doing everything to make sure we were kept as safe as possible.
I did learn some important lessons from this flight, which are broken down in the video.
- Take a moment to assess the situation before deciding what you intend to do.
- Try to reassure your passenger(s) and don’t verbalise your worries and fears.
- Having a standby radio, and a list of other emergency procedures on board is a good idea.
- A situation like this increases pressure on the pilot, and it takes a lot of effort to stay focussed on what’s most important.
Video: In-flight electrical problem