Alternator Failure in IMC
"I was flying alone in IMC on an instrument flight plan from Collingwood, in Ontario, Canada, to Alexandria Bay, New York, where I was to meet U. S. Customs for re-entry inspection. I’d planned to execute the ILS 19 approach into Kingston, ON, do a missed approach once under the overcast, and then fly VFR to Alexandria Bay NY, which has no instrument approaches. I advised Montreal Center of my intentions and they passed my request on to Trenton Terminal Control, handling approaches into Kingston. Trenton promptly returned with, “There are some problems with your request: You’ll have to file a VFR flight plan with London Flight Service to go from Kingston ON to Alexandria Bay NY, as you cannot cross the border without an active flight plan. Secondly, Kingston terminal advises us that you will not be able to fly VFR to Kingston; the ceilings are too low. State your intentions.”
I’d been preparing for the ILS 19 approach, and was being vectored for it. This was a small wrinkle in my carefully (I thought) prepared plans. “Stand by,” I replied. And thought. I could land at Kingston and consider alternatives, as suggested by Montreal Center, or….. hmm. I keyed the mike: “Can you clear me to Burlington VT, and advise US Customs I’m not going to make it to Alexandria Bay, but will be landing Burlington?” Trenton: “We’ve already contacted Customs for you. Yes, you’re cleared to Burlington, and we’ll tell US Customs to expect you at 3:30 PM local time.” “Wow, you guys are just great!” I replied, and set up my GPS for Burlington, shuffling approach plates and Enroute charts in my now messy cockpit.
Crossing over the St. Lawrence River, I was handed off to Boston Center, making a bee-line for Burlington. My Garmin 430 moving map display was faithfully showing my progress across upstate New York, and showing airports and MEAs along the way. All is well.
Until now! My regular scan picked up something out of the corner of my eye. It was the little red flashing light of my QC Avionix Alternator Status Indicator, Velcro’d to the lower panel, just within my scan range. "Now what's this?!" I thought, startled. A quick look at my Ammeter confirmed the worst: my alternator had failed; I was running on my battery.
Bob Glorioso, founder and president of QC Avionix, and a fellow pilot, had designed this helpful device several years ago after experiencing an alternator failure himself. I had helped to build a few prototypes and do some testing. Now it was my turn to reap the benefits of having this warning device on board.
I quickly called Boston Center, “I just had an alternator failure. I will be looking for a place to make a precautionary landing.” “Are you declaring an emergency?” was the immediate reply. “Not yet, but hold that thought,” I shot back, my mind now back in high gear again. My moving map showed Massena NY about 30 NM north, about 15 minutes away. “I’d like vectors to Massena,” I told Boston Center, as I turned off everything electrical that I didn’t need, keeping my GPS and its comm. radio, transponder, and Turn-and-Bank on. There was a small amount of ice on my OAT and wing leading edge, but I didn’t want to use pitot heat, as it takes so much electrical current. Reaching for my NY approach plates, I quickly found Massena, and chose the GPS approach to runway 5.
Then I thought about US Customs. I was not yet officially in the US yet. “Don’t worry about Customs,” returned the Boston Center controller when I stated my concern. “You can call them when you’re on the ground. You’re cleared for the GPS 5 approach, and, oh, we’ve just lost you on radar, so you can switch to the CTAF frequency.” “Oh, great! I’m on my own. Sure is nice to have this GPS working!” I thought, then continued on course. I broke out of the overcast at about 1000 ft AGL, saw the runway lights (what a great sight!), and landed uneventfully.
I shut down the engine at the Massena terminal and called Burlington Flight Service and US Customs on my cell phone, and then waited for local Customs to show up. Then I found I had enough juice left in my battery to start up again and taxi to the FBO on the opposite side of the field.
It was too late, and my brain was too fried, to consider continuing to Stow MA, my home base, even though I could have my battery charged. So I spent the next two days in Massena waiting for the remnants of Hurricane Wilma to depart the Boston area. On Thursday I flew home VFR, landing in clear weather.
I had the alternator checked out. There was a broken lead to one of the brushes, that’s all. This unit had about 400 hours of operation under its belt and looked otherwise almost brand new. It’s way down inside, how did that lead break? I’m not sure how but it sure picked the wrong time to break.
Losing an alternator in flight is cause for immediate concern and precautionary action. Losing an alternator in IMC conditions after some taxing instrument flying is even more concerning. Not knowing about it could have resulted in record-breaking blood pressure levels. Having my Alternator Status Indicator give me a timely warning greatly reducing my anxiety knowing I had a fully charged battery to work with. I could now find a suitable airport within about a half hour, and then work out a landing procedure, without worrying about my essential navigation and communication electronics. All’s well that ends well. And thank goodness for QC Avionix."