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Flying To Alaska, Day Ten, Inflight (Semi-)Emergency

August, 2016

When I signed up for this Alaska kayaking, hiking, flying adventure I must have checked all the boxes, and now it is clearly time for the inflight emergency portion of the adventure.  It is extremely smoky. Even though it is legally VFR and I can barely see the ground if I look straight down, I can’t see the natural horizon so I’m flying on instruments heading for Canada in one of the most remote areas in the US, and I have low-voltage alarms going off.  I’ve lost my alternator.

White out (Large)

I didn’t actually take any photos that day. I modified this one to white out the windscreen.

I reset it a few times to no avail, so I’m on battery power and only until that runs out.  I turn off the easy stuff like outside lights and one radio, then I turn on my autopilot so I can relax a little and try to calmly think about my alternatives and what my plan should be. I should note that the engine runs on two magnetos so there is no danger of engine failure (so it is really a semi-emergency.)

Typically, you would land at the nearest airport but that would mean returning 30 minutes to Anaktuvuk Pass.  Getting stuck at the most remote village in the US with a mechanical problem did not sound appealing and I was also wondering if the weather was closing in behind me.  The question really was, was it safe and sane to try for Fairbanks, over one and half hours away? Also considering that Fairbanks may be under instrument approach conditions?  Theoretically that should work and I decide that is my plan – so I turn everything I can off to save power and I even pull the circuit breakers to my autopilot and electric-trim system.

I’m occasionally flying on instruments I do need to know which way is up, and fortunately the artificial horizon is driven by a vacuum pump, not electricity.  For navigation I use an Apple iPad mounted on my yoke and in fact that is precisely what it is there for.  I monitor the battery voltage level and it stays high, so I’m fairly confident I’ll have enough power for what I need to do to land, but if Fairbanks is under instrument landing conditions that will make it much more complicated.

I end up between cloud layers and at one point it clears up a little and a hole appears in the clouds below.  I do a spiral dive to get under, thinking I can fly, Alaska bush-pilot style, under the clouds all the way to Fairbanks.  But when I get under the clouds above the trees the smoke is thick, the visibility is crap, and the iPad shows more mountains ahead.  I’ve read enough accident reports to know that this is how pilots die – it would read”CFIT” on the accident report – Controlled Flight into Terrain.  Basically flying blindly into the side of a mountain.  So I climb up into the clouds and then eventually pop out on top with better visibility.  This maneuver isn’t exactly legal, but contacting ATC at that low altitude likely wouldn’t work and really I needed to concentrate on just getting it done safely.

Once on top I’m VFR and every now and then I turn on a radio to try to get Fairbanks airport weather and finally about 50 miles out I get it and learn Fairbanks has decent visibility under a 3,000 foot scattered cloud layer. That is a great relief and there will be no need to do an instrument approach.  About 25 miles out I “light myself back up” by turning on my transponder and a radio so I can talk to Fairbanks approach and get into the airport. I lower my electric-driven landing gear early to make sure I don’t have to use the emergency hand pump and it comes right down. Yippee.

On final approach I looked left and see a wonderful airplane campground in the trees, so after I land and the ground controller asks what my intentions are, I say “I want to go to that cool campground I saw on final approach” and she gives me directions.  There I pull into a site, shut down, pull out a camp chair, a box of Triscuits and go searching for that bottle of wine I knew was in the back of the plane somewhere.

Next: Stuck in Fairbanks

Technical note: Typically you would want to leave your transponder during an event like this, but newer technology doesn’t always work like you want.  It turns out the new Avidyne transponder automatically puts itself in “ground mode” when it doesn’t get a signal from the GPS unit that it is airborne.  The Avidyne GPS (the IFD 540) with its nice big screen is a power hog and there was no way I wanted to leave that on, especially when I may need it for an instrument approach later into Fairbanks.  So I turned it off, then went ahead and turned off the inactivated transponder as well.

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