The Good old bad old days
John Laming revisits an incident that highlights the importance of the maintenance release
COVID-19 has seen the closing of world borders and retrenchment for thousands of pilots. Australia has not been immune to these losses. With hundreds of expatriate pilots returning from overseas as well as pilots let go from Australian domestic airlines, employment prospects for pilots are tough.
Many Australian airline pilots will no doubt seek work in general aviation. For those pilots who started their careers in general aviation, it will come as no surprise that cost cutting, questionable practices and lip service to flight safety norms are, ahem, not unknown.
In 1985 I was retrenched from an overseas airline. After driving a taxi for several months, I got some casual work flying bank runs in a B58 Baron. The route was from Essendon to Bairnsdale in the morning, stay in a motel all day, then, after loading mixed freight, fly a short hop to West Sale – more freight – then back to Essendon with a night landing. I was told on time arrivals were vital for business and corners may have to be cut to achieve this.
The Baron was privately owned. I vaguely recalled someone mentioning the owner had experienced expensive troubles with repeated failure of the alternator warning lights. However, as the current maintenance release was clear of defects, I assumed the aircraft was fully serviceable.
On the return flight approaching Essendon, I noticed the instrument panel lights becoming dim. Being in cloud and feeling weary, I adjusted my glasses and put the problem down to imagination – and advancing years. After the excellent lighting of the Boeing 737, I found most GA aircraft had limited cockpit illumination.
Soon after, the DME failed. Then the ADF needle began to wander aimlessly and Melbourne VOR became intermittent. Even the navigation lights reflecting in cloud went out. The instrument panel lighting was getting worse and I suspected an impending electrical problem. This was puzzling, because both alternator red warning lights were extinguished and the load meters showed a slight charge rate.
I called ATC and advised them I might lose radio contact due to an electrical malfunction. The controller had just enquired, ‘Are your operations normal?’ when all cockpit lighting failed, leaving me in darkness. Happily, I had a small torch in my pocket so, while flying with one hand, I used the other to shine the torch on the instrument panel and check all the circuit breakers. Occasional glimpses of ground lights revealed low scud, base between 700 and 1500 feet. Eventually, I spotted Essendon’s runway lights below but they quickly disappeared in a patch of cloud.
At least I had fixed my position so it was simply a case of flying the aircraft with one hand and trying not to drop the torch which I was holding with the other. I planned to spiral down carefully below the main cloud base and land normally. Selecting the landing gear lever to down, I was startled to see that nothing happened. The landing gear is electrically operated – and I had no battery power.
While pondering a solution, there were times I found myself over-banking, my torch beam having wandered off the artificial horizon as my concentration lapsed. I groped in the dark to find the emergency gear handle situated in a difficult position just aft and between the pilots’ seats. Some packages had worked themselves over the handle assembly. I could have done with 3 hands – one to fly, one to aim the torch at the artificial horizon and one to shift the boxes!
With one hand I succeeded in shifting the freight out of the way and again tried to lower the landing gear, only to find the emergency gear handle would make 5 or 6 turns, then jam. By now I had lost a fair amount of skin from my right hand – thanks to the handle, pieces of broken plastic and sundry bits of fuselage all being in close proximity to each other. With blood on my hand, I was in a fair amount of pain. Forcing myself to stay calm, I faced the possibility of a wheels-up landing.
As an afterthought, I turned on the aircraft master switch which had previously been turned off to conserve what remained of battery power. Delighted to see the VHF selector glowing a faint green, I quickly set 7700 into the transponder and transmitted that I was unable to lower the gear. No sooner had I pressed the VHF transmit button when everything went dead again and I was back to square one.
I made a few more attempts to free the now jammed emergency gear handle but finally gave up in disgust. I was still in and out of cloud circling over, I hoped, Essendon. My hand hurt, I was tired and irritable and my flying was becoming sloppy. I decided I would have to belly land within the next 10 minutes – worried that if the torch battery went flat, events could go swiftly from bad to worse.
After a few minutes thinking through the proposed belly landing, I switched on the battery for one final call to Essendon to warn them I was coming in – ready or not. Again, a faint glimmer of green on the VHF light. It then struck me that if there was some power restoration in the flattened battery, the normal gear mechanism might work.
Pushing in the main landing gear circuit breaker (pulled as part of the emergency lowering drill), I selected ‘down’ on the main gear switch and heard a reassuring thump below. It was like music to my ears. At the same instant the green down lights glowed momentarily then went out.
With no flaps or landing lights and no certainty that all 3 wheels were locked – but with the aid of the torch aimed at the ASI – the approach and touchdown were okay. After arriving at the freight terminal where the waiting van driver grumbled about my late arrival, I wrote in the maintenance release: ‘Total electrical failure and emergency gear handle jammed.’ Then I drove home where my wife greeted me with a kiss and a ‘Did you have a nice flight, dear?’ My reply was unprintable.
As the current maintenance release was clear of defects, I assumed the aircraft was fully serviceable.
The next day I had a closer look at the emergency gear handle. The reason for it jamming was damage to its mechanism, probably caused by heavy freight resting on it. The heavy plastic cover to protect the handle from external forces had shattered from years of abuse. This aircraft had passed numerous previous scheduled inspections – speaking volumes for the standard of maintenance countenanced by its owner and the complacent attitude of the pilots who flew it.
An engineer who had seen my entry in the maintenance release told me he could find nothing wrong with the electrical system – apart from a flat battery and a popped circuit breaker which was part of the alternator control system. Although I believed I had checked all the circuit breakers after the electrics had failed, this one vital circuit breaker hidden from sight beneath the instrument panel had evaded me. I was unaware of its presence because its label on the front of the main circuit breaker panel had been ripped off.
So, what had popped the hidden alternator control circuit breaker? If one wriggled under the instrument panel to fit the rudder gust lock, the defect was clear.
On this particular Baron, the retaining wire for the rudder pedals gust lock was too short and it took a lot of fiddling under the instrument panel to fit the rudder lock correctly. When so fitted, the retaining wire came up hard against the side of the hidden alternator control circuit breaker. Apparently, when I removed the gust lock mechanism at Bairnsdale, the retaining wire jagged the collar of the circuit breaker, pulling it out.
Why no alternator warning light operation? The answer was easy. There were no bulbs in the alternator lamp module, only the transparent red plastic light covers! Repeated problems with the alternator warning lights blowing had proved too expensive for the owner, so he simply removed the light bulbs. He conveniently omitted to record his actions in the aircraft maintenance release which, when I took over the aircraft, was squeaky clean.
Unwittingly I then flew two sectors at night on battery power alone, including two engine starts. With the absence of alternator warning lights (removed from their sockets) to indicate all was not well, I did not monitor the load meters closely. And when the battery gave up the ghost as the aircraft neared Essendon, the load meters showed a slightly positive needle position only because it was their electrical zero.
I lost my job with that company. No reason was given but I suspect it was because I had upset the owner by recording the defects in the maintenance release. I didn’t mind too much. Better dead broke than dead.