Flying blind: Plane failure leads to lesson learned

Story by Davis Payne

The GPS flickered on and off. The radio cut in and out. My dad and I looked out at the wings of the plane. “We’re flying blind,” he said.

It was Sept. 11, 2010. I walked into the hangar with my cousin, uncle and dad. We were all going to go to a Baylor Bears’ football game, and since my dad and my uncle had both previously earned their pilot’s licenses before the summer, we decided to fly.

It was a routine flight that would usually take an hour and a half. We would be flying in two single-engine archer planes, N991TF and N992TF, that were owned by the Texarkana Flying Club. My dad and I we supposed to take N991TF, but at the last minute my dad decided that he wanted N992TF because of the fact that it had a nicer GPS inside it. That was the first mistake.

We all ran through the checklist for preflight, and everything looked great. The sky was mildly cloudy, and the air was nice and cool. There wasn’t even that much wind. It was the perfect conditions for flying. Both of the planes started up with no problem, and both had full tanks of fuel.

My dad lined up on the runway behind my uncle and slowly pushed the throttle forward. I felt the rush I always did during the take off. The feeling of the plane lifting off the ground. We rose to an altitude of 3,000 feet. We could see my uncle ahead of us in the distance. My dad, uncle, cousin, and I all started to make jokes at each other over the flight channel. I couldn’t wait to get to the game.

We had flown for about 40 minutes when the GPS shut off. My dad and I were both puzzled about this and made sure that it was switched on. When we saw it was turned on we contacted my uncle over the plane’s radio to tell him that our GPS was out. We heard him briefly, but then the radio cut out. I looked at the dashboard and saw that the radio numbers were fading out. My dad looked at me and laughed as he said,” I guess something is wrong.”

My dad and I realized that the battery in our plane was dead and that anything run electrically was out. He quickly turned the plane around and headed back to the Texarkana Airport. He asked me to fly as he tried to contact the tower over a portable backup radio.

As the airport came into sight we made contact with the tower. After my dad told them the situation they let us land immediately. We both got out of the plane laughing and glad to back on the ground. We still don’t know why the battery went dead mid-flight. The two most probable reasons though are that the alternator, which uses a belt attached to the engine to charge the battery, had a loose connection. The other reason is that the alternator belt broke in mid-flight.

As I look back I can’t say that I really felt scared. The engine was still running and the flight instruments still worked. I was just ready to be back on the ground. The good thing about the ordeal though, is that it happened during the day. If it had happened at night we wouldn’t be able to see the flight instruments, we would have no general idea of where to go, and other planes would not be able to see us because our lights were out.

In the end, I learned a lot. I learned to be calm and to work under pressure. I also learned that anything can be funny if you just think about the situation. My dad and I were laughing hysterically at the fact that if we hadn’t swapped planes with my uncle, we would have been at the game. All in all it was an exciting twist to the day that taught me a few valuable lessons.