Logbook Stories

from my "Standard Pilot Master Log"


My First Real Emergency

September 8, 1977

By "real emergency" I mean "declared emergency", which has a very specific meaning and consequent results per FAA regulations. When a pilot declares an emergency, the pilot-in-command not only has final authority (as per usual), but is also allowed to deviate from the FAA regulations as needed to meet the needs of the emergency. Also, ATC gives that aircraft priority above all other aircraft under their control. This happened to me on the way back to home base from LaGuardia while flying a Piper PA-32R Lance.

The Lance belonged to a customer of the FBO and for some reason, I was to drop him off in New York and deadhead the airplane back to home base. Why I was headed back to home base is not at all relevant to the story, but the circumstances are. I was headed west, directly into a sun low on the horizon, on a IFR clearance at 10,000 feet above a solid undercast as far as the eye could see.

I don't recall exactly what it was that clued me something was amiss. But something wasn't right. Maybe it was the radio reception getting a little scratchy. Maybe something else. But it turned out that by staring into the low-angle sun I had missed a certain yellow annunciator light warning me that my alternator was not functioning. One needs volts to power comms and navs and other important stuff and my volts were only being supplied by the battery, which is only going to supply those volts for so long before the important stuff stops working.

Being in the vicinity of Phillipsburg, Pennsylvania, I declared an emergency, turned off or pulled circuit breakers for stuff I didn't need, everything except one comm, one nav and transponder, informed ATC I was going to begin descending and was going to do an instrument approach into Phillipsburg, and that I wasn't going to talk to them any more until I was on the ground. Transmitting consumes volts, and I wanted to reserve those volts for the landing gear extension. I executed a perfect non-radar localizer backcourse approach into Phillipsburg, which was a couple hundred feet above MDA, not much, but with good visibility underneath, and so landed, and reported a satisfactory conclusion to ATC on their local frequency.

There were no other reports, paperwork, phone calls or other nuisances resulting. The local FBO was still open, their shop replaced an alternator belt, and then I was back on my way home. All in a day's work for a pilot. And a lesson learned: be aware how ambient conditions may affect your scan pattern.



References for Non-Pilots: