Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Electrical Failures, Snowy runways, and FSS

By Father Scott Joseph Garrett
Pastor, Holy Rosary Mission Alaska

Before leaving Dillingham in the winter I normally have to dig out by hand. The FAA does not want us to use snow plows for fear of crushing an airplane.

On December 17th, after a Christmas Mass in the small Alaskan village of Clarks Point, I caught a ride down to my Cherokee Warrior II, took off the engine blanket, pulled out the blocks, visually checked my fuel level, jumped in, and fired up the engine. When I went to turn on the master radio switch, a loud horn started beeping, my radios were blinking, my alternator was dead, and my GPS would not turn on. I flipped a few switches and got the horn to stop.

Here is a picture of Clarks Point from the air. The old runway running East and West is just above and to the right of the new runway, which runs North and South.

I then had to make the decision to shut down the engine or take-off back to Dillingham. I sat on the ground for about five minutes contemplating. I checked for traffic, back-taxied the gravel strip, and took off. After climbing to 500 feet I started flipping switches and pulling out cords. One radio came back on then went off again. I pulled out the hand held mike cord and everything came back on, then went off.

By that time I was on a three mile final for runway 01 in Dillingham, I was able to contact the Flight Service Station (FSS) before everything went dead again. Much to my satisfaction I found out that the Penair Saab or John Bouker were not on final approach at the same time I was. Fortunately, there was no reported traffic.

Bristol Bay recently received cell phone service in around March of 2010 and had I been thinking I should have called the FSS before I took off from Clarks Point. I could have told them that I would be entering the airspace in five minutes. I still find it hard to believe that I can call people from remote villages such as Clarks Point, Manokotac, and Levelock.

Flight Service Stations (FSS) have different rules than control towers. Dillingham is one of a very few Flight Service Stations left in Alaska. Others are in Talkeetna and Illiamna. When flying into an airport with a flight service station, a pilot does not have to talk on the radio at all. The FSS is for safety purposes. Dillingham has an exceptionally large amount of traffic and although the FSS does not control the traffic it lets the pilots know where the traffic is and then it is up to the pilots to separate. Among several crucial duties, the Dillingham FSS provides valuable weather data, which helps us to make flying decisions.

In the following video I try to show what it is like taking off from the Flight Service Station in Dillingham, Alaska.

To see the video you can also


I always call the FSS when I am seven miles out. Everyone who flies around Bristol Bay does, it is a given. When I call in I use as little air time as possible, as few words as possible, I always say my complete tail number first (Cherokee 81809), and then shorten it on the second contact (Cherokee 809). I turn to 123.6 and say, “Dillingham Radio, Cherokee 81809, seven northwest, India (the current ATIS). There are no “ands,” “I am’s,” or “this is’s”. Short, sweet, and clear. After the FSS logs me in they are able to report my progress to other pilots entering the airspace.

Here is similar video about contacting the FSS in Dillingham.

To see the video you can also

If there is no other traffic I report overhead the runway then land. Two contacts, seven miles out and overhead the runway. If there is reported traffic that is close to me it is up to me to find out how close and contact that pilot. Once the other pilot is spotted we have to decide among ourselves who lands first, second, et .

Common chatter among pilots might sound like, “Cessna 95w this is Cherokee 809 I have you in sight and will follow you in.” “How far out are you 04K?” “Inbound Cherokee, do I have time to back taxi before you get here?”

After landing in Dillingham I reached up where my hand-held microphone plugs in and the jacks were loose. I contacted Dave, my mechanic at Tucker Aviation, and he took things apart, tightened things up, inspected things, and tried to get the horn to go off. He could not duplicate the problem. We decided that the cause of the loss of electrical power may have been a grounding problem or a low battery. After all, it had been below zero for a couple of weeks straight. After re-charging the battery I was ready for an operational check.

Here is a video where I talk a little bit about the electrical problem while flying to Ekwok a few days after trying to fix the electrical problem.

You can also see the video if you

December 23rd, I flew to Ekwok then over to Clarks Point and back to Dillingham. Everything worked great. There were no intermittent radio failures.

After going over the electrical diagram in the Aircraft handbook, I decided Ineeded to fly a couple more hours to be double sure everything was working correctly. On December 28th, I flew from Dillingham to Dillingham round Robin via New Stuyahok, Levelock, Manokotak. The runways were covered with Ice and snow. I did GPS approaches into New Stuyahok and Manokotak

In route I decided to buzz Levelock, Alaska airport and village.

You can also see the video if you CLICK HERE.

I did a touch and go on the snowy runway at Manokotak.

For video you can also CLICK HERE.

I finally made it back to Dillingham. All systems in the green. Here is my approach over Dillingham and landing at Dillingham Airport.

To see Video you can also

Fly safe out there!

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