Aviation In Canada

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Electrical Failure

One morning, many moons ago, I was nearing the tail end of a midnight shift. Every weekday morning at this point, there would be four PA-31 Navajos that would scramble for simultaneous departure to their various destinations, CYYG, CYQM, CYFC and CYSJ (and then onward for their milkruns to other airports). In Halifax Tower we had just recently received the digital radar setup which wasn't yet commissioned, but we were allowed to play with it to get used to while the old radar, the one we were still formally using, kept turning during the testing and flight checking of the new one. We generally weren't assigning discrete codes to VFR aircraft leaving the control zone, so they were all left to squawk 1200.

The last of the Navajos departed, a few minutes behind the rest, on his way to CYFC. It was late winter and the morning was clear and chilly, leaving a huge but relatively low fog bank over Grand Lake, a pretty big body of water about 4 NM northwest of CYHZ, near the direct route from CYHZ to CYFC. The PA31 flew just north of it, causing me to lose sight of his lights in the dim morning light. I turned to the new radar to play a little bit and watch him go, the last airplane I would be likely to talk to that morning. Then I noticed his transponder had stopped replying -- I was seeing a primary return only. This occasionally happens to aircraft with perfectly serviceable transponder when an SSR return fails to make it back, for whatever reason.

As I continued to watch the target's path on primary radar, I felt that it was strange that I couldn't see an SSR return yet. Then I realized that he was no longer heading in the direction of CYFC, but more to the west. Because of the fog bank, I still couldn't see the aircraft out the window. I followed the target on radar. While scanning the sky south of the fog bank, where I figured I'd soon be able to see the airplane as his radar track showed him now heading south, I started to wonder what was up. It appeared as though he were flying a slant downwind/base leg for Runway 06, which he had departed only minutes earlier. Through the dim light at dawn, I finally spotted a slightly darker dot on the horizon, so I grabbed the binoculars to search for him. There was the outline of an airplane, with no nav lights on. It seemed pretty clear to me now that he was returning, and with the lack of lights, it probably meant a lack of radio, too, so I flicked the runway lights back on for him and grabbed our trusty light gun from WWII. I held the green light for him, the pilot landed and taxied in. Shortly thereafter, the pilot called and thanked me for the lights. He had an electrical fire on board, some dense smoke in the cockpit, and had to disable all electrics to a prevent further fire. I'm glad I was on the ground.

I was trained as a tower controller to watch my airplanes. Though not near the airport any more, and rapidly becoming too distant to watch, it would have been easy at that hour to turn my head away and not look out for him. Afterall, they did this every weekday morning at the same time and really, how many of them had problems? Not very many. Anyway, at least two of us were happy that I had been trained that way on that particular morning since he had no landing lights available and there wasn't enough ambient light for him.