Handheld Comm Story

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Handheld Comm Story

Postby mike.smith » Thu Jun 26, 2014 11:40 pm

I used to write out some of my memorable flights. I found this one while I was going through my hard drive. It's a good "why I fly with a handheld comm" story:

Several years ago I was flying with two other pilots at night, in perfectly clear VMC conditions, in a C-172. I was in the right seat, Brendan was PIC in the left seat, flying practice IFR approaches. Dave was in the back seat. We were 15 miles out from our destination, after having just executed a missed approach at another airport, about 10 miles behind us.

Right after being cleared for the ILS approach, Boston Approach told us they were not receiving our transponder squawk any more. Sure enough, we looked at the transponder and it wasn't blinking. We cycled it on/off and tested it, but it didn't seem to be working. We tried to radio Boston, but although we could hear them, they couldn't seem to hear us anymore. About that time we started smelling burnt wiring. Not good. Now the lights on the panel began flickering, and we noticed the ammeter spiking up and down. Within one minute the lights began to dim until they went out completely.

Now, when I'm PIC I bring my whole flight bag. But when I'm going with someone else I just bring the "essentials". Without giving it much thought, I brought my handheld comm as one of those essentials. Good thing, too, since nobody else on board had one. Back to the story.

So there we are in the dark. Brendan flew the plane. Dave got out a flashlight and shined it on the instrument panel. I reached down and grabbed my comm. I plugged my headset into the comm and started calling the Tower at our destination (now about 11 miles away). I heard several other aircraft in the pattern, and knowing we had no lights (or flaps, for that matter), I decided the smart thing to do was to declare an emergency. More on that decision in a moment.

I have tested my comm on several occasions, but, interestingly, always in receive mode, and never transmit. So a bit to my surprise, the tower could not hear me. After declaring an emergency 3 times, another aircraft heard my calls and began relaying my transmissions to the Bedford tower (whom we could hear quite well). They of course cleared us for an immediate straight in approach, and told us they would "roll the equipment, just in case." Brendan made a great and uneventful landing with the flaps up (they are electric) and no lights, with all the fire trucks out to greet us and follow us back to the ramp.

There was no fire, and not even the smell of burnt wiring by the time we landed. But 2 days later we found out that the trouble was a broken crimp connection on the wire from the battery to the alternator that touched the alternator housing and burnt up the alternator.

Comm lessons learned:
1. ALWAYS carry one! A NAV/COMM would be even better.
2. Don't assume that "the other guys" will have one.
3. Get the most powerful unit you can. A working transmitter doesn't do much good if it's not strong enough to reach anyone.
4. Make sure you have the headset adapter for your comm. Trying to hear the radio in the cabin of a small aircraft is difficult to impossible. Plus, it's tough to fly if you have one hand holding up the radio to your ear all the time.

Other lessons learned:
1. Aviate, Navigate, and Communicate really does work, in that order.
2. If you're flying at night, have the flashlight within easy reach.
3. If at all possible, fly with 3 pilots ;-)

As to why I declared an emergency:
- Everything I have read and been taught says not to be afraid to declare an emergency. There is no paperwork involved as long as you weren't breaking any FAR's. This turned out to be true. The pilot had two short telephone conversations (one with the tower that night, and one with the FAA 2 days later), and that was it.
- For all we knew a fire could break out. Better to declare an emergency sooner than later.
- There were aircraft in the pattern, and without lights nobody was going to see us.
Mike Smith
Maynard, MA
Sonex N439M
Scratch-built tail dragger

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Re: Handheld Comm Story

Postby champguy » Fri Jun 27, 2014 10:44 am

Good story and good outcome.
A handheld with the standard "rubber ducky" antenna has a range of about a mile.
My good old Icom handheld reaches out fifty miles just fine with a proper tuned outside antenna.
In addition to the headset adapter you need to set up a way to connect to the outside antenna or to a tuned portable antenna suction cupped to the inside of a window.
Remember, not all who wander, are lost.

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Re: Handheld Comm Story

Postby Scofreyjet » Sun Jun 29, 2014 9:33 pm

Great story Mike. I've never had to face a failure of that magnitude, and so far never had to "declare." But - I do always carry a portable radio (with adapter!) Since I rent, easy access to an external antenna is unlikely.

The only significant in-flight failure I've had was a lost-comms problem. I was VFR with advisories as I returned to Bedford from (I think it was) Long Island. I had been anticipating a hand-off from Providence to Boston, and they never called me. After a while, I started calling Boston as I was approaching their airspace, but nada.

I squawked 7600 and started to orbit while I did some troubleshooting. I always carry a spare headset, and sure enough once I plugged in the spare, there was Boston calling me. As it turned out, it was a one-way problem - they could hear me, but I couldn't hear them. It turned out to be faulty wiring in the headset plug, which David Clark fixed for free.

Funny though - I have always used headsets, and it never occurred to me to try the cabin-speaker. I'm embarrassed to say I'm still not sure I would know how turn it on... :oops:

So I strongly agree that redundancy is a very good thing in aviation. But it does you no good if you don't know how to use it! Have a spare, a backup, an alternate, a co-pilot, a way out!
Jeff Ward
I love things with wings!
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Re: Handheld Comm Story

Postby champguy » Mon Jun 30, 2014 9:21 am

Even in my non electric Champ I carry two GPSs, two handheld Comms, and a pocket full of AA batteries.
Can't be too careful.
Remember, not all who wander, are lost.

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