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Deaf and Dumb

Next to being on fire or having an engine failure, experiencing an electrical (or vacuum) failure in IMC probably gets the bronze medal for dread and distress -- dead radios would run a distant third, but it can still ruin your day.

Next to being on fire or having an engine failure, experiencing an electrical (or vacuum) failure in IMC probably gets the bronze medal for dread and distress -- dead radios would run a distant third, but it can still ruin your day. Since experiencing total electrical failure in IMC ... with my family ... over mountains ... I've made it my business to bone up on the procedures that cover suddenly finding oneself deaf and dumb. That said, I'd like to share something: you don't need a miracle worker to see you through (although if you're already blind, and your battery is also dead, you'll probably want one).

Let's say you're cruising along on an IFR flight plan -- no ice, no turbulence, just IMC inside smooth stratus clouds -- when it dawns on you that you haven't heard any voices lately. On a VFR flight, you could just land somewhere else or, endeavor to test your knowledge of light gun signals. It gets a little more complicated on an IFR flight. Here's how to approach the situation, if or when it approaches you.

NO RADIOS IFR -- Troubleshooting:
  1. Keep flying. Go back and read that again. Some of us are so used to hearing that, it becomes like background noise ... right up until you have to use it and instead "screw the pooch." The important thing to remember is that you may not have a real problem at all. (You did perform a radio check on the ramp, right?) But ATC may be coordinating a lengthy hand-off with another sector, dealing with a mayday ... or it could be terrain blockage, a ground equipment outage, or a stuck mike.
  2. If the digital displays in the radio stack are all dark, and the ammeter is showing a discharge, then you either somehow missed the ammeter check during your run-up, or else hadn't been including an "ops check" of your electrical system every few scans since you took off. Either way, you may now berate yourself for the foolish optimist you are and continue on to item "3".
  3. QuickCheck: A brief look at your circuit breaker panel is in order. After that, you'll want to try the old wiggle-n-jiggle: click your push-to-talk button; try re-seating the headset plugs; try plugging into different jacks; check your volume switches and audio panel; double-check that frequency; and physically push the radio housing into the panel. In that last case you're checking to see that the radio has not somehow vibrated free of its wiring harness. (Oh, and you're still flying the plane, right?).
  4. Double-Check: Examine the audio panel; try the previous frequency; check the other communication radio; try de-selecting the "auto" and use the "Com1" or "Com2" positions instead or switch from the headset to the speaker and hand microphone; try turning up the voice and IDENT on the VORs -- you may discover that ATC has already asked Flight Service to try to reach you. Most radios are independent -- with their own antenna -- so you may still have some voice or at least one ear left, but you won't know for sure until you check the choke points, such as the audio panel, jacks, etc.

Inside Advice: If it hasn't already become obvious to you, I would be remiss if I did not hasten to add one more thing -- a hand-held navigation and communication radio is your best insurance (or the best supplemental coverage for an instrument rating, at the very least). I might very well not be here today, had I not brought mine along on that Labor Day weekend, five years ago. With a handheld, you are now free to try 122.0 for Flight Watch to ascertain your position, communication-wise (in a pinch, you shouldn't be shy about trying this). Another avenue is to use 121.5. (You are not required to have an emergency in order to use it, but the implication will be that you probably consider the situation urgent.)

NO RADIOS IFR -- By The Book
Squawk 7600. If you can hear ATC but can't reply back, well, you still might be able to by using the IDENT button on your transponder. Don't panic, the FAA is there to help you. The only catch is, you must have helped yourself to CFR Title 14 Part 91.185, first. Unfortunately, those regs for two-way radio communications failure are so seemingly convoluted that they all tend to blend into a confused tangle of "do that, but if you can't, then do this, or then another thing, instead, if neither of those first two work." (After I read them for the eleventh time I gave up, photocopied the book, then cut and paste that part on my kneeboard, instead.)

NO RADIOS IFR -- The Cheat Sheet
Two simple three-letter acronyms to will help you do a third: CYA (cover your ...). To do that, you need to remember CEF, and MEA.

CEF: covers "which way." In short, you fly the route for which you were cleared, or else told to expect, or failing that, the route you filed. This is the airspace that ATC will continue to protect, should you stop responding.

MEA: covers "how high". This part is easy: For each route segment, you will fly the highest of the minimum en route altitude, the altitude you were told to expect, or the last one assigned.

Note: The hardest thing is neither of the above, but reaching the FAF (final approach fix) and then starting the approach (not landing) at either your EFC (expect further clearance) time or the ETA on your flight plan.

(See Paul Craig's article for a more complete discussion).

EXTERNALITIES: Know Thy Airplane
This is always true, and especially so when it comes to avionics. You owe it to yourself to be familiar with any idiosyncrasies, because you don't want to learn them "on the fly" (if you can ignore my lame humor). Here's an example (actually, two): the rather quirky wiring of both the Cessna 172 "M" models, produced from 1973 to 1976, as well as the 182 "N" model (1970 and 1971). The navigation lights, control wheel map lights, and the radio "muting" or transmitter relay were all protected by the "NAV LIGHTS" circuit breaker on the primary bus. (This relay is what allows you to transmit on one radio, and not both.) In the unlikely event that you had one with Cessna radios and the original audio panel, and you had a malfunction in the navigation lights, that circuit breaker would pop, taking the relay with it. In this scenario, the open breaker, if unnoticed, could make you "dumb". Just great, huh?

There can be some curve balls in there too, particularly when things get close to or beyond a state of urgency, and you start heading for Part 91.3(b) territory (the one about emergency authority). Let's say you're flying west, you realize you've lost two-way communication, and now the only transmissions you're making don't involve a radio. You've still got power, but you're experiencing headwinds and you're becoming concerned about fuel. You know that if the briefer was right, there's probably VFR weather just 30 miles or so to the south. Nervous though you are, you know you did a good preflight and you're fairly sure this situation isn't of your own making. What should you do? Blindly (and deafly and dumbly) continue on the airway squawking 7600, or crank another 100 into that transponder, hightail it southward, and explain later? (If I chose to do that, I'd consider a VFR altitude, by the way.) What, a VFR altitude, in the clouds? Yup. As Paul Craig pointed out, there should be no VFR pilots there, and anyone in IMC would be only momentarily climbing or descending to a hard IFR altitude.

The Loophole: You don't need to be in full-fledged auto-flail mode to squawk 7700. If you're low on fuel, uncertain of your position, or are concerned about weather or any other thing affecting safety that is not, as the AIM says (and I love this phrase), "immediately perilous", you have a legitimate urgency condition, and the right to request immediate assistance. If you're facing an oncoming disaster and your life is at risk now, because later you might be dead, it's an emergency. Which statement more aptly describes your situation? Gee, I don't know. Look again at the pictures in your wallet or purse, and you tell me.

BOTTOM LINE: Preflight your electrical system carefully and pay attention to those needles. Keep the ammeter in your scan once a minute -- not just every 15. Always have a back-up portable communication and navigation radio (with headset adapter cords), use those memory aids to help you better refresh your recall of the pertinent regulation, and always have a back up plan. It's better to be on the ground wishing you were flying, than flying and wishing you were on the ground.

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