Watching Good Training in Action(reprinted from "Things My Fight Instructor Never Told Me" by Michael Leighton)
The other night I had an interesting experience. After a long day of flying, we got back to our base airport well after dark. My chief pilot, who flies his Cessna 172 to work from his home on a private grass strip just seven miles from the one I live on, agreed to fly me home and spare me the hour plus drive.
His airplane, a mid-1970's model 172, featured a new engine and a Powerflow exhaust system. The rest of the plane is factory standard 172. We did our run up, called the tower and departed. I commented on how nicely his plane climbed with two on board. The tower cleared us out of the Class D to the south. My buddy reached up to flip off the landing light and when he did, the lights in the cockpit dimmed. I looked at the amp meter, which was showing full deflection discharge, and snapped on the flashlight that I always have in my hand or nearby when flying at night.
I pointed out the anomaly. He went through the usual checks, resetting the alternator breaker, turning the master switch off and then back on. It only got worse.
So, here we were 2,000 feet over somewhere in the dark with a flashlight. The ceiling was 2,500 feet. We knew this because we had just flown through it a half hour before.
There was no moon. It dawned on me that to most pilots this would constitute at least a minor emergency. But the attitude in the cockpit was more of "Okay, let's work the problem" rather than of some impending doom. After a few minutes of unsuccessfully trying to get the electrical system back on line, my buddy turned on one radio and called Palm Beach approach.
He advised approach of our situation and that we were going to a private field west of town. He saw us as a primary radar target, thanked us for letting him know we were running around out there with no lights or transponder, and asked if there was anything else he could do. We told him no, and that we would call him when we were in the pattern. My buddy turned off the master switch to save whatever juice he could for the landing light.
(This was not the first time this had happened to me. Eight years earlier, on a training flight with a commercial student, the voltage regulator in my Maule welded itself in the open position, and was continuously pumping 40 amps into the battery. I had my student turn off the master switch and fly home in the dark with a flashlight, only turning the power back on just before landing. If we hadn't done that, the battery would have melted down. In that aircraft, the battery is under the copilot's side: my seat.)
As we approached the private grass field in the dark, my buddy once again fired up the radio and contacted Palm Bach to let the controller know we had the runway in sight. Wouldn't you know that another aircraft arrived at the airport at exactly the same time, forcing us to maneuver some more in the dark and realign ourselves with the runway.
The touchdown and taxi back were uneventful, except that the charging system came back to life, creating more frustration and speculation as to the source of its failure.
What I did not experience was any sort of stress or anxiety. We went through the failure procedures like we had done it a thousand times before. It was exactly the sort of failure we train for all the time. When it happened, we just fell back on the training and did what we were supposed to do. What I had witnessed was a textbook example of good training in action.
It turned out that the main bus cable had develop a break in itself sometime in its 25 year lifetime, and chose that exact moment to limit the number of electrons it was going to allow to pass through it. A simple failure that could neither be predicted nor prevented created a situation that required specific action. That is what all the training is for.