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Holy Electrics.

In the fall of 1966 I found myself at #3 Flying Training School in Portage La Prairie as a student on the ‘dual stream’ course flying the mighty C-45 Expeditor aircraft. I already had a worldly 650 hours under my belt as a Canadian Army aviator, at a time when most Army Officers approached flying as a secondary duty. That VFR-only era was slowly coming to an end and I was sent as the guinea pig to see if ‘brown jobs’ could be taught multi-engine instrument flying. My fellow course mates were the first flight cadets to come straight from their Tutor training without ever having flown a piston engine aircraft. Very challenging.

I was thoroughly enjoying myself, although continually looping around Portage-Winnipeg- Dauphin-Rivers-Brandon-Portage can get a little boring. So when one of the instructors invited me to be his copilot on a weekend, long range ‘training’ flight, I jumped at the chance. F/O Gerry McLean had been invited to a Grey Cup party in Ottawa. Their Rough Riders were to play against the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Vancouver November 26th. To add some legitimacy to the mission we took along two CF-100 pilots who were in Portage taking a Chipmunk instructor's course. They were delighted to be able to spend a weekend at home in St. Hubert. The eastbound flight went without a hitch. We dropped our two passengers off in St. Hubert and back tracked to Ottawa for a raucous weekend (Ottawa lost the Cup to their western namesakes 29 to 14).

Sunday afternoon found us back in St. Hubert where we refueled, filed our flight plan to the Lakehead and pickup our two old farts. My god…they were still flying and had to be in their mid forties!!! The enroute weather was forecasted to be far from pleasant. A cold front was sweeping across Lake Superior, and although Thunder Bay was going to be VFR, all places in between (North Bay, Toronto, London, Sudbury and Sault Ste Marie) had IFR ceilings in snow and blowing snow. We were planning just over 5 hours enroute with Duluth as our alternate.

Cruising merrily along Victor 36 between Wiarton and Sault Ste.Marie at 6000 feet, in cloud, ATC called to inform that the SSM VOR is about to go off the air to accommodate a very large Air Defense Command exercise taking place over their airspace. Could we guarantee to stay within the confines of the airway? A quick check of the charts shows the Whitefish Bay (marine) VOR west of SSM is still functioning and by subtracting x miles DME we should be able to comply and to report over SSM.

Gerry decided to take a break and retired to the cabin to partake of his delicious box lunch. One of the CF-100 drivers took his left seat and I graciously offered him control as I continued to monitor the weather and our fuel consumption and keep a meticulous flight log. Enroute weather continued awful, but the Lakehead was now up to 6000 BKN, 10000 OVC. Fuel usage was a little high but we still had our alternate, plus or minus 45 minutes. Life is grand.

Suddenly---- blink, all cockpit warning/alert lights flashed red or amber and faded off. We were in total darkness. Within seconds I had a sinking feeling that something else was not right. Not that the flashlight was in the flight bag (in the cabin), but my derriere said we were in a spiral. I looked over to my World War II veteran and he had his nose to the instrument panel following the now toppling electric powered horizon. I wrestled control and with my vacuum instruments managed to get us straight and level again.

It wasn’t long for Gerry to return to his seat with the valuable flashlight. A quick check confirmed we had suffered a total electrical failure and turned all switches off to save battery power. I said something like “This is interesting”. His response was “And it is going to get much more interesting”. He had no sooner finished his scary prognosis when we ran into some moderate icing conditions. The consequences began to pile up:

  • no pitot heat = no airspeed indicators
  • sections of the wing deicing boots are cycled through an electrical powered valve, oops
  • ditto for the cockpit deice/defog system for the windows, ouch
  • airframe icing made the vacuum system unreliable and my horizon toppled also,

We were down to (on my side) needle and ball, a VSI and a directional gyro that seemed to precess about 10 degrees each 15 minutes. There were no fuel gauges, but rpm and manifold pressures were functional, as was the clock.

The continuing weather conditions reduced our options to continuing on flight plan and hope for VFR conditions somewhere across Lake Superior.

As the ice continued to accumulate I went full throttle (at least the RPM gauges are self powered) and started a very slow climb to find the clearing conditions that were forecast. We worked our way up to 10000 feet but were still in the soup. Now I took a quick break for a nervous pee and loaded my flying suit pockets with sandwiches, cheese and a bottle of CC rye. I also got a quick briefing on the mae west and set the CF-100 pilots to work ustrapping the dingy and preparing the cabin.

Returning to my seat, I soon realized that our trusty flashlight was giving up the ghost. We were really going to be in a bind. Then I was struck with a once in a lifetime bright idea. I shouted to Gerry “ does this dingy light on the mae west blink or come on steady”. His immediate response was to cuff me around the ears and say “ we will worry about that when and if we have to ditch this thing”. But in another instant he realized what I was going on about so I called in the back for two milk cartons from the lunch boxes. I opened mine, stuck it between my legs and in went the immersion switch for the beanie light. Lo and behold the light shone steadily. Gerry did likewise and both yokes now held the lights, although Gerry didn’t have much in the way of functioning instruments on his side.

Crunch time was fast approaching, as was our planned ETA for Thunder Bay. So ever so slowly we descended to the MEA of 3300 feet and were still in cloud but less icing. After conferring with his trusty copilot and the two pax, Gerry announced we would continue 10 minutes past ETA then do a 180 and start down. With full power on for at least an hour, we were now concerned about our alternate fuel. But the point was rather mute as we had no idea of our position or why we weren’t clear of cloud. To ease the obvious tension a little, one of the CF-100 guys remarked that he had done an operational tour with Bomber Command and had to get to his targets and back with probably less instruments than we now had available.

Our ETA had come and gone, so we flew a triangular pattern to show loss of all radio and started down, all along hoping one of these NORAD aircraft would come drifting up on our wingtip and show us the way to go home. Oh yeah…. Down to procedure turn altitude and still in the stuff. Reduce the rate of descent a little, retighten the seat belts (for the umpteenth time) and think----Christ, I am too young to die like this. Down to minimum descent altitude, still in the clag. My heart rate is increasing, as is my heavy breathing.

Then poof-----we were a few hundred feet above rolling terrain and bouncing along in moderate turbulence due to strong surface winds. Our forward windscreens were ice covered so I pulled out the slide from my Dalton E6B computer, slid open my side window and chipped a small area clear in front. Gerry did likewise. There were a few lights visible on the ground and most fields were partly snow covered. On three occasions we came upon rising ground, went full throttle and climbed back into the ragged cloud base. One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, we slowly let down again without hitting anything.

Enough of this nonsense! We started looking in earnest for a suitable field. While circling (bouncing) around a road intersection with a few houses visible, Gerry decided on a wheels up approach in a northwesterly direction. As he rolled out on final, one of the pax stuck his head into the cockpit saying he could see a pretty well light highway off in the distance to starboard. Into a right turn towards the lights, we are still rocking around at about 200 feet AGL. Gerry says “ That road certainly isn’t very long”. “No” replies his trusty number one, “but it looks to have green threshold lights and a lighted windsock”.

“Flaps” shouts the wily commander. I reach for the flap lever and receive the back of his hand. “Crank” says he. Oh God, let me see---.move the flight bag, lift up the floor panel, find and insert the crank. Now, is that clockwise or counter-clockwise? “More flaps!!!!”. Whew, that wasn’t so bad, although the milk spilled during my contortions. “Gear down” shouts the master, and once more I reach instinctively for the gear handle, only to receive another smack and the order “Crank”. At least this time the direction was easier, just opposite to the flaps. But how many turns? Didn’t matter a bit as I was still heads down cranking away when we landed in a strong crosswind. “Flaps up”, reach forward, receive another smack and once more worked the crank without further orders. We stopped feet from the end of the paved strip and taxied to a lone hangar with a Cessna 150 parked outside and a single light in the office.

“Brakes on”,,,”Shutdown checklist” orders my Training Command instructor. I had enough, so my reply is a curt “mixture to cut-off and mags off, there is nothing else left to turn off” and vacated the aircraft. I was met at the hangar office door by a pleasant young fellow who says “Wow that’s a big plane, where did you come from?” My adrenaline is still working overtime, so I reply “ I’ll ask the questions around here…..where the hell are we?” “Why this is Rusk County Airport, Ladysmith Wisconsin”. “I am on a cross country solo, but got stuck here due to the weather”. Gerry arrives, a confused look on his face, shaking his head and announces “that pick-up outside has Wisconsin plates on it.!” “Welcome to Ladysmith, Wisconsin” says I.


We ended up 120 miles south of Duluth, Minnesota at the only lighted airport within a 75-mile radius. Rusk County authorities were considering dismantling their runway lighting as the electricity cost was deemed too high. An extremely complimentary letter from the Chief of the Air Staff vindicated the airport manager.

The runway was 2000 feet long and ended at the shore of a large lake. We nearly had need for our mae wests.

The maintenance team dispatched from Portage inspected the aircraft, changed the batteries and battery relays, reset the generator breakers and flew the aircraft home. I was never fully satisfied with their explanation. Why would a battery relay failure have such potentially dire consequences? Why would both generator breakers trip-off down line when you really don’t even need to have the battery switch on for flight (assuming a ground power unit start)? Why, in an aircraft in production since 1937, can’t the generator CBs be reset from the cockpit?

A fuel drip showed 12 minutes of remaining fuel.

Consulting an enroute chart, one can note that rather that turning towards Thunder Bay after the Sault, the aircraft tracked well west of the desired route that would have taken us to VFR conditions. I had slaved the directional gyro to the standby compass every 10 minutes, but believe our gross navigational error was a function of two factors:

  • the upper winds did not shift to the NW after the frontal passage as forecasted, but rather stayed N/NE.
  • the standby compass was in error by 22 degrees because it was swung with all electrics, radios and navigation lights on. This, curiously, is still a standard practice today.

A triangle flown at altitude to indicate radio failure is useless unless done in zero wind conditions.

Minneapolis Center tracked our curious route the whole time. We sorely disrupted their NORAD exercise, but an intercept was not considered as our ground speed was under 150K.

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