Lost com at night
Sometimes a malfunction isn't simulated
As we departed the Daytona Beach airport and flew along Florida's Atlantic coast, I glanced over the list of items on my paper lesson plan. On this flight with my student pilot, we were to work on VOR/NDB navigation, intercepting and tracking radials, and system malfunctions. As it turned out, we wouldn't have to simulate a malfunction that night. We were climbing northbound through the outer shelf of the Class C airspace, aware of the constant chatter on the departure frequency, when all of a sudden, our headsets went silent.
"OK, we'll just have to yell!" I half-shouted with a smile, above the dull roar of the engine. At the time, I thought that smile was for him, to ensure my 20-hour student pilot that it wasn't an emergency, just an abnormal scenario. Now I realize that smile did more for me than for him, to calm the surge of adrenaline I felt racing through me, to focus my thoughts on the situation at hand, and to ensure that I remain calm--and that our situation was not beyond my abilities.
This is where the law of primacy really saved me. Fortunately, I had been taught what to do if I found myself without the ability to communicate on the radio, or as we call it, "lost com." As it turned out, my training served me well; almost automatically, I did just as I was taught: First things first--fly the airplane. When faced with an "emergency," designate one person to fly the airplane while the other troubleshoots. Don't let both pilots get so wrapped up in problem-solving that you forget your first priority is to aviate. Then, troubleshoot even simple items, to make sure you really are lost com lest you run the risk of crying wolf.
So I signaled to my student to hold 2,000 feet of altitude, and I set the heading bug on 360 degrees for him. He wasn't a private pilot yet, but I knew I could trust him enough to at least hold an altitude and heading.
While he did that, I checked the connection to both the pilot's and copilot's headsets; I checked the volume on the avionics stack; I checked for a popped circuit breaker and tried changing the frequency. At this point, we couldn't hear ATC, and we couldn't even hear each other in the cockpit. I knew there were a few more things I could try before I entered that special code into the transponder, signaling to ATC that we had actually lost our communications, but since we were in controlled airspace with lots of traffic around, I entered 7600 into the transponder and made sure we were on altitude mode before I continued my troubleshooting. At least ATC would know that we were unable to hear them.
For a split second, I questioned myself--was it 7600 that I was supposed to squawk, or was it 7500 or 7700? But no, I remembered my aerodynamics professor, who was a retired Top Gun naval aviator, and how he had a special way of quieting down the class when we were getting too chatty. "Squawk 7600," he would say, and a few of the lesser-achieved pilots in the room would shrug and say, "What's he talking about?"
"Lost com," we would say, laughing, and the classroom would become silent.
Then I transmitted to ATC that if they could hear us we were lost com and en route to Flagler. The transmission annunciator was blinking, indicating that we were transmitting, but I wasn't sure if the controller could hear us since we couldn't even hear ourselves. I was about to recycle our avionics master switch when I decided to switch to Com 2. Click--we were back in business. The buzz of voices zipped back through our headsets into our ears, and instantly relief flowed through me. Com 2 worked fine. Our scenario was over as suddenly as it had started.
Once on the ground, when the energy of the moment had subsided, I looked at my student, trying to read his reaction. When asked his impression of the situation, he said, "All of a sudden, everything was just so peaceful."
I stared at him. "Peaceful?" I questioned, incredulous. It was the most chaotic silence I had known. After a bit of reflection, I realized that this student, like most student pilots, had little sense of the gravity of the situation at hand. To him, silence simply meant quiet, no noise, a welcome lull in the jabber of the radio and the gentle reminders voiced by his instructor.
But as the pilot in command, I knew what that silence meant. It meant think, act, quickly. It meant react and hope your instincts will guide you in the right direction; it meant adrenaline; it meant focus; it meant prioritize and troubleshoot. It left no time for error, only successful execution and delegation of tasks, rapid critical thinking, and heavy reliance on the training that was behind you.
Fortunately, mine was solid, and I could only hope that someday my student on that night flight would be able to say the same. What could have been serious was diffused into a simple learning experience. Later when grading my student's lesson plan, I couldn't help but think I was grading both of us as a crew. "System malfunctions," I read aloud, and checked the box marked "satisfactory."
"Learning Experiences" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for students and pilots to learn from the experiences of others. It is intended to provoke thought and discussion, acknowledging that actions taken by the authors were not necessarily the best choices under the circumstances. We encourage you to discuss any questions you have about a particular scenario with your flight instructor.