“There are only two emotions in a plane: boredom and terror.” ~ Orson Wells
Several years ago my uncle and I flew up to Boston to pick up our new company airplane and fly it back to Georgia following the installation of an anti-icing system. The first third of the trip was uneventful, we flew over Long Island, JFK, passed within spitting distance of Manhattan, and then turned slightly inland over New Jersey, per Air Traffic Control’s (ATCs) instructions.
The new inadvertent icing system was designed to cover the airplane with an antifreeze solution through a porous titanium plate along the leading edge of the wings and tail and through a slinger on the propeller in the event of an accidental encounter with icing conditions. As we were leaving, the installers recommended that I cycle the system every two weeks or so to keep the lines clear and verify its functioning.
We had just asked ATC were granted a climb from 6,000 feet to 10,000 feet in an attempt to get above of the moderate turbulence that was ruffling the lower altitudes in the region and once we were established in the climb I had the idea of testing the new system. Wasting no time I advised my uncle of my intentions and flipped the switch to “Max.”
The fluid came out as promised, slowly coating the plane with a comfort-inspiring viscous solution that prevents ice from adhering to the airframe. Two minutes later our peaceful climb was interrupted by a THWACK! from the engine cowling in front of us. Was it a bird strike? Did we throw a rod? The engine purred along as before but the alternator warning light and horn soon came on, dashing our hopes that there would be no further repercussions from the sound we heard.
The emergency training my instructor had drilled into my head quickly took over. I made sure that I kept control of the airplane instead of falling prey to panic or distraction and handed my uncle the POH (Pilot Operating Handbook) that sat between us and asked him to read the procedure for a failed alternator out to me, to confirm that my memorized steps were accurate. Keeping to my course I focused my attention on the moving map display to determine the nearest airport. I then called ATC, advised them of the sound we had heard and asked to divert to the nearest airport to inspect the problem.
We followed the procedure carefully detailed in the POH, landed at the nearest airport and shut the engine down. After removing the cowling with the help of a mechanic who happened to be on the field despite the fact that it was Sunday morning, we discovered that the alternator belt had broken in flight, hitting the cowling as it went, producing the disturbing THWACK! we heard somewhere northeast of Washington DC.
The mechanic assured us that it was no big deal, especially given that we had a backup alternator. After stopping in for pizza at the restaurant on the field, which incidentally is where we confirmed we were in New Jersey when the waitress asked “How are yous guys today?”, we flew to a nearby airport for the repair. Three days and two commercial flights later the plane was good to go.
Eager to determine what caused the belt to go in a new airplane, the shop foreman and I dug into it a bit further and discovered that the tube the fed the prop slinger (basically a ring with a channel on its underside) was misaligned when the anti-icing system was installed and when I turned the system on it sprayed the slippery solution all over the front of the engine, including the alternator belt.
The belt no doubt began slipping, built up heat and broke, shutting down my alternator. Needless to say I have since added an item to my checklist before every flight, namely, making sure that the feeder tube is properly aligned with the slinger ring.
What I learned from this experience is that extra attention and caution is required during the break-in period of anything new and that it is important to run tests of those new systems in as controlled an environment as possible. I was also reminded of the importance of staying calm, cool and collected when the unexpected happens. Finally, I learned that I can – and should – add items to my preflight checklists as experience dictates.