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One day in the Spring of 1970 I was approached by my friend, Bill South, who was a mover and shaker in the early days of PATCO, to go up to CHS with him and Steve Corrigan to meet some of the locals and shore up a shaky membership. Bill belonged to the ZJX flying club and we would use their Cessna Cardinal. I was invited because I was instrument rated and I had some Cardinal time.
We flew up in the afternoon on a beautiful VFR day—Bill in the left seat and I in the right, landed, and got the tour of the approach control facility. Although the tower and approach were FAA facilities, the airport was also an Air Force base, home of the 437th Airlift Wing (I don’t recall if that was the unit there at the time, but that’s who’s there, now). Despite ILS (instrument landing system, an airborne navigation system) having been the standard precision approach guidance system used by commercial aviation for at least a decade, GCA (ground controlled approach) was the preferred system used by the military for many years afterwards. The tour included seeing the PAR (precision approach radar—the civilian nomenclature of GCA) positions.
That was the interesting part, as while PAR had once been common at busy airports before ILS became widespread, there couldn’t have been a half dozen FAA facilities left in 1970 that still ran PARs. The guys at CHS had the course scan and glide path scan displayed on their PAR scope just as shown in Strategic Air Command when Jimmy Stewart had to divert to Okinawa in his B-47 due to weather (“Thanks GCA—thanks for getting me down”). My friend Roddy, who ran GCAs when he was in the Army, told me he never had to buy a drink in a pilot’s bar.
Anyway, after the tour we retired to a local restaurant and had dinner with the leadership and a short rah-rah session with some others and headed back to the airport. Just as expected from earlier weather checks, some clouds and rain had moved in to the area, and while the ceiling was 30 or 40 (three or four thousand feet), visibility was less than three miles due to the rain. We would have to depart IFR. That was why I was along, so I climbed into the left seat and Bill climbed into the right (poor Steve, a non-pilot, was stuck in the back for the whole trip). I had cleverly typed a flight plan into the computer at work the evening before, so when I called for clearance they were all ready for us.
By then it was after dark and we climbed out in full IFR regalia—lights, strobes, pitot heat, etc., headed for CRG, climbing to 60 (six thousand). At that altitude, we didn’t actually get into ZJX airspace—it was tower enroute (from one approach control to another) all the way down—CHS, NBC, SAV, SSI, JAX. As we leveled out at 60, I noticed the lighting seemed a little dimmer, but we got our frequency change to NBC and switched over. We had also broken out of the cloud cover and rain and it was beautiful VFR night ahead.
The initial contact with NBC was okay, but by the time we got to the expected changeover point to SAV I realized that I hadn't heard anything from NBC for a while and the lights were even dimmer. I looked at the ammeter and it was showing the low side of the green arc but more importantly, it was taking a significant negative spike every time the strobes flashed. I noticed I still had the pitot heat on, which I switched off, then I started to power down the non-essential stuff—second radio, strobes, etc., to reduce the electrical load. Despite repeated attempts, I was utterly unable to regain radio communications, so I switched the transponder to the “comm failure” code.
We pressed on (as one is supposed to do in IFR with lost comm) while noticing ground fog beginning to obscure the landscape below. Over SAV I concluded that while we were okay to fly here in VFR conditions, the farther south one went along the Georgia coast, the swampier it gets. Swamps and night air are a good recipe for fog and there was already some down there. As a matter of fact, SAV was pretty well covered up. We decided we’d try to shoot an ILS at SAV.
Knowing that our transponder signal pretty well put ATC in a flight following mode, and being unable to establish any communications with SAV, I dialed up the localizer and proceeded outbound along it. I knew that would make our intentions pretty clear to the SAV controllers. I noticed that I was unable to hear the signals from the middle marker or outer marker, so I estimated our distance (DME—distance measuring equipment—wasn’t working either) and started a turn back in. I was unable to get the glide slope and thought at first I might try the approach without it—we could see lights through the fog—but frankly, I wasn’t happy with the quality of the localizer signal and ultimately decided to abandon that idea—as if there hadn’t already been enough red flags raised.
South being out of the question, and SAV no longer a possibility, NBC, where we’d had good ground contact a half hour earlier, seeemed like a good prospect. The only problem was that military airports are generally off limits to civilians. As controllers who worked closely with the controllers at NBC, we figured we probably had some good talking points, if necessary, but emergencies trump rules, so we declared an emergency (in the blind, because at this point we had zero confidence that the radio was working) and turned back northeast toward NBC.
We landed safely, if with some trepidation—good thing we practiced night landings without lights during my training—the “Follow Me” truck escorted us in and we were introduced to the Duty Officer, who was quite accommodating, once he got our story. Not accommodating enough to provide housing overnight, but at least he didn’t provide some in the brig. We got a taxi, who took us to some local motels, from which we had our pick of some really skanky facilities which will be easily imagined by any former E3 who spent time around a military base.
The next day we went out to the airport, checked the weather, checked the airplane (battery was dead), coordinated with the tower for a No Radio departure, and hand propped the airplane. By the way, if you’ve seeen old movies of mechanics hand propping airplanes, it’s not at all the same as with a modern high compression engine. “Switches off, brakes set.” Pull it through once (yikes, this is hard), then “throttle cracked—contact,” a mighty heave and it fired right up. It was only the second time I’d hand propped one, and the first was a Cessna 150—quite a bit less engine than the Cardinal.
Anyway, we got back to CRG (a non controlled airport where the plane was based), made all the appropriate phone calls once we landed, and went home. It turned out that the alternator belt had either failed or a pulley had slipped causing less electrical supply than the load we were pulling in that full on IFR departure in CHS. Nothing we did wrong, and it sure worked out better than it could have.
Oh, the title above? NBC is the MCAS associated with the Marine Recruit training base at Parris Island. With a nod to Billy Joel and his Vietnam anthem Goodnight Saigon, I appropriated a line from it to give this story a catchy title. Worked, huh?
Last updated: 13 November 2011