July 10, 2002
You're in IMC and the electrics start to fade -- lots of clouds, no-coms,
iffy navigation -- what else could go wrong? As one of AVweb's own recently
discovered, you could lose your vacuum instruments as well. Features
Editor Scott Puddy recounts a heart-stopping moment and discusses how you
can keep the dirty side down if it happens to you, aided by some really cool
graphics courtesy of AVweb's Linda Pendleton.
were all trained to maintain control of an airplane in IFR following the
failure of the vacuum system or one or both of the instruments that are
traditionally powered by that system. The FAA Instrument Rating Practical Test
Standards require it. We call it "partial panel." We exhort one
another to fly partial panel more frequently to maintain currency in keeping
the wings level relying solely upon the electrically-powered turn coordinator.
What if the turn coordinator packs it in as well? How about simultaneous
failures of the electrical, vacuum and pitot-static systems? Could you
maintain control of the airplane using only the magnetic compass? Could you
fly "petite-panel" IFR?
It Could Happen To You
Last October, I was flying our Bonanza from Seattle back to my home field
in Concord, California. Engine start proceeded routinely and all instrument
indications were normal during runup. Then, about 15 minutes into the flight
after leveling at 7,000 FT MSL in IMC, I noticed a slight discharge on the
ammeter. A quick check of all the switches and circuit breakers revealed no
source for the problem. Cycling the alternator on and off did not help.
In the Bonanza only the bare-bones attitude indicator is vacuum powered.
The turn coordinator, the HSI, the flight director, the auto-pilot, the
Nav-Com's, the transponder (this occurred post-September 11 when operating
transponders were MANDATORY), and the GPS (not
to mention flaps and gear) all require 14 volts DC. An electrical failure is
not a good thing. I told ATC that I needed an immediate descent to VFR and a
vector for the ILS into Olympia. I switched everything off except for the GPS
and the No. 1 Nav/Com.
ATC cleared me to 3,000 on an intercept heading and I lowered the gear to
hasten the descent. The gear made it down on ship's power (but just barely).
The GPS went black. I could receive but not transmit on the Com, but was still
receiving the localizer. Olympia tower anticipated my arrival and gave me a green light as I approached
for an uneventful no-flaps landing. My handheld transceiver restored
communications for the taxi to transient parking.
The A&P traced the problem to a malcontent battery which he changed out
the following day. We treated him to a quick test flight around the pattern.
Less than 6 months and 100 hours following its installation, the vacuum pump
failed on the downwind leg.
Oh my .... Had the battery lasted another half hour, had I been a little
slower to detect the problem, or had the failure occurred at a less propitious
location, I would not have been flying partial-panel IFR; I would have been
flying petite-panel IFR.
Suddenly, the wisdom of training for the worse case failure scenario was
obvious. If you can handle that, you can handle any lesser situation. In the
case of instrument failures, the worse case scenario leaves you with no
electrical power, a failed vacuum pump, an iced-over pitot-static system,
and.... (we'll assume no engine fire because we want this to be realistic...).
Multiple systems failures are rare to be sure, but you are not
INVULNERABLE; it could happen to you. If it does, it is no time for
RESIGNATION; you can make a difference. If you can handle this, you can handle
anything. It's doable, and here's how you do it...
The First Order Of Business: Survival
The key to survival in any spatial disorientation emergency is aircraft
control. GA aircraft (excluding perhaps early-generation Cheyenne's) are
longitudinally stable. However, GA aircraft are unstable about the lateral
axis. As I discussed in an earlier
article, left to their own devices most
planes will put you into a spiral dive sooner or later. All that needs to
happen is for the bank angle to momentarily exceed 30 degrees or so. From
there, the over-banking tendency will pull the plane into a graveyard spiral.
To avoid a spiral dive you need to be able to maintain wings-level and that is
the essence of aircraft control.
The Whiskey Compass
The above graphic shows
a plane flying along a northerly heading somewhere in the northern
hemisphere. The pilot then banks into a left (westerly) turn. The
compass magnets were initially pointed away from the pilot (toward
magnetic north). As the plane accelerates laterally, momentum
tilts the compass card into the turn, the compass needles pivot downward
to align with the magnetic dip and the compass incorrectly shows a
course deviation to the east.
Here, the plane
initially is headed south and the compass magnets point toward the pilot
(toward magnetic north). The pilot then banks into a left (easterly)
turn. The compass card tilts into the turn and the compass needles pivot
downward, exaggerating the plane's progress in its turn to the east.
Magnetic dip error
disappears on headings of "east" or "west."
Here the plane is departing an easterly heading and the compass needles
initially point to the pilot's 9:00 o'clock position (north). The
compass card tilts as the plane begins its turn but it does not pivot.
The needles are already pointed downward as far as they can go.
The conventional instrument texts suggest that you can maintain wings-level
using the standard-issue whiskey compass merely by keeping the compass from
turning. That is so but it isn't as simple as it sounds. As a starter, it is
helpful to have a good understanding of compass construction and compass
characteristics (a.k.a. "errors").
An aircraft magnetic compass is an unpretentious device consisting of a
sealed outer case containing a pivot assembly that supports a floating compass
card. Attached to the compass card are two or more bar magnets that
orient the compass card to the north. The card rotates freely and can tilt up
to 18 degrees. The case is filled with an acid-free kerosene that dampens
oscillations and lubricates the pivot assembly. The pivot assembly is
spring-mounted to dampen aircraft vibrations so that the compass heading is
Reading A Magnetic Compass
People accuse the magnetic compass of rotating backwards because they don't
understand it. Fundamentally, the compass card doesn't turn at all. It just
sits there pointing northward while the airplane rotates around it. If you can
visualize that, you can readily determine whether you're turning left or
right. If the compass card appears to be rotating clockwise (but you know that
it's actually stationary), you can visualize that the airplane is turning
If that doesn't work, compare where you were to where you're going. If you
were headed east a moment ago and are approaching a heading to the south,
you're turning right. Imagine yourself standing in an Iowa cornfield if that
helps. "Let's see, I was headed toward New York but I'm turning in the
direction of Mexico...that would be a right turn."
If that doesn't work, you're turning right if the numbers are getting
larger; you're turning left if the numbers are getting smaller.
If that doesn't work either, remember that the compass rotates backwards.
Magnetic Dip/Tilt/Pivot Error
Compass errors include: variation, deviation, oscillation and magnetic dip.
The last of these, which might be re-titled "magnetic
dip/tilt/pivot" error, is the one that significantly affects
"Magnetic dip" is a reference to the vertical orientation of the
earth's magnetic field. As with a bar magnet, the lines of force pass through
the center of the earth, exit at both magnetic poles, and bend around to
re-enter at the opposite pole. At the equator the field is essentially
parallel to the earth's surface. At greater distances from the equator, the
magnetic field dips increasingly toward the earth's surface. The bar magnets
in an aircraft compass will attempt to align themselves horizontally and
vertically with the earth's magnetic field. Anywhere in North America, if
unconstrained, they would point northward and downward.
However, the aircraft compass bar magnets are constrained because they are
attached to the floating compass card. In all phases of flight, the compass
fluid and compass card will sit perpendicular to the total G-force acting on
the plane. In unaccelerated flight, the sole G-force (gravity) pulls straight
down. The compass card will be level and the magnets can rotate along only the
horizontal plane. Thus constrained, they will align themselves as closely as
possible with the magnetic field by pointing toward magnetic north.
"Tilt" occurs in accelerated flight because the force opposing
acceleration (a.k.a. "inertia" or "momentum") pulls on the
fluid and compass card like the moon pulls the tides. In a turn, momentum
pulls the fluid and compass card to the outside of the turn. Objects in motion
tend to stay in motion and the internal compass components will attempt to
continue along a straight path as the horizontal component of lift accelerates
the plane through the turn. Pulled outside the turn, they tilt into the
Contrary to a common misconception, the airplane's bank angle causes no
compass error except insofar as it correlates with rate of turn. You can prove
that to yourself in a car with a clear-glass, liquid-filled container. As the
car turns left it will not tilt into the turn, but the liquid will. You can
also experiment in an airplane using the same liquid-filled container. In a
turn the liquid will tilt into the turn. However, in a forward slip (bank but
no turn) the liquid will remain level. G-force, not bank angle, is the culprit
Changes in speed have similar ramifications. As an airplane accelerates
forward (speeds up), inertia pulls back on the fluid and compass card. They
tilt forward. As an airplane decelerates (slows down), momentum pulls the
fluid and compass card forward. They tilt back.
"Pivot" occurs whenever "tilt," by enabling motion
along the vertical plane, allows the compass magnets to align themselves more
closely with the earth's magnetic field by pivoting left or right.
The error is most pronounced upon turning from a heading of north or south.
On a northerly heading the compass magnets are pointing to the pilot's 12:00
o'clock position (north), situated horizontally in line with the longitudinal
axis of the airplane. As the plane begins a left turn, the fluid and compass
card will tilt to the left. The compass magnets will still be horizontal and
oriented toward 12:00 o'clock (north). Now, however, they are free to move
vertically. Capitalizing on that opportunity, the magnets will pivot downward,
counter-clockwise into the turn, and the compass will falsely accuse the plane
of initiating a turn to the right.
On a Southerly heading, the compass magnets will rest horizontally,
pointing to the pilot's 6:00 o'clock position (north). As the plane starts a
left turn, the fluid and compass card again will tilt left. Given the
opportunity to point downward, the magnets will rotate the compass card
clockwise, exaggerating the plane's progress in its left-hand turn.
There is no turning error upon turning from a heading of east or west. For
example, on an easterly heading the compass magnets will be positioned
horizontally at the pilot's 9:00 o'clock position. As the plane rolls into a
left turn, the compass, the fluid and compass card will tilt left and the
compass magnets (which are pointed toward the direction of tilt) will point
downward to the maximum extent permitted by the tilt angle. Since the compass
magnets are already pointed north and there is no opportunity for the compass
magnets to point further downward, the compass card will not pivot except to
the extent that airplane actually changes heading.
Two Sides and Two Safe Havens
It should be apparent from the above that a magnetic compass has a dark
side, an embellished side, and two safe havens. The dark side is to the north.
If you depart wings-level from a northerly heading the compass will recommend
the wrong control input, which could lead to a loss of control. The
embellished side is to the South. If you depart wings-level from a Southerly
heading, the compass will overstate your turn. That
can lead to over-corrections, pilot-induced oscillations and a loss of
control. The safe havens are east and west. There the compass will respond
correctly and proportionately to the airplane's rate of turn.
Flying Petite Panel IFR
So...the entire panel just went black. What's a pilot to do?
The first three steps in responding to any in-flight emergency are: 1) Fly
the airplane, 2) Fly the airplane, and 3) Fly the airplane. Tell everyone
(including ATC, Muffy and Junior) that you're busy handling an emergency right
now. You'll fill them in after a few minutes.
The panel is a mess and you're disoriented. Anything that you do with the
yoke will probably be the wrong thing. It's time to give the airplane its
head. Return the ailerons to neutral and let go. If the wind noise is
beginning to sound like you've departed Kansas for Oz, you're probably also
going too fast and it's time to chop the throttle and drop the gear.
Fold your hands in your lap and study the compass. When you actually
experience a multiple systems failure, you'll probably be turning left or
right by the time all the shouting dies down. That is not altogether a bad
thing. The compass can mislead you concerning your direction of turn only as
the airplane commences a turn. Once the airplane is established in a turn, the
compass can give erroneous static information concerning your heading at any
given moment. However, the compass will give accurate trend information. It
will reliably report your direction of turn through 360 degrees. Using any of
the methods discussed above, or any combination of them, determine your
direction of turn.
Next, assess your rate of turn. The compass changes 10 degrees every 6
seconds in a half-standard rate turn. If it's spinning faster than that, apply
opposite rudder to shallow the turn.
Your goal is to establish a gradual turn in a known direction until you
encounter "W" or "E" on the compass card. That's your safe
haven. Once you get there, stop the turn with opposite rudder and wait for the
wind noise to die down. When it does, reconfigure the plane for a slow cruise.
The plane was stable before the panel went black and should be stable
afterwards so long as you maintain wing-level and all the control surfaces are
You learned to "step on the ball" during private pilot training.
Here the mantra is to "step on the line." Whenever the lubber line
drifts right or left of "W" or "E," apply rudder on that
side to re-center your safe-haven identifier. (Don't worry about committing
that to memory. You'll quickly figure it out with a little experimentation.)
Once you've satisfied yourself that you can hold a heading of "W"
or "E," you have regained control of the airplane. It's time to
reassure Muffy and Junior, contact ATC, and obtain a vector to VFR (if you
don't already know where it is). Your preference is to head due east or due
west, but you can accept a heading to the south.
Avoid northerly headings if you can. If north is the only way out of Dodge,
remember that you're on the dark side of the compass. If you initiate a turn
to the left the compass will initially show a turn to the right. However, if
you allow the turn to continue, the improper indication will correct itself and
the compass will begin to show a turn to the left. So....if you're headed to
the north you need to demonstrate patience. You can't react to the compass's
initial indications. You have to wait it out. It's doable, but it's dicey.
If you ever begin to doubt your ability to control the airplane on a
northerly heading, start over. Initiate a slow turn in either direction until
you encounter a safe haven ("E" or "W"). Regain control.
Regain confidence. Reestablish communications with ATC and request a heading
away from the dark side.
Like any other emergency procedure, it is best to rehearse this process
before you have to do it for real. So ... the next time you're out flying with
a hood and a half-dozen spare instrument covers in search of something to
R. Scott Puddy is an ATP, CFI-I, MEI who teaches out of Livermore Airport (LVK) in Livermore, Calif. Scott is type-rated in the Beech/Raytheon King Air 300 series but regularly flies a V35 Bonanza or a B55 Baron and practices law in San Francisco.