T he first indication something was wrong came when the lights started to fluctuate.
Just minutes later, 19-year-old Sarah Steves was in the dark.
And she hadn’t found the airport yet.
Losing the alternator in the family car can be an inconvenience, but when the same part stops functioning in an airplane at 7,500 feet in the sky the results can be deadly.
A North Granville resident attending Daniel Webster College in Nashua, N.H., as an aviation student working to become a commercial pilot, Steves was on the final leg of a cross-country journey flying from Glens Falls to Nashua and back to school for Monday classes.
Steves came up about 30 miles short of her final destination and had an experience many pilots never have during an entire career – an in-flight emergency.
On her birthday, Sunday, Jan. 25.
Steves had just flown from Nashua to Portland, Maine, and on to Ithaca and into Glens Falls. She had just finished meeting with her parents, John and Sue Steves of North Granville, at the airport in Glens Falls before resuming her flight back to New Hampshire.
Steves took off in the single engine Cessna 172 Skyhawk just after 6 p.m.
She said she was at “cruise” flying at an altitude of 7,500 feet, when she began to notice the problem.
“I had just gotten past Vermont when I realized the lights started to flicker,” Steves said.
“I was thinking, ‘that’s not good,’” she said.
A check of her instruments completed the picture and showed how bad the situation was, “I looked at my amp meter. It was showing ‘negative 30’ and I thought “that’s really not good,’” she said.
Steves began to do what multiple hours of training and flight time ingrained in her and started trying to deal with the situation. She shut off unneeded lights and dimmed others.
She then made a key radio call.
Steves called Boston Center, the air traffic control center who had been following the flight, and told them she might have an in-flight emergency.
She asked for and was given a bearing to the nearest landing strip, which happened to be in Keene, N.H.
“He told me it should be ‘at your 9 o clock you should see it’ but I couldn’t,” she said.
Little did Steves know it but the wheels had already begun to turn on the ground as emergency personnel were being alerted.
Meanwhile Steves continued to lose electrical power and continued to turn off non-essential systems to reduce the drain on the electrical system.
The airport in Keene, Dillant-Hopkins, is not manned 24-hours a day and the runway lights are not left on, pilots have an on board system to trigger the lights, Steves said, but the trick is first finding the airport at night. This night was moonless with no stars and as luck would have it, was positioned in a valley surrounded by hills.
What followed were several tense minutes of searching for an airport in the dark while system after system had to shut down, including critical item for landings – the flaps.
“At that point I had lost everything,” she said. Steves said she had one hand on the yolk, one on the throttle and her checklist in the other. She held her flashlight I her mouth to allow her to read the checklist to prepare to land.
Steves said as the situation became increasingly dire she found herself thinking about family and friends and felt a little panicked.
“Is this it? Am I done? For a minute I thought I was toast,” Steves said.
“The whole time it was like when you can see an accident coming, all of those things rush through your head,” she said.
“That’s when the help of a controller really makes a difference,” she said. The air traffic controller helped her to calm down as she worked to get the plane down safely. “I don’t know what his name was or who was on duty at the time but he did his job, he made me a priority,” she said.
Steves said the controller was constantly speaking with her even as battery power dwindled and another aircraft was providing radio relays with Boston. “He was constantly asking me ‘What’s your position now, what are you thinking about doing now?,” she said.
“Talking to a human really helps,” she said. The calming voice, one she says she does not know but hopes to find out about, helped her to focus on the task at hand and not get caught up in her emotions.
“I didn’t realize I had been crying until I got on the ground,” she said. Steves said she hopes to be able to contact that controller to at least send him a letter and thank him for what he did that night.
“When I finally found the airport and saw the lights it was kind of like a Eureka moment,” she said.
But the work was not complete.
Aircraft of all sizes depend on wing flaps to reduce speed on approach to safely transition from flight speed to a reasonable speed for returning to the ground. No electrical power meant no electrically powered flaps.
Steves credited the teacher who instructed her when she received her private pilot’s license locally, Dick Bovee in Argyle for safely landing the plane without flaps. Older planes and certain models don’t have flaps and must be ‘side slipped’ to create drag to slow down for landing. It was something she had done on many other flights before, although not in the dark and without instruments.
“Getting my private there was one of the things that helped,” she said.
Although the plane came down a bit hard because it was difficult to tell how high she was above the ground with lights on the plane, “It all went fairly well,” she said, “it bounced a little but it went better than I expected.”
Because of the conversation she had with Boston Center fire trucks were rolling at the airport when she arrived, “They had no idea what kind of shape I was in or what the emergency was,” she said.
Steves said the incident was reviewed and instructors and the FAA agreed she had done everything exactly as she should have.
While reviewing what took place Steves said she had a chance to hear the recordings of the entire incident. “I had no idea that I sounded that upset,” she said.
Steves also credited the school, with preparing her to fly, but also for getting her back in the cockpit.
Immediately after the flight, when she called home, Steves said she told her grandmother that she never wanted to fly again.
As it turned out never was about 24 hours.
Instructors at the school had Steves in the air the next day trying to build confidence to ‘get back on the horse’ and not allow any doubt to begin to creep in to her mind.
“It was good for me to get in a plane and just go no matter how much I didn’t want to,” she said.
Steves said once she had some time to process the event, she was eager to return to something she had a passion for and she planned to return to the skies for a solo flight one week to the day from the in-flight emergency that brought so much attention.
“It is still a very real and very scary memory. I know that I handled it well, but it sticks with you my next night solo will be difficult,” she said.
With everything turning out all right, Steves said one of her biggest concerns was failing to complete the flight, regardless of the reason. “It was a devastating thing for me I was about 30 minutes from my destination, that was one of the worst parts; it was a big mission and it didn’t get completed,” Steves said. Fortunately for her the only part of the flight she’ll have to repeat will be the Keene to Nashua leg.
The entire experience lasted only five to seven minutes from the time the light flickered until she found the airport and landed. “You have to be quick in diverting somewhere,” Steves sai
d. In fact if she had been just a handful of minutes further along in the flight, Steves said, her options for landing dwindle to nothing.
“I definitely think that someone was looking out for me,” she said.
Steves’ father, school board member John Steves said Thursday, “I’m thankful everything came out the way it did.”
Despite some reservations about his daughter’s flight training initially, Steves said he now feels more at ease when Sarah is behind the yolk instead of behind the wheel due to the amount of training she receives and the amount of attention each aircraft receives. “I worry a lot more about her driving to and from the airport,” he said.