Went flying today in my own plane. Still need to work on adjusting the wash-out on the right wing and adjusting the brakes, but today I finally got the sight picture... mostly. Unfortunately, as we were on downwind at Lake Hood Strip, the radio (which we were having a little trouble with already, but I thought that was just me), decided to start giving all static and no transmission, then nothing at all.
What do you do when you can't talk to tower? First, you fly the airplane! Of all the things to fail on your airplane, the radio is the best, because you still have altitude, speed, and time. Don't panic just because you can't talk.
Second, stay predictable. If you were in a pattern, or headed somehwere, keep going. People who know where you were and what you were doing will know where you ought to be based on last report, and therefore try to avoid you based on what they expect you to do. So, we stayed on downwind, turned base, then turned final while trying to sort out the radio problem. However, if in the pattern at a towered airport, DO NOT LAND WITHOUT PERMISSION. Tower hadn't cleared us for landing or the option before the radio failed, so the intended wheel landing became a low pass, while the instructor checked the push to talk to see if the button was stuck.
Third, just because the radio failed doesn't mean we have to land immediately. We were at Lake Hood Strip, and the plane is based at Merrill. The instructor's truck was at Merrill. There's a radio shop within easy ambling distance of the tiedown - the best place to get the problem checked out and fixed. So we didn't seek permission to land - after the low pass, I climbed out. As we did, the CFI continued to work the problem. He changed frequency to ground, but couldn't raise them, or hear them. So we climbed above traffic pattern altitude, and headed for Merrill.
Now, while I do not encourage the use of cell phones in the air on a general principle - among other things, the FCC frowns on it, and more importantly, there is never a good time to be flying distracted, when the fecal material hits the rotating device, the pilot should use every available means of making the flight end safely. So as I climbed out, it would have been a great time for pilot not flying to get out the cell phone, if he had merrill tower's number, and call them. However, about the time we got the radio on an alternate power souce and verified it wasn't dead battery, the lower right panel of one of the tower's big windows lit up like a green LED flashlight pointed at you by a friend across the room. The controllers were on the ball, and on the light gun. Steady green means cleared to enter the pattern, and that was a warm and welcoming light.
We aggressively rocked the wings, flashing those big signal panels that the message was received and understood, and entered the pattern. On downwind, while I was still trying to trim this plane up and get her straight and level, my CFI was the first to spot a plane orbiting a nearby hospital, staying out of the pattern and waiting for us to land. As I turned base, I spotted another off my wing strut, casually circling the Muldoon overpass. And on final, we kept an eye on that tower, waiting. Would it be the red of wave-off, the flashing green of go around but keep trying, or the steady green of cleared to land?
Like a lit window of a friend's house after a long winter drive, the bright green light welcomed us home, and we rocked our wings like we'd spotted a friend waiting by baggage claim after a long flight. We landed carefully, gently, and pulled off the runway as we slowed down. Once the engine was back to idle, the instructor pulled out his cell phone, called tower, requested taxi clearance, and thanked them sincerely for their help.
Tomorrow: round three, with adjusted brakes, new radio, and a much better feel for the sight picture. I love my plane, and I'll learn to fly her well yet!