Vacuum Pump Failure

A vacuum pump failure is a “Jekyll and Hyde” situation: If it happens in visual meteorological conditions (VMC), it’s usually not a problem. In IMC, it’s an entirely different story. A pilot who doesn’t notice a vacuum failure quickly enough and/or doesn’t have good partial panel skills will quickly succumb to spatial disorientation. The results are usually fatal.

Vacuum Failure Strategies

  • Recognition: In IMC, it’s crucial to recognize the failure as soon as possible. The tiny vacuum gauges in many aircraft aren’t very helpful, but annunciator lights and other warning devices are effective.

  • Redundancy: If you frequently fly at night, or in IMC, consider a backup vacuum system (or electrically driven backup instruments) essential equipment.

  • Partial Panel: Keep your partial panel skills sharp, and carry something—sticky notes, suction cups, dollar bills—to cover failed attitude and heading indicators.

Electrical Failure

An electrical failure at night or in IMC is a serious emergency. Troubleshoot the obvious first. 

·      If the cockpit suddenly went dark, did you accidentally hit the master switch? 

·      If the ammeter is showing a discharge (or a zero reading on a load-type ammeter), the alternator may have tripped offline. Follow POH procedures for a reset. 

If the issue can’t be resolved, start reducing electrical load to the essentials: 

·      Drop back to one radio and minimal navigation gear, shut down unnecessary lights, and turn off anything else that’s drawing power. 

·      Stay in VMC if possible. If it’s IMC, declare an emergency and divert.

Electrical Failure Strategies

  • Night: Carry a couple of good, reliable flashlights and extra batteries.

  • Backup: Consider purchasing a portable transceiver, and/or a handheld GPS. Place the backup equipment in reach - it isn’t much use if stowed deep in the recesses of the baggage compartment.

Airframe/Control Problems 

Unlikely though it may be, if something goes wrong with the flight controls or the airframe, do whatever it takes to keep the airplane under control. If the problem is serious and you have a parachute (either for yourself or for the airplane), think about using it. Otherwise, the situation will likely call for equal measures of care, creativity, and good luck.


Weather-related problems are largely self-inflicted. Solid basic weather knowledge, coupled with good aeronautical decision making, will stop most weather emergencies before they get started. If you get into a weather-related emergency, the best course of action may be to land immediately - whether or not there’s an airport beneath you! The bottom line: You (and your passengers) will almost certainly walk away from a precautionary landing. The same can’t be said of a thunderstorm-related structural failure or a “graveyard spiral” resulting from VFR flight into IMC.


Tony Birth