By PHILLIP BANTZ
NORTH SWANZEY — When a plane had electrical problems Sunday in the inky black sky above Keene, a young pilot inside a dark cockpit relied on a flashlight, her training and help from air-traffic controllers and a local pilot.
The local pilot, Richard S. Bendel, was working at the Keene-owned Dillant-Hopkins Airport in North Swanzey when a telephone call came in around 6:30 p.m. from the Boston Center National Air Traffic Control Association.
Bendel was told to turn on the runway lights. A 19-year-old pilot, Sarah Steves, was in the middle of an in-flight emergency and she was headed his way in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk.
“They told me it was an electrical issue. She was having problems with the lights, radio and navigation. At this point it’s imperative that she gets on the ground,” Bendel said. “You could continue to fly, but without a navigation system it becomes kind of dicey.”
Bendel chose not to communicate with Steves, a first-year aviation student at Daniel Webster College in Nashua, because she needed to leave her radio open to talk with Boston air-traffic controllers. They were acting as her ears and eyes.
This was Steves’ first solo night flight to another airport. She’d flown out of Nicholas N. Tamposi Aviation Center in Nashua, where the college has a flight training center, landed in Glens Falls, N.Y., and was coming back to Nashua when she realized the plane was having electrical problems.
“She figured out early enough that she was losing power and started turning off nonessential electrical items to start shedding the load to save as much battery power as possible,” Bendel said. “This is all part of flight school training.”
Bendel manages Monadnock Aviation, which has a contract with Dillant-Hopkins to provide services to pilots and their aircraft. He also works as a flight instructor.
As Steves closed in on Dillant-Hopkins, air-traffic controllers relayed information to her on wind speed and direction and approach patterns, Bendel said.
The chance of the plane descending too quickly and crashing into homes or terrain as it approached the runway was slim, he said.
“If you know the pattern of the airport, and she did, because it’s fairly standard, then I don’t see an issue with flying the pattern at night,” Bendel said. “As a pilot, if you think they’re worried about me running into their house, trust me, I’m worried about running into their house.”
Bendel could only listen to Steves’ responses to Boston Center as she descended into the valley, and then her communication with air-traffic controllers ceased.
The mountains act as a shield, blocking radio signals being sent long distances after a plane reaches a certain altitude, Bendel said.
“She had to do everything in the dark. She had no landing light. She had no panel or instrument lights. The only light she had was a handheld light, which she had in the cockpit,” Bendel said. “It’s extremely difficult to fly at night without lights.”
While Steves had the flashlight, Bendel said it would have been hard to use while steering the plane and using the radio. That’s why she had to trust the air-traffic controllers, and her skill, he said.
All Bendel could do was wait and listen for the rumble of the plane’s engine in the darkness.
“Then I get another call from Boston Center. They’re saying she has landed. I couldn’t see her at this point. It was very dark that night,” Bendel said. “I’m out there listening for her and then I can hear the engine in the background. Sure enough, here she comes around the corner.”
Bendel directed Steves to a spot where she could park the plane, and then he helped her step out onto the runway.
“She opened the aircraft and she just started crying,” he said. “The first thing I did was hug her. I just let her know I was really, really glad she was safe. I was obviously very worried about her. It was a tough, traumatic experience for her, but she did an absolutely fantastic job.”
Bendel was not scheduled to be at the airport that night, but he was called back earlier in the evening to help another pilot whose plane was having electrical problems before takeoff. He’d just gotten the plane fixed and off the ground, and was closing his office when Boston Center called.
“I don’t know what would have happened if I wasn’t there. I guess she would have landed at an empty airport,” Bendel said. “I was basically there for emotional support more than anything else. She can still key up the (runway) lights with her radio, but that’s only if she can communicate.”
The plane’s alternator may have died in mid-flight, according to Bendel and Tom L. Teller, a professor of aeronautics at Daniel Webster.
The cause of the electrical malfunction will not be known until the plane, which Teller said was not damaged during the landing, is inspected.
Daniel Webster’s maintenance coordinator was working with officials at Dillant-Hopkins to make sure the plane is checked out and mechanically sound before it’s flown back to Nashua.
Every plane at Daniel Webster is given a pre-flight inspection to ensure it is in working order before it leaves the runway, but that check does not include the alternator, Teller said.
More thorough mechanical inspections are conducted periodically, and records from the past three years showed no reports of in-flight electrical malfunctions with any of the college’s 25 planes, he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration has launched an investigation into the incident, which is standard procedure, said New England Region spokeswoman Arlene Salac.
“We have to look at the aircraft, talk to the pilot and any witnesses and then put together a report,” Salac said. “The main concern is the actions of the pilot. We’ll also look at the aircraft to see what, if any, mechanical problems exist.”
Steves obtained her pilot’s license last summer when she was 17. She works at the Nashua airport moving planes in and out of hangars, and aspires to a career as a commercial or corporate pilot, said her father, John W. Steves of North Granville, N.Y.
Sarah Steves, who could not be reached for comment, had a brief visit with her family before she tried to fly back to Nashua. She called them after her harrowing landing.
“She was a little upset,” John Steves said, “but we told her she did a good job and to use it as a lesson so you’ll know what to do next time when something happens.”
Sarah Steves — who was flying the day after her emergency — learned more Sunday night than many pilots learn after hundreds of hours of flight experience, Bendel said.
“While it was traumatic for her, it was important that she went through that,” he said. “The pilots that are able to put a passenger jet in the Hudson River and everybody walks away, they started out with small things like that.”