One Too Many Corners

Even if we have a lot of experience, we cant take a casual attitude to our flying.


Early in our flying careers, we do everything by the book. Watching a flight schools ramp, its not at all uncommon to see a student peering intently back and forth between the airplanes POH and, say, the engine compartment. We check everything during the preflight, even if the tires are still warm from the squawk-free flight just concluded. Thats as it should be since, after all, were learning what to look for and developing judgment on what to do if we find something.

Later in their careers, renters and club members tend to continue this ritual, perhaps without the POH in hand. Those fortunate enough to own their own airplanes tend to dispense with the meticulous inspections before every flight, reserving that ritual for each calendar quarter, for example, or every 25 flight hours. In between, we check the oil and tire pressure, verify the fuel on board, sample it and wipe down the collected bugs. Since were the only ones flying the airplane, we pretty much know its condition, Beyond the “killer items” and making sure the big parts are still attached, theres not that much to do.

Yes, its complacent of us, but the percentages are so overwhelmingly in our favor that theres little risk. Or is there?

After 500 or 1000 hours flying the same airplane over the same routes in the same weather, talking to the same controllers and parking in the same spots, its very easy to fall into the “It was fine last time I checked it” trap. Whether “it” is the engines oil level, tread remaining on the main-gear tires or a fairing with its stop-drilled crack, were loathe to spend much time or effort double-checking everything on the manufacturers preflight inspection list.

The problem with this casual behavior some would call it rather benign; others might get the vapors is that it often leads to approaching other elements of our flying with the same attitude. Deferring maintenance, “forgetting” to top the tanks, using out-of-date charts and bending recency of experience rules are just some areas where experienced pilots with ready access to personal aircraft might cut corners.

We can probably get away with this kind of a casual attitude toward flying for a while, or longer if we restrict our behavior only to one operational area. An example might be taking off with minimal fuel, but only if the weather is good. Or, we could fly with an outdated chart if we know the route, terrain and frequencies by heart. The danger arises when we lose sight of how many corners weve cut and where they are. Of course, we may never know how many corners are too many until its too late.


On March 8, 2005, at approximately 1745 Central time, a Cessna 172F impacted heavily wooded terrain during a forced landing approximately mile east of the approach end of Runway 23 at the Hot Springs (Ark.) Memorial Airport (HOT). The 40,000-plus-hour, multiple-ratings Airline Transport pilot and sole occupant sustained fatal injuries. Visual conditions prevailed. The flight departed from Sherrill, Texas, at approximately 1630, where a mechanic had performed the airplanes annual inspection. The pilot had owned the 1965-model airplane since it was new. He was headed home to a private airstrip near Caddo Gap, Ark., having departed it early that day with approximately 15 gallons of fuel aboard.


The airplane wreckage was found in a heavily wooded area, in a nose-down, right-wing-low attitude. Impact damage included the engine cowling, wing tips and leading edge of the right horizontal stabilizer. The basic shape and volume of the cabin was not altered. The fuel tanks in both wings were not breached. All major components of the airplane were at the main crash site. No pre-impact anomalies were found during the engine and airframe examinations.

The airplane was leveled, and approximately 1.5 gallons of clear automotive gasoline was drained from the airplanes fuel tanks. There did not appear to be an odor of fuel present when the investigation team first examined the wreckage. The wing-mounted, vented fuel caps were found secured.

When the fuel level transmitter from each fuel tank was removed, the float arms for each moved smoothly and were not restricted. Power was applied to the aircraft and each transmitter float moved through its full range of motion; valid indications were observed on both fuel level gauges. The fuel selector handle was found in the “Both” position. Total flight time, from when the pilot last refueled the airplane with 15 gallons, could not be determined.

Both front seats were found outside the aircraft. Rescue personnel had removed the seats to extract the pilot. The pilots seat was intact with the exception of the forward inboard roller assembly, which remained attached to the seat rail in the cabin. The lap belts for each seat were found intact. Shoulder harnesses were not installed, nor were they required. An autopsy was performed on the pilot, revealing he sustained head and chest injuries during the impact.

Probable Cause

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined the probable cause of this accident to include “loss of engine power due to the pilots failure to refuel resulting in fuel starvation. Contributing factors were the lack of suitable terrain for the forced landing, and a shoulder harness restraint system was not installed.”

The NTSB had an easy time of it with this accident. In fact, its report included evidence that, while the airplane had been well-maintained, some corners had been cut from time to time. This evidence included no record of an annual inspection the previous year, for example; required paperwork for automotive gasoline was not mentioned in the report. That the airplanes annual inspection took less than a full day may or may not be demonstrative of a cavalier attitude toward its operation.

But a high-time pilot died flying an airplane he had owned for 40 years, which he undoubtedly knew intimately. His knowledge probably included how long the actual annual inspection would take, how well the fuel gauges worked and how much fuel his travels that day would require. Its easy to speculate he was stopping into the Hot Springs airport for fuel before heading home to his private strip.

The record shows the pilot may have cut a few corners in his airplane ownership and operation. By itself, doing so may not indicate a too-casual attitude. But, like so many things in aviation, he cut one corner too many by not carrying enough fuel.


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