Air In The Tanks


I was flying my Cessna T210R Turbo Centurion from the Westchester County Airport (KHPN) in White Plains, N.Y., to the Dekalb-Peachtree Airport (KPDK) in Atlanta, Ga., on a dark night. I departed KHPN IFR but encountered unlimited visibility over North Carolina and cancelled. Before takeoff, I observed line personnel fill both fuel tanks. I had planned to have an hour’s fuel reserve on landing at PDK, and there hadn’t been any unforecast headwinds. However, as I passed over Greenville, S.C., at 12,500 feet, both fuel gauges showed the tanks nearly empty.

Wiggling the fuel gauge wires behind the panel sometimes fixes an inaccurate reading, but this time there was no change. While I was confident my fuel calculations were correct, I decided to make a precautionary landing. From 12,500 feet, I could spiral down to Greenville or descend for Toccoa, Ga., some 50 nm ahead. I chose Toccoa.

Crossing the VOR at 3000 feet, I only needed a gentle turn to line up for Runway 6. Rolling out of the turn, the engine sputtered and stopped dead. My attempts to restart it weren’t successful. I was about five-and-a-half miles from the runway threshold at just less than 3000 feet agl. A quick mental calculation told me it would be close, but I could make it. About a mile out, I was down to 400 feet agl and thought I had it made. That’s when the landing lights showed treetops about 100 feet below me.

Rather than hitting a tree head- on, I reduced airspeed and, at the last moment, stalled the airplane just above the trees. It fell into tree branches, which stopped any further descent about 10 feet above ground. The wings and horizontal stabilizer were destroyed but the fuselage essentially was undamaged. I bruised my hip from the seatbelt. After kicking open my door and dropping the rest of the way to the ground, I started walking toward what I thought was the runway but instead came to a road after some 20 minutes. Eventually, a local law enforcement officer picked me up and I made it to a hotel for the night.

After a lengthy search the next morning, local police and I finally found the airplane. The tanks were empty, and when the FAA showed up, they weren’t happy. Fortunately, the FBO certified the tanks had been filled and since I had been IFR most of the way, we had good evidence that I should have had 1.5 hours of fuel remaining per the book. Everyone was baffled, but FAA didn’t bust me. My only theory was that a newly installed Shadin fuel flow device was reading low and I hadn’t picked that up from the EGT. It was a mystery.

Several years later, I learned of a 210 that had been dismantled. When its wings were reinstalled and empty tanks filled, the meter indicated about 20 gallons fewer than book capacity: Air was being trapped in the tanks, preventing them from being completely filled.


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