Undoubtedly the worst moment in my flying career so far was the day I ran out of fuel and wrote off a perfectly good airplane through my own stupidity. Ill never forget it.
They say accidents result from a chain of small, seemingly insignificant events that eventually add up. In my case, the first link in the chain was an absence of paperwork. I was flying a light twin in which it was not possible to dip the tanks, so we had to rely on fuel consumption records, with the fuel gauges as backups.
On that particular day, the fuel records were missing, so I had to rely solely on the fuel gauges. This didnt worry me too much; Id been flying this plane for some time and knew the gauges were pretty accurate. They indicated about one-quarter full, which was just enough for the planned flight. It was also as much fuel as I wanted to take in order to maximize payload. I had a full load of passengers to carry.
As part of my routine pre-takeoff planning, I checked the single-engine climb performance figures (we were close to MAUW) which indicated that a small, but positive, rate of climb could be expected on one engine. I also decided to take off on a crosswind runway instead of a longer into-the-wind runway, because of better forced-landing options in that direction. Into the wind, there were none. As it turned out, that was the only smart decision I made that day.
As we taxied out, I mentally rehearsed the engine-out drills, as I normally did. I thought I was ready for anything. Boy, that was a mistake! Immediately after takeoff, at about 50 feet and just as I passed over the end of the strip and selected gear up, the left (critical) engine lost all power. After a second or two of shocked surprise, I got into the engine failure drills, cleaned up the airplane and feathered the prop. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion; talk about the swimming in glue syndrome!
But the airplane didnt appear to be climbing. I confirmed the throttle was firewalled on the good engine, gear and flaps were up, blue-line speed, left wing up slightly and half-a-ball out. Everything was correct, but we still werent climbing!
Ahead was a small rise in terrain, and some distance beyond that I knew there was a set of high-voltage power lines. At the rate we were going, it didnt look as though we would clear them. I considered my options.
Just ahead there was plowed field – fairly small, but big enough to put down in, if necessary. I hesitated briefly. Should I carry on and hope for the best? I decided that was too risky and opted to put down while I still could be sure Id be under control. I decided to land in the field. I cut the power, selected gear down and started to lower the flaps. The ground seem to come up very quickly, and then we were down and sliding across the ground toward a fence. After a short slide, we groundlooped and came to a stop in a cloud of dust. I shut down the remaining engine and climbed out of the plane, my legs shaking. What had I just done?
It turned out that the fuel gauges were over-reading and the left tank was almost completely empty. The nose-up attitude after take-off had uncovered the fuel outlets and starved the engine of fuel. The accident was rightly attributed to pilot error, and its something I will never live down.
I believe that my decision to land in the field was correct under the circumstances, but the investigation pointed out that my impression of the aircraft being in a descent while flying towards gently rising terrain could have been a visual illusion, and that the aircraft might, in fact, have been climbing or at least maintaining altitude.
Well, its easy to be wise after the event, but how much better never to be in that situation in the first place.
Trials and Trimulations
Renters had complained that the elevator trim on the Cessna 182 I leased back to our flying club was stiff, so we had maintenance look at it. The mechanic signed off on the trim tab repair and returned the plane to service.
I flew it as soon as it was back from maintenance. As soon as I rotated I knew something was wrong.
The airplane was staying on the ground and climbed only slowly and then only after a strong pull on the yoke. I told the tower I had to get back on the ground ASAP and they cleared me to land. I had gained a few hundred feet and turned to downwind. By then Id guessed what the problem was – the trim was backward.
I had enough time and altitude to gently try the trim wheel, and immediately could tell this was the case. I dialed in a little nose down trim and the airplane climbed easily. I landed uneventfully.
At the maintenance hangar, the mechanic confirmed that he had rigged the cables backward in the tail, and corrected the problem with apologies.
Since then, I added to my preflight checklist to set the trim wheel to the takeoff position when first in the cockpit to put down the flaps and then check for the proper position of the tab during the walkaround.