Earning Trust

You can be sure that I will never, NEVER trust a fuel gauge


About five years ago I was a student pilot with about 35 hours, when it came time for me and my CFI to try a dual cross-country flight.

We planned to depart Merrill Field in Anchorage, Alaska, that morning and fly direct to Ruth Glacier on the flank of 20,300-ft. Mt. McKinley. When I entered the hangar where my rented C-172 was parked, the owner greeted me and said that Mike, another student, had fueled the airplane the night before, flown one-half hour practicing touch-and-goes, then landed and returned the airplane to its hangar.

He also assured me that, to save time, the Skyhawk had already been pre-flighted and was ready to go. My instructor came in and also said the airplane was ready to go. He had several students scheduled for lessons that day.

We rolled the 172 out into the cold April morning. Both men tried not to look annoyed and stood aside when I insisted that the very least I should do was walk around the aircraft before climbing in. I began to briskly circle the aircraft, but as I walked back toward the tail, I noticed the left wing had a black O on top.

No fuel cap up here, I called. Moments before, when I had checked the fuel gauges in the cockpit, both tanks indicators had swung smartly to the Full mark.

As I checked the fuel levels visually, a line attendant from the FBO came running up with the missing cap in his hand. Mike had indeed refueled the airplane the night before, but somehow the fuel cap was not replaced. And when Mike flew those 30 minutes, much of the 51 gallons of useable fuel had been sucked out of the tanks.

We conducted a more thorough pre-flight check and taxied to the FBO. We put 44 gallons into those full tanks! Only about 7 gallons remained from the complete fill-up the night before, with only 30 minutes flown. If we had believed the gauges, we would have taken off and flown for perhaps 45 minutes (probably over the wild Kahiltna Glacier, a very bad place to attempt a wheel landing), run out of fuel and crashed.

At the time of this lesson I was in my late 40s. I was raised gently and pursued a college education, but was never inclined to question authority much. Yet it seems to me that with flying, unlike some other pursuits, the opposite of perfection could very well be death, not simply failure. You can be sure that I will never, NEVER trust a fuel gauge, a rule I learned during my first flying lesson!


Should Have Been Rained Out
I had just received my private license and was going on my first trip, visiting friends 500 miles away.

The trip there was fine, but the weather forecast coming back included a band of thunderstorms and an FSS warning of VFR not recommended.

I went anyway in a rented Archer with no storm detection equipment and soon found myself weaving in and out of thunderstorm cells. After the first two diversions, my route back was cut off.

Stupidly, I pressed ahead into the worsening band of storms, overflying airport after airport in my quest to get home. Although I managed to stay VFR, I found myself making much of the trip at less than 1,000 feet.

I finally arrived home, battered and exhausted, just before a monster storm hit the airport. I dont even want to think how close that first trip came to being my last.


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