Im quite good at not doing stupid things, I think. What I just learned is that Im not as good at doing smart things.
Departing North Las Vegas (VGT) in the middle of the day for a three-hour flight to Tucson, I did my normal preflight, which included checking that I had both gas caps. I took off once without one and noticed the gas coming off the back of the wing; cured me of that quick. We departed with full fuel – 40 gallons.
After the relative excitement of escaping the Class B we settled in for a leisurely flight, at first down the Colorado River to Bullhead City/Laughlin (IFP) and then direct to Tucsons Ryan Field. We were over Lake Mojave, about 25 miles north of IFP, when I smelled a little gas. A quick look at the fuel gauge (right wing only) in my 1977 Bellanca Decathlon revealed about a quarter tank. Asking my passenger, Aaron, to check the wings revealed gas coming off the back of the left wing.
Pucker time. The next look at the gauge showed less than a quarter tank. Thats not good.
We were over Cottonwood Cove at this time, a marina and trailer park on the west side of Lake Mojave. Across the lake is an abandoned strip with a dirt road paralleling it. Were talking the middle of nowhere. That was my backup, so we pressed on toward IFP. I found that a slight pitch-up attitude appeared to minimize the leak, it also bought us some altitude without giving up much airspeed.
I called IFP tower and advised our situation. We were 20 miles out by now. Tower gave clearance for straight in and inquired about the number on board. I responded two souls on board. Tower said theyd have emergency equipment ready. I sensed, or maybe just imagined, that Aarons attitude changed at this point.
The next look at the gauge showed it close to bottom. We didnt have enough altitude to glide in and couldnt get more anyway due to a ceiling. I decided that a safe landing in the bank was better than risking it.
I was lined up for a very leisurely circling descent to the abandoned field, but I was also checking out the paved road going into Cottonwood Cove on the west side of the lake. It looked good. No cars, uphill grade in a long straight section, and no power lines close by. I liked it and advised IFP of the switch. IFP responded with phone numbers for them and for Cottonwood Cove marina after confirming that I had a cell phone.
It was a very good landing, smooth as glass, no drama, a mild slip to get as much room as possible. We ended up with tons of road to spare. No radio contact with tower was possible so we shut her down. After turning the plane so it was completely off the road I tried phoning the tower. Number out of service. I tried twice more, same story.
I then tried Cottonwood Cove marina, they were there and had auto gas. By this time, Aaron had confirmed that the left tank fuel cap was on incorrectly. Also, a truck had arrived from the marina, just a couple on their way home. They offered a ride to the marina and had a five-gallon gas can and a funnel. Life was looking good and things had happened so fast that neither of us had time to just calm down and collect ourselves.
First trip, five gallons into left tank. Aaron stayed during second trip. On returning with the next five gallons, there were many fire trucks there. They were happy we were OK, as the tower had called them with a downed plane. I found that the number the tower had given me included an obsolete area code. I called the tower as the Laughlin police showed up and the US Park Service. They were glad we were OK, but the damage was done.
Many interviews. More police arrive from Las Vegas by helicopter. Much checking of documents. Much sympathy from fire folks, but lots of ribbing. One convinced me Id be billed for the tire marks on the side of the road and should be thankful I didnt hurt a cactus or a turtle. He also made it clear that this was the most excitement theyd had in a week and nobody wanted it to end soon – except Aaron and me.
The second five gallons overflowed the left tank. By now, the right tank read over a half tank. It dawned on me that as the left tank was being sucked out, it was draining the right tank through the crossfeed. We had landed with a full left tank and probably even a gallon or two in the right. This was joyous news as our lives descended further into bureaucratic oblivion.
My worst fears didnt come to pass and we were able to take off after much discussion. Largest audience Ive ever had but it wasnt too exciting; short taxi up to first bend in road, short downhill roll, rapid climb, quick rock of wings.
We landed at IFP about 15 minutes later. The plane took 13 gals. We called my wife and Aarons fiance, they had assumed wed stop in Laughlin and werent counting on seeing us soon. We gave them an ETA and saved any mention of the episode till we got home.
Aaron said he had been pretty scared, but was rock solid now. He said he had smelled gas before I had but didnt mention it. I was glad it turned out to only be a total of 3.5 hours of relatively minimal pain in the neck. The flight home was quiet, included a beautiful AZ sunset, but was otherwise uneventful. I really didnt replay the incident over and over or obsess about things; I did check the gas gauge a lot though.
My wife grinned and laughed at the story, was not the least bit anxious about it, and will still fly with me. I shouldve known shed be so understanding and supportive.
No word from Aaron yet.
• Check the gas caps on every flight. This one stupidity on my part set the whole chain in motion. No excuses, sir, it was me.
• Reassure the passenger that, while this was a concern and needed to be handled, we were never in any significant danger once wed discovered the leak. As PIC I am responsible for my passengers physically, mentally, and emotionally. Had I done this better, I wouldve saved my friend a lot of anxiety. I almost feel worse about this error than any other. I hope his fiance is able to understand.
• I am capable of an off-airport landing. I am proud of the decision to land rather than risk going on towards IFP. In hindsight, we had 20 gallons of fuel, but would that have been accessible to us? I still dont know and dont really need to know. Landing was a wise move.
• Call the tower on landing to let them know what happened. Not pursuing that further was totally wrongheaded of me and caused lots of extra hassle and lots of worry for others. I feel quite bad about this one too.
• Thoroughly checking the tanks on landing wouldve revealed not just the cause of the problem, which we knew, but that there was still 20 gals in the left tank. We couldve replaced the cap and been on our way, with just a short wait for the tanks to balance a little. Yes sir, it is within my ability range to be an idiot, repeatedly.
• The real lesson of #4 and #5 is to stop when the excitement is over, get collected, think everything through, then make a plan. Doing this wouldve cost five minutes and saved two hours.
• While I still fear greatly bureaucratic thinking and the hassle and problems it can cause, it is not a given. Most people in uniform are genuinely only concerned with your well being. Along with the good samaritans that helped with the twin gas runs, this was one of the good lessons.
• At times I wanted to blame the line-guy who filled us at VGT. I even called there and very calmly let them know what happened so they could learn from it. They were thankful the consequences were minimal and hopefully someone else will get a lesson too. The bottom line, however, is that I was at fault completely for the incident and the other escalations of hassle. I hope that others involved learn from it, but the blame belongs entirely to me.
Up? Down? Who Knows?
We had been experiencing unseasonably warm temperatures in upper Michigan and northern Wisconsin. I left Stambaugh, Mich., for Superior, Wisc., to check out my construction job in my Cessna 206. Stambaugh was 65 degrees and VFR. Superior was reporting light rain, visibility six miles and a 1,200-foot overcast.
As I reached Ashland, I switched from Minneapolis Center to Duluth Approach. Duluth reported a cell just to the south of Superior with heavy rain, moving northeast toward my position. I was about 50 miles out, and my Stormscope showed convective activity well south of my destination.
I was told to expect the GPS 31 approach and vectored to the initial approach fix. Everything was working flawlessly. I had flown this approach at least 50 times in the past year, and knew it inside and out. At the IAF, I pulled the plug to 1,200 feet.
It was raining hard; I mean, driving rain from about 20 miles out, but the Stormscope showed the significant weather still 20 miles south. During the descent, my altimeter started to bounce, jumping from -150 feet to 200 feet. The VSI was bouncing from +500 feet to -500 feet.
I was about to go missed when I broke out over the rail yard, two miles from the field. Only then did it dawn on me that I should have pulled the alternate static.
Shot in the Dark
I received my private pilot certificate at the ripe young age of 22 while attending college in a small Midwestern town in the early 1970s. Over the next five years, I flew somewhat regularly, sticking usually to one type of airplane.
It became increasingly difficult to find rental aircraft, as the flight schools seemed to be closing down, one by one. Eventually, in the early 80s, I gave up flying due to family responsibilities, mortgage payments and the like competing for my time and money. Over the next 15 years, getting back to flying was only a distant dream.
About two years ago a friend told me about a flying club in a rural area not too far from where I lived. The two Cessnas were old, but well-maintained and the rates were quite reasonable. What the heck, I thought.
I got a new medical certificate and after a few hours with an instructor I was back in the air and hooked again. I was approved to fly the 150 and training on the 172.
One Saturday afternoon, I decided to take the 172 up for an hour or so. I had about an hour and a half of daylight left and the winds were calm. I wheeled the airplane out of the hangar and was conducting my preflight when my instructor came out of the hangar.
Another club member had called from an airport about 15 miles south. He wanted to know if someone could pick up him and his boss and fly to another, Class D, airport about 30 miles away to pick up the boss Learjet.
I was a little apprehensive, due to the lateness of the afternoon, but the thought of ferrying two Learjet pilots to their airplane was too good to resist. They assured me Id be able to get there, deliver them and get back before dark. I hadnt flown at night in 20 years.
The pickup and dropoff of the passengers went without a hitch, and I flew the airplane well. But it was getting late. I took off into a beautiful sunset and contacted Departure to get flight following home. After making contact, I was given a heading to fly. When I keyed the mic to acknowledge, the digital display dimmed and the radio buzzed loudly. I tried again and got the same result.
The controller tried to contact me again, and the last thing I heard him say before the entire panel went dark was, Radar service terminated. Have a good evening.
I was right where I didnt want to be: flying an unfamiliar airplane after dark and in a pitch black cockpit with no flashlight. At least the engine was running.
The terrain was hilly, with the highest point about 2,000 feet msl. My last visual on the altimeter showed I was at 2,500 feet with the ceiling at 3,800 feet. The night was moonless, but there was plenty of civilization below to create a horizon.
I reassured myself that once upon a time I had been proficient at landing a 172 without a landing light. The only problem was that my home airport had pilot controlled lighting, which obviously I could not activate. It was on to the next airport, where I had originally picked up my passengers, because it had 24-hour runway lighting and no control tower.
I decided in the meantime to trim the airplane very slightly nose up while I crossed a ridge to ensure I had a margin of safety. Meanwhile I groped around the panel, looking for a popped circuit breaker or some other indication of why the electrical systems had failed.
While preoccupied with that, I suddenly realized Id climbed into the overcast. IMC in a dark cockpit was definitely something Id never trained for.
Fortunately, at that moment I found a popped breaker and everything came blazing back on. I reduced the electrical load, called Departure back and got vectors back home, where I landed without incident.
I realized that if you dont want to fly at night – or at any other particular time such as with looming weather – dont put yourself in the situation where it may happen. Carry a flashlight that works, even if you dont think youll be flying in the dark. Give yourself a chance to apply the lessons youve learned – even if they were long ago.