Full Tank, No Fuel

If I had not ... deviated from my clearance I may have ended up a statistic


I was on a cross-country flight in instrument weather with my family in a rented Cessna 177RG. We were headed from Houston to Graham, Texas, which is west of Fort Worth.

This model 177 does not allow selection of the right fuel tank or left fuel tank only. Its similar to a 152 in that the choice is either fuel on or fuel off. I was surprised when I checked out in the airplane and flew an instrument refresher two days prior to the trip that a complex airplane was designed in this manner – and I have more than 5,800 hours in light aircraft and another 2,200 in jets and turboprops.

I was at 4,000 feet when, after about 1 hour of flying time, I became convinced I was experiencing a fuel imbalance. Indications were that fuel was flowing out of the right tank only. I yawed the airplane, applied the electrical fuel pump and tried everything that came to mind to get the fuel flowing from the left tank, short of cycling the fuel selector to Off.

At 1.3 hours I was given a climb to 5,000 feet for traffic, further increasing my fuel burn. At 1.6 hours, with the left tank still reading full, the right tank was down to about the mark. I asked center for an immediate vector to the nearest airport with an instrument approach. I was pointed to Granbury Municipal, located approximately 17 miles ahead. I calculated that I had about 30 minutes of usable fuel in the right tank. I kept requesting a descent to the minimum vectoring altitude and made the nature of my concern aware to ATC, but still no descent. When the clock hit 1.8 hours since takeoff, I used the magic words: Center, Im declaring an emergency at this time.

I was given my descent and all other traffic was moved out of my way. The weather was reported at 1,700 overcast. The minimum vectoring altitude was 1,900 feet, and armed with the knowledge of the reported weather I applied FAR 91.3(b) and kept right on descending. I broke out at 1,800 feet right on top of the field. Now 1.9 hours in the air, I used an idle power approach and landed without further incident.

When I opened the left tank, there was enough back pressure in it that fuel actually overflowed. The right tank took 23.3 gallons, meaning there had been 0.7 gallons usable left. It was then that I realized that if I had not used my emergency authority and deviated from my clearance I may have ended up a statistic.

A maintenance check later showed that the fuel vent lines had been twisted when reinstalled after some wiring work on the wing tip nav lights. This was not discovered until other people after me had similar experiences even though both the owner of the airplane and the FBO that operated it knew of the problem. I had even been criticized by an experienced pilot for not letting the right tank just run dry, at which point the left tank surely would have begun to flow.

In Granbury, I had the plane refueled and told my story to a couple of people. The FBO attendant asked why I thought to declare an emergency. It seems he had known someone who a few years ago had a similar problem, pressed on to the destination, and ran out of gas. The pilot and his passengers are no longer around.

I dont know why I did, although once I was safely on the ground it seems obvious that it was an emergency situation. Maybe it was my many hours of simulating emergencies as a CFII. Maybe those years of military training stuck with me long after I was a general aviation pilot. Id like to think that a brand-new instrument-rated private pilot with 200 hours would have done the same thing I did, or even declare an emergency sooner. The bottom line is that things werent right and in order to do what I needed to do I needed priority handling from the controllers. This was, therefore, an emergency.

I learned five lessons from this trip.

1) Ill never rent, borrow or buy an airplane with more power than a 152 unless the fuel tanks can be individually selected.

2) Ill log local time in any rental airplane I plan to take on a long cross country, in weather, with my family.

3) Knowing the regulations and applying them, even if it means deviating from ATC instructions, is paramount if you want to fly safely.

4) If the question ever enters my mind about whether I should declare an emergency, then Ive just answered my question. I will declare an emergency.

5) Remember to maintain aircraft control, analyze the situation, take proper action, land as soon as practical. I admit, the military had me repeating those in my sleep.


A Little Confidence was Too Much
I had flown to Lee Vining over Yosemite National Park via Tioga Pass. I flew at 11,000 feet, which was high enough to clear Tioga Pass (10,000 feet) and low enough to see the scenery.

I left Lee Vining in the dark, climbing back to 11,000 feet, figuring that would be high enough to clear the pass I would use on the return trip, Sonora Pass (9,600 feet).

I could see the snow-covered mountains under the starlight and soon recognized the peaks that formed the Sonora Pass. I could also see the lights of the Marine base on the east side of the pass. I figured I had it made and headed toward the pass at an angle while still about 10 miles out.

Somehow my mind must have drifted, because suddenly a white peak soaring higher than my plane appeared on my right. Something was wrong because it didnt look like the pass and I had gotten there too soon. I had the presence of mind to begin veering toward that peak, fearful of others tall peaks in the area that I couldnt see yet. I looked back toward the front of the plane and there was another peak dead ahead! I turned hard right and avoided that one. I hugged the first peak, almost scraping the wing in the white cliffs until I could see lights a hundred miles away. I headed toward the lights, probably Minden, Nev., until I was sure I was clear of the mountains.

Apparently I had drifted into an area of mountains 10 miles south of Sonora Pass.

I should have been at least at 12,000 feet, but I had been fearful of going above the planes service ceiling, though if I would have checked the POH I would have found it is 12,500 feet.

I was also too confident in my knowledge of the area. I had been there on the ground many times, but this was the first time in the air.


Bad Time for a Runaway Trim
I was in a Cessna 310Q on short final to land when I experienced a runaway pitch trim.

My quick attempt to find the circuit breaker failed, and as a last resort I flipped the master switch off. The manual trim wheel on the left side of the power quadrant stopped its rotation toward nose down. It took all my strength to rotate the plane into a flare, but I succeeded with only a few feet to spare.

After I was safely on the ground, I flipped the master switch back on and had an interesting discussion with the tower as to why I went off the air before landing.


Should We Stay or Should We Go?
My private pilot license was only a few months old when I flew my family on a quick 30-minute flight to Sioux Falls for dinner. When we got back to the airport to leave, it was dark and a thunderstorm was moving in from the west. Since our flight was to the north-northeast, I was sure we could beat the storm out and find the beacon of our home airport with no problem.

If we didnt leave, it meant a night in a hotel with no toothbrushes, no change of clothes, no comb, so everyone wanted to leave. As we were about to load the kids in the plane, the first few sprinkles began to fall. I remembered how similar our situation was to so many Id read about in Aviation Safety. We had a major case of get-home-itis. Despite the pressure I felt to complete the trip, I said, Forget it, gang. Were staying here tonight.

When we took off the next morning in bright, clear daylight, I tried to follow the VOR radial into our home airport and didnt even come close to it.

No one was very happy about staying overnight, but I shudder when I think of what might have happened if I let the pressure of getting home get to me. Especially when passengers are involved we owe it to them and ourselves to take every precaution, even if its at the price of inconvenience.


Dont Need Icing to Get Ice
My wife and I, both instrument rated, were on an IFR trip from Omaha, Neb., to our home base in Erie, Colo. While in the clouds, with the temperature close to freezing, we were discussing a friends comment regarding his elevator sticking in a similar situation. I was PIC on the flight and told her I had the cruise wired without autopilot. After about 10 to 15 minutes, I exercised the elevator of our Cessna 210B and found that indeed it had frozen.

Im guessing it took 15-20 pounds of pressure to break the elevator free. After that experience, we exercise all controls periodically when flying in the clouds if temperatures are low.


Forget the Job, This is Work
With about 50 hours in my new J-3, I was headed south toward Teterboro Airport about 80 miles away, to answer a job ad.

Was a warm sunny day – mostly clear – with some light scattered clouds at about 10,000 to the southwest. No wind so I figured a little over an hour would get me there.

In about a half-hour I began running into some heavier scattered clouds at my altitude of 3,000. Thinking it might be whats left of morning fog and would soon dissipate, I circled down and landed on a construction road bed.

Waiting, in the midst of nowhere, hearing the birds singing was real pleasant. In a little while the fog cleared, I took off and continued toward Teterboro.

In about 15 minutes I began running into another scattered cloud level, about 1,000 feet below me. I told myself, If it gets no worse than this, I still may be able to make it before the stuff closes in. No such luck! The holes below kept getting smaller and just as I was about to do a 180 and head for home, I saw a plane wing. Golly, I thought. Im not far from Teterboro – Ill go down and land and wait this stuff out. Down through the hole – breaking out at about 500 ft, I landed.

I waited. And waited. And waited. At about 5 pm, long after I had given up any idea of interviewing for that job, I began thinking about getting home! Get home-itis? You bet!

I began watching the cloud bottoms for any indication of thinning or maybe a hole through which I might get up through and head for home. To prepare as much as I could for maybe having to go through some wispy stuff, I needed a turn and bank indicator. I found some string and a nut and suspended the nut from a member over and in front of me so I could see it swing from side to side, telling me if I was skidding.

I was already at the end of the taxi strip, ready to take-off as soon as I saw what might be a hole. There was light spot in the overcast!

I dont think I was up 200 feet when I completely lost sight of the ground. Never had flown in solid stuff before. I watched the instruments, kept that string hanging straight, made no sudden changes, kept the rpm constant, kept the altimeter slowly winding up, kept checking throttle position against rpm, kept the rate of turn slow enough so the compass would follow. I broke out in 20 minutes at 6,000 feet. The reason the light spot appeared in the clouds was not because of a thin spot in the overcast but because a towering slab-sided cloud was reflecting the sun down through the overcast.

Every time I tried to level the wings, the clouds started turning. After getting over the feeling that I was still turning, I set course for home and in 10 minutes was out of the stuff and on my way home VFR.

Ive been flying for over 50 years and would never go through that again. By the way, this happened in 1950.


Plenty of Fuel, But No Gas
I have had two partial power failures on climbout after takeoff. Both incidents occurred after a normal rotation, acceleration to climb speed and increased angle of attack.

Both times I made a 180-degree turn to make a downwind landing on the departure runway. One time I called Mayday and was cleared to land by the tower. The other time I did not land immediately because when I leveled off after the 180 the engine came back to full power.

Both occurrences happened because of a partially obstructed fuel gascolator screen. The increased pitch of climb did not give enough head pressure, so fuel starvation occurred. Ive had no more problems since cleaning all the fuel screens in the system.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here