Juice Runs Dry

My stomach started churning when I saw the needle was dead. Not even a flutter.


As a student pilot, Ive become accustomed to the fact that being on the learning curve isnt something new. There was, however, a particular learning experience I had not anticipated quite so early in my aviation career.

I had approximately 40 hours of flying time and was going out to the training area to practice ground reference maneuvers. I had just finished doing my first cross-country solo a few days earlier, so going just to the training area 10 miles away didnt seem like a big deal. It was a perfect morning, clear blue skies and best of all, no flight instructor in the right seat.

I flipped over the starter key and nothing happened. After a few pathetic turns of the prop, one of the ground crew came by in his pickup truck and yelled at me that he would be back to jump the battery.

It didnt take but two rotations of the prop and the engine was humming. I took a look at the ammeter and it was doing its usual dance.

As I sat on the ramp I had problems at first getting ATIS. The radio didnt seem to want to cooperate. A request on the Unicom for a radio check went unanswered. I finally got ATIS. No winds, as if I didnt already know that.

The taxi to the runway was uneventful. Another radio check yielded a loud and clear from another pilot. Soon I was rolling down the runway looking for altitude.

I made radio calls for upwind and crosswind positions and then turned for a downwind departure. As I made my downwind position report, it sounded like I was talking to myself from the other end of a tunnel.

Taking a look at the ammeter, my stomach started churning when I saw the needle was dead. Not even a flutter. The radios and transponder lights seemed very dim. I turned off everything I could, landing lights, strobes, beacon and the VORs.

By this time I was approximately 3,000 feet agl and three miles from the end of the runway I just took off from. Turning and heading for home, my first instinct was to do a straight-in landing. I worried that other aircraft in the pattern at the busy field may not see me.

I was clearly able to glide to the field from my current altitude if the magnetos decided to die on me as well. Remembering that one of the 5 Cs was climb, I pulled the nose up and went for even more altitude and decided to enter the pattern normally knowing I could at anytime leave the pattern if need be and land.

I left the radio on and made position calls and intents just in case it really was working. It was probably the tightest landing pattern I had ever made. All I wanted to do was get down.

I found out the next day the alternator had to be replaced. The next time the battery needs to be jumped, I wont be letting clear skies and an empty right seat cloud my thinking. My flight instructor told me a day would come when I would wish he came along for the ride. I didnt expect it this soon.

Other lessons to consider:

You did not need to climb if you were 3,000 feet agl and three miles from the field. You had plenty of altitude to glide to the runway. Learn your airplane. The battery/alternator problem would not have affected your magnetos. Finally, in addition to turning off the lights and nav radios, you should also note that transponders suck a lot of juice and are not necessary in an emergency, especially at an uncontrolled field.


Real Thing is Always the Best Drill
I was a two-year flight instructor starting her first left-seat job – a startup on-demand freight and passenger operation in coastal New England. My weapon was a Stationair manufactured before I was born.

Id been an instructor for Cirrus new owners for a year and was a little annoyed at going back to Stone Age design. After what happened on this quiet Sunday morning, I sensed this 206 was quite intuitive of my 1,200-hour arrogance and decided to teach me a lesson in human factors.

My new employer offered me an early morning survey flight for some University researchers. I had just completed my Part 135 checkride the afternoon before, so I took the flight despite the 0530 show at the airport. We planned to launch around 0600, comb the shoreline at 2,000 feet looking for seals, and return around 1000. With full long-range tanks and planning 65 percent power, we had about seven hours of endurance.

During the runup, I noticed that the left tank was only indicating half full. I knew that tank had been topped, but I returned to the ramp, shut down, and had a line service guy come over and check. He gave thumbs up and off we went.

Some low scud in the area hindered some of our activities and seemed to be thickening as the morning wore on. A researcher said we would be cutting things a little short due to some of the shoreline being obscured. We would just swing around one more island and head back.

Around the last island we went, a few more seal sightings, and we were inbound. I switched to my fullest tank and called ops on the radio to let them know I was heading in. They advised me that the southeast side of the field was obscured at about 500 feet, but if I came from the north, I could easily get in. I was using an outdated Loran to point me in the direction of the field. I was 15 miles out and I was pretty sure I was over water. I decided to climb from 2,000 to 3,000, maybe higher, to get a better view of things.

With nothing to foreshadow what was about to happen, I thought the murky weather and my unfamiliarity with the area would be my greatest concern of the day. However, climbing through 2,800 feet, I got what I had hoped I would never experience: the excruciating shudder of the engine as it struggled to stay alive.

I immediately accomplished step one of any emergency checklist, as taught to me by one of my favorite instructors: PANIC! Thats right, just panic and get over it so that you can get on with saving your bacon. In some sort of garbled flow check I did manage to put the mixture rich and switch tanks, and a few scant eternal seconds later the engine did come back to life. Ecstatic that the plane was under its own power once again, I set the power way back to conserve fuel and ensure that we would be making that last 15 miles unscathed.

Now the confusion morphed from panic to bewilderment. How could that tank be empty? I retraced my timely tank switchings, and I couldnt remember the fuel flow gage reading anything peculiar. I resorted to one of humankinds best defense mechanisms, rationalization, and resolved that if that right tank was empty, I had a lot of fuel in the left tank. By the way, the fuel gages had pooped out about two hours before.

I finally calmed down to functionality again when that pernicious little engine decided to die again.

Step one of my emergency checklist again. This time a little more worried since I didnt have a third tank to switch to. I do remember telling myself to do what I had been telling students for two years: ABCs. Airspeed (best glide), Best place to land, Checklist, Declare (radio), and Execute (not your passengers, the landing).

My true learning experience arises here. Let me tell you about distractions. I was over the ocean and a solid cloud layer in a VFR airplane. My best plan was to point the nose toward where I thought the closest land mass was. So I was at best glide, just holding a heading, descending at about 600 feet per minute.

Then there were my passengers. The rear seat passenger was the silent Im-too-shocked-to-move-or-speak type, whereas the front seater was pretty sure that I was going to be responsible for their early demise and resorted to telling me what I should do to get this craft rocketing back to the airport. Never had I imagined how much that would be a detriment to me taking care of my alphabet.

I never would have sent one of my students to a check ride after taking this long to get through these items. I had burned up 1500 feet or so by now and those clouds were rising to greet us. I think I abandoned the rest of the checklist and resolved that there was a fuel issue and I was going to focus on that. I got on the horn and called home base to give them the mayday. The passengers had headsets and could hear every frantic word. As if they werent distracting enough, once they heard me say mayday and the phrase we are going down, there was quite a commotion.

My coffee was now the least of my concerns as we were now powerless, in the soup, my passengers were getting very disgruntled, checklist dangling in the purgatory of completion, and now my dispatcher wants my exact location when I just told him that I was IMC. Oh yeah, I was flying instruments in a VFR airplane trying to average the disagreement between the attitude indicator and the turn coordinator.

One of the only smart things I accomplished in the clouds while just trying to stay out of an unusual attitude was preparing my passengers. I had them put on their life vests and I told them that another plane was already on its way to come look for us.

As a last resort, I changed fuel tanks one more time, still holding down the emergency pump rocker switch. In this situation, I sure wish that switch was designed to lock in place so that I would have an extra hand for things like the push to talk, since my dispatcher wanted me to update him on my position-in the clouds. (Another one to add to the list of distractions)Somewhere around FL007 we finally popped out. It was like coming down the ILS and having there be nothing but lobster boats dotting a rocky and forested shoreline in front of you. My little helper in the right seat had already found the perfect spot and was shouting his instructions to glide the entire five miles in 600 feet to that landing site.

I didnt have time to explain why that was impossible, but I did enlighten them both to the fact that we were headed for a shallow cove where I reasoned we could easily get to shore and there appeared there were a few houses and boats around where someone would notice a rather loud splash.

Just as I was trying to slow down to the stall, that baby let me off the hook with the ferocious roar of 310 horses ready for an apology for being so under-appreciated. The guy in the back seat made his first comment of the morning, relenting an enthusiastic Yes!

However, I was so mentally convinced that I would soon be swimming in the icy waters of the Atlantic, I remember actually flying straight for the pine trees without initiating a climb. I had formed a set, and when events changed my scenario, even for the better, I didnt know how to react at first.

I did snap out of it and proceeded to where I knew there was a gravel strip in the center of this island. I had only a couple hundred feet to play with to stay out of the ragged overcast. If the engine failed again, we were going to be hurting.

Over solid forest, I flew the longest two miles of my life to the 2000 foot sanctuary, called ops again and told them to come get us there, and set up to land. I was too nervous to even land the plane the first time. I came in way too fast and had to go around. The second attempt was successful and we landed only a minute before my chase plane.

Turns out, the left tank was dry and the right tank had 11 gallons left. If you crunch the numbers, the airplane would have had to have burn 20 gallons per hour to have that kind of fuel remaining. At 22 squared, there is no way that could have happened.

The aircraft was inspected for leaks, fuel flow, tank bubbles, you name it. No one was ever able to identify the problem. Disconcerting? Yes. The point of my story? No.

This experience was the best drill anyone could have given me. I got to see how I react under an extremely stressful environment without that unfavorable crashing part at the end. All the classic elements were players: questionable aircraft, unfamiliar area, passengers who increased the tension in the cabin, the first day on the job and my own complacency.

Other lessons to consider:

Given the airplanes on-again/off-again power situation, you might think about that late go-around. A low-speed runway overrun would have been preferable to losing the engine again on the go-around, which was a distinct possibility.


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