We were planning to depart for a family trip from our home airport of Gaithersburg, Md., for Lexington, Ky. Because I was a low-time pilot and still had fewer than 50 hours in my new Bonanza, I elected to bring my 2,000-hour CFI along on the trip.
I felt like it would make both me and the family feel more comfortable. After all, it was our first family trip since I got my private ticket 12 months earlier.
While driving to the airport, it was clear that the weather was lower than advertised. The TAF indicated that the morning fog would give way to a 6,000-foot scattered layer, but we had a solid 500-foot layer that wasnt budging. There was no reason legally we should not depart, and in fact several planes went roaring into the abyss as we assessed the situation. My instructor was instrument current and proficient, and I was about halfway through my instrument ticket, including an unusually high amount of actual instrument hours.
As we assessed the situation, we noted that with the new TFR around Washington, D.C., there are only two instrument approaches available into GAI. Both have MDHs of 1,200 feet, which means we couldnt get back to GAI if something happened on takeoff.
The nearest precision approach would normally be Frederick, Md., 15 miles away, but according to a morning Notam, the ILS was down for maintenance. This left Baltimore Washington International (BWI) Airport, some 23 miles away. Not exactly an impossible turn away if we had problems on take-off.
We were flying a new airplane that, like all new airplanes, had its share of teething squawks. Not yet ready to trust this flying machine, we decided to drive everyone across the street for a wait-it-out breakfast. Oh what a good decision did that turn out to be.
When we arrived back at the airport the AWOS was reporting 1,200 overcast – good enough. We loaded the kids, wife and bags, picked up our clearance and, after an uneventful run-up, pointed the airplane down the runway toward Kentucky. As we were climbing through 500 feet my instructor said, Wow, Ive never seen that before on a private aircraft. Look at the vapor trail coming off the wing.
He was thinking the high summer humidity was creating a vapor effect, much like you see on a commercial jet. In reality, he wasnt looking far enough forward on the wing. Fuel was gushing out of the right main, running off the trailing edge and creating a vapor trail. We could see clearly that the cap was secure; the problem was elsewhere.
Whatever it was, we were going back to the airport. As I checked in with Potomac Approach, I told them we would like to return to Gaithersburg. ATC inquired if we had an emergency. I responded that we did not, cancelled IFR, switched tanks and made an uneventful landing. I even remembered to put the gear back down.
Once on the ground, a mechanic diagnosed the problem as the retaining nut having backed off slightly on the fuel filler cap. This created play in the cap clamping action, which allowed the negative pressure on top of the wing to act like a giant siphon. Add this to the list of new airplane teething pains.
I good friend once told me a good imagination is what keeps pilots alive. I can easily imagine what that day would have been like had we departed two hours earlier. Solid IMC, a gas tank being sucked dry, groping for an unfamiliar approach plate, fighting the distraction factor, nervous first-time flying family in the back, flying an approach to minimums, a busy class Bravo airport that might not be too happy to see us.To top it all off, that was a darn good egg sandwich.
Wheres the Water From?
Once on a fishing trip from Beaumont, Texas, to a small seaplane base south of New Orleans, I was sumping the fuel when I encountered a sampler that was completely full of water.
Being used to looking for the separation of water and fuel, I almost did not notice that the water took on a fuel-like hue against the cloudy sky. After that sample I pulled four more samples before I got good fuel.
I always sample my fuel, but a full glass of water can get by you unless you pay close attention. The guy at the seaplane base swore the water could not have came from his tanks, and I hate to think that I had overlooked the water before I left Beaumont. I dont want to believe that, but its hard to ignore the possibility when it almost got by me in Louisiana.
Just something to think about. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that the guy I bought the plane from broke his neck in a accident because he did not sump his fuel. Water caused the engine to cough on takeoff.
Other lessons to consider: Like you, we think sumping the fuel is important even if youre certain theres no water aboard. Contamination doesnt have to be liquid, after all. We doubt it would be possible to fly from Beaumont to your fishing spot with that much water in your tanks. Every operator pumping water swears it cant be from their tanks. Live and learn.You raise a good point about the color. Use the smell test, touch test, evaporation test and anything else you can think of.
We departed from Bakersfield Meadows Airport in a Piper Malibu Mirage with a destination of Victorville, Calif. We were climbing to a cruise altitude of 11,500 feet in perfect VFR conditions.
As we climbed, we started to experience an array of flight instrument failures beginning with the fuel quantity and then the RPM gauge. My friend was in the right seat troubleshooting the failures. We were already working out a back up plan, which included terminating the flight if necessary.
Little did we know, that these gauge failures were a precursor to a much bigger problem.
As I leveled off at 11,500, the engine sputtered, lost power, and popped three times.
I trimmed for best glide speed of 90 knots and made a 180-degree turn back toward Bakersfield Meadows. We were about 22 miles south of the airport and at 10,500 agl. My friend in the right seat made the call to ATC that we were declaring an emergency.
At 2,500 feet agl, I made the turn for final. When landing was assured, we lowered the landing gear, and then the flaps. Making the first taxiway turn off was a breeze considering it was a high speed taxiway turnoff. There, the emergency crews anxiously awaited us with their fire hoses pointed at the plane, ready to combat a possible blaze. We exited the aircraft, somewhat quickly. Smoke billowed from the cowling and we watched, just thankful to have made it.
I had read accident reports in the past of those that had not been so lucky. Pilots in the same airplane had been in the same scenario before and let their airspeed deteriorate to the point to where they stalled and crashed.
I learned first hand something Rod Machado once said: Always think 2 steps ahead. When we were established on final, I asked my friend, OK, we are on final now. If we cannot make the runway, what is our second landing spot of choice? This way, if Plan A did not work out as planned, we had an alternate course of action.
It was a disappointment to not have completed the mission initially as planned. However, it was a sheer delight to walk away from what could have been an unpleasant ending.
No matter what aircraft I fly, I will always think two steps ahead of the game. This is especially the case with the Mirage.