Learning Experiences: 09/06


Selecting Fuel

When I earned my Private certificate, I thought I knew all I needed to know about flying. The following years taught me better. I learned something almost every flight and even from others experiences.

One Friday in July of 1950, I took possession of a three-year-old Cessna 120 I had just purchased. Eager to try it out, I planned a trip the next day from Buffalo Air Park to visit a friend at Cornell University.

The flight was uneventful and we had a nice visit. Sunday afternoon, after checking the airplane, I taxied up to the fuel pump to fill my tanks. I then proceeded down the taxiway toward the run-up area which, fortunately, was at the other end of the runway.

I had been taxiing for about 200 yards when suddenly the engine quit. I made a thorough check of everything I could think of and finally found the fuel selector was in the off position. So much for checking from memory.

After checking my owners manual, I found no reason to ever leave the switch in the off position during normal operation. That was the last time I put that switch in that position. But I also learned the value of a checklist. From then on, there was a placard hanging where I couldnt avoid seeing it but without obstructing my view.

Nearly a year later, with a bit over 100 hours in my logbook, I had a similar problem on a two-week vacation round-trip flight from Buffalo to Los Angeles. There was a lot of learning on that trip also. But one related to the fuel system occurred during a landing at New Orleans.

The approach was over Lake Ponchartrain and I had never really flown over water except around Niagara Falls. Being a bit water-shy, I made my approach higher than it should have been. By the time I was near the end of the runway I realized that I was too high to make a safe landing so I pushed in the throttle for a go-around.

After I raised the nose to climbing attitude, there was a sudden silence as what little gasoline was left sloshed to the back of the tank. There I was, 200 feet above the rooftops of New Orleans, with no place to go.

I reacted quickly and went through my emergency procedures without really thinking about it. The propeller hadnt stopped turning before the engine came to life again. During the rest of the go-around, I reviewed my automatic response and realized that, among other things, I had switched fuel tanks. A glance at the fuel gauges confirmed the left tank was empty and the right tank full.

On the way to New Orleans, I had been so busy enjoying the sights and taking pictures that I had forgotten my landing checklist. I had my instructor to thank for drilling me in emergency procedures.

From then on I regularly switched tanks every 15 minutes or so. This had the advantage of keeping the airplane balanced laterally and therefore flying more efficiently.

Even after all these years, I learn something on almost every flight.


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