Lights But No Action

I felt a little weak in the knees when I found out that there had been only two gallons usable in the mains


This experience took me years to admit because of how close to disaster I came and how easily it could have been avoided.

So here goes. I was a newly rated IFR multi-engine pilot ready for the excitement and challenge on a beautiful fall day for a trip from Toronto to Venice, Fla. We headed to the airport with all the weather briefings complete, notams checked and IFR flight plan filed. We planned a stop at Charlotte, N.C., to clear Customs and refuel, with the next stop Venice.

I made a thorough walkaround, carefully checking the fuel tanks, both mains and auxiliaries via eye-balling them because everyone knows you cant trust fuel gauges. Our Seneca was ready to go.

Off we went the first leg, and three and a half hours later we were in Charlotte. We cleared Customs right on time and just needed fuel in the mains. Again I eyeballed the auxilliaries, because I was pretty sure Id need some of the extra 30 gallons of fuel to cover the reserves for any missed approaches and going to my alternate of Sarasota.

I filed an IFR flight plan and off we went. When the mains were below half I could transfer the fuel from the auxiliaries, which takes about 20 minutes. I leave the pumps on for 25 minutes just to make sure every last drop is transferred. This is when my suspicions started, but my brain overruled what I actually observed.

The fuel gauges didnt seem to move as the fuel was being transferred, but you cant trust those fuel gauges, and besides the transfer lights on the fuel switches were illuminated, proving that the fuel was being transferred.

When I arrived at Venice a mist from over the Gulf had covered the area with a ceiling of about 700 feet (near minimums) now a lump in my throat was starting to develop. Were those fuel gauges right?

As I was vectored over the Gulf to make way for other traffic, I thought it was time to speak up, still convinced that the fuel must have transferred. I told Tampa Approach I was on my reserves and would appreciate an expedited approach, which he did.

As I was lining up on the NDB, my wife could see I was tensing up. She placed hear hand on mine and said, Relax, youre going to do fine.

I really needed that. I settled down and when we broke out there was that beautiful airport right where it should be. I did the proper pattern entry, landed and taxied to the ramp.

The next morning I had to return to the airport to unload some articles for our Florida home, and I asked to be refueled while I was there. The fueler filled the mains and then he said, No fuel was required in the auxiliaries. I felt a little weak in the knees when I found out that there had been only two gallons usable in the mains.

It was amazing that I had enough fuel to taxi after landing.

It turns out that the culprit was some recent maintenance. I had just had a Stormscope installed before the trip, and the technicians had to move some instruments around. They had disconnected the wires to the auxiliary fuel pumps and neglected to rehook them. I discovered that when the transfer lights are illuminated it simply means the switches are in the on position, not that the fuel pumps are actually working.

While that may sound like dumb design, the dumber thing was the pilot who didnt believe those unreliable fuel gauges and land somewhere to check it out.

The fellow doing the refueling said, With your luck you should go right out and buy a lottery ticket! I bought a beer instead.

Other lessons to consider: At many of the places in Florida that sell beer, you can also buy lottery tickets. Seriously, you hit the nail on the head when you said that you should have landed. A 30-minute fuel stop is quicker than an off-airport landing.


Say Hello to My Little Friends
Myself, my wife, and our three children just returned from our vacation to Key West, Fla., to our home in Salinas, Calif. It was a great VFR trip in our Bonanza.

I had just purchased and begun using a new Garmin GPS 295 prior to the trip as an additional safety feature. Although the Loran and both VOR receivers had sufficed up to that point, I liked the idea of the additional situational awareness the GPS would provide.

However, our experiences with the GPS gave us a good education on two separate safety traps one can fall into while utilizing GPS.

Our standard method was for me to fly and direct the airplane via the GPS and Loran, with my wife following along on the chart, figuring DME distances and radials from VORs enroute.

I was skeptical of the GPS at first, but I found I began to rely on it more and more. I always ran the Loran system redundantly, and told my wife if the GPS or Loran quit we would change our routing and fly VOR to VOR.

We were flying from Key West to Kissimee, Fla., at about 1,500 feet on our way to Disney World. We were flying low because of a low ceiling, and we were weaving between areas of heavy rain. Visibility was excellent and Flight Watch assured us Kissimmee, less than 45 minutes away, had a ceiling of 4,500 feet and visibility 10 miles, so the flight was not as crazy as it may sound.

Because the GPS was so accurate, I had no problem tracking just along the edge of the restricted area in southern Florida. My GPS said I was within a mile of the boundary, but I was careful to stay out.

Typical VOR or Loran navigation would have led me to give at least a five-mile wide berth around such an area, but with GPS I wasnt worried.

Imagine my surprise to see two military jets pop out of the clouds about 500 feet above and a half mile ahead of us, both in a screaming dive, leveling at our altitude.

We were able to see and avoid because we were nowhere near VFR minimums, but the lesson here is that just because you can use your GPS to trace a fine line around a restricted area doesnt mean you should do it. The military may not adhere perfectly to the boundaries. Scared the heck out of my wife and me, but the kids thought it was great.

My second caution is to be careful of relying on one form of navigation. Due to our policy of redundancy and a good pre-flight briefing, this never actually got us in trouble, but leaving Las Vegas for Salinas we completely lost GPS signal. Our briefer had advised us of the possibility of this happening along our route during our flight, so it came as no surprise. Nice that it didnt happen until we were 30 miles clear the Vegas class B, though.

Other lessons to consider: As you discovered, GPS is a wonderful tool that makes it easy to get lazy. You discovered this around a military operations area, but the same thing can happen when skirting Class B space or other high-risk airspace. A navigation tool – any navigation tool – should not affect you see-and-avoid responsibility.


Duck. No, Duck!
Too often a lure for adventure and to explore does not mix with safety when it comes to aviation. As a young 17-year-old aviator with a student license and a solo endorsement, I was on a cross-country flight across the openness of western Kansas in a Cessna 140.

Flying over farm country gave me a feeling of being alone in the air, and I decided to follow the course of the Kansas River as it snaked its way through the rural countryside. I was flying at treetop level following its graceful bends, when suddenly I turned one corner, then another. A surprised raft of ducks suddenly flushed off the water and screamed in front of the prop.

A duck through the windshield at 120 knots would have been a fatal mess for the duck and possibly for me as well. Fortunately we avoided contact.Something to think about when flying low over waterways, especially during surprise approaches.

Other lessons to consider: A student pilot flying at tree-top level. Uh, do we really want to go there?


A Little Extra Enthusiasm
It was time for my BFR again. It seemed like a great opportunity to go for a tailwheel transition, something I had been wanting to do for a while.

Sunrise Aviation at the busy Class C Santa Ana airport in Orange County, California has a great reputation, so thats where I went. I thought that there would be an additional couple of benefits from taking lessons at Santa Ana: mixing it with the Big Iron and dealing with a high performance ATC facility – both things I wasnt really comfortable with. It turned out that my CFI provided another couple of unexpected benefits: great enthusiasm and skill as an aerobatic competitor and a passionate adherence to the disciplines of tight patterns, clearing turns and altitude adherence.

Santa Ana has parallel runways: 19L, a 2,900 x 75-foot runway, and 19R, a 5,700 x 150-foot runway used by both commercial and general aviation. Because of the commercial traffic on 19R, the pattern for 19L is unusual.

After takeoff, fly runway heading to the end of the runway, then make an immediate 15-degree left turn. Turn downwind at 650 feet agl and climb to a pattern altitude of 850 ft.

Final is similarly offset to the runway threshold. There is really no crosswind and only an abbreviated base leg.

As we pre-flighted the Decathlon, my instructor and I watched several planes in a left pattern for 19L. Among them was an Extra 300 that had recently been purchased by two pilots on the field. The Extra was doing touch and goes, and we watched the phenomenal climb rate and discussed the difficulty of landing an Extra. They were doing touch and goes and getting round the pattern in record time.

We took off and spent a few minutes practicing coordinated turns and slips over the practice area at El Toro. When we returned we were cleared for the option on 19L. My landing was far too long to allow a touch and go, so we taxied back for takeoff, watching the Extra touch and go.

As we took off I made sure I pegged the climb out speed and got my turn at the end of the runway to 15 degrees. The taskmaster in the back seat had high standards.

At 650 agl I cleared the turn, thinking it was a waste of time with the controllers doing such a great job, and checked my airspeed was 80 mph.

About five seconds into the downwind my instructor and I simultaneously saw the Extra about 30 feet away to the left, slightly in front and below us and climbing at full speed, aimed straight for where we were about to be.

The instructor instantly chopped power and hauled back on the stick, standing the Decathlon on its tail. The Extra disappeared under the nose, then almost instantly reappeared at our altitude, seemingly within touching distance of our right wing.

The instructor then pushed the nose down aggressively to prevent a stall. By now, the Extra was in a fairly wide downwind, well ahead of us and higher.

The tower called the Extra and informed them they had just cut us off and had come pretty close to a midair. The Extra pilots replied that they had never seen us.

In retrospect, I think the responsibility for this near miss lies with several parties, including myself, the Extra pilots and possibly the tower controller.

The Extra pilots could have been more aware of others in the pattern. The tower controller could have notified the Extra of traffic ahead in the pattern or limited the Extras speed to provide traffic separation. As for me, I should have realized from monitoring the radio that the Extra was behind us on a touch and go.

I had watched and noted that they started their left turn well before the end of the runway and climbed very fast. I should have had better situational awareness.

But probably the biggest learning of all for me was that even at an airport with some of the best controllers in the world, VFR separation is dependent on the pilots. Clearing turns, adherence to pattern altitudes, not flying B-52 patterns – in fact, all the basic disciplines really do matter, even if you think ATC is watching out for you.

Other lessons to consider: We feel like a lone voice singing out on the prairie when it comes to this matter, but here goes again. Touch and goes may make for a lot of landings in a short amount of Hobbs time, but they teach bad habits and should be avoided when possible. This is yet another illustration of why.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here