Id heard it numerous times from all my flight instructors: Never fly fatigued. I had prided myself in always following all of the flying rules from A to Z. However, on this particular night all reason left me as I prepared to fly a 250-mile solo night flight from Albert Lea, Minn., to Fargo, N.D.
I had just finished driving from my home in Chicago to Albert Lea, a six-hour drive, which had started at 1 oclock that afternoon. I was tired as I rolled into Albert Lea to check in with my commercial instructor. He mentioned that I needed a 250-mile cross-country trip and five hours of night solo flight and said it was a beautiful night to accomplish both.
He asked if I was tired, but as always the adrenaline started pumping at the prospect of flying and all of the tiredness left me. This was exciting. It was also my first mistake.
I quickly plotted my course and called Flight Service. Clear all the way, nevermind the 45-knot headwind all the way there. With my tanks topped off, I headed into the night, never feeling so alert as at that moment.
Four and a half hours later, as I neared Fargo, I noticed a cloud layer below me that looked pretty thick. Since I was within 30 miles of Fargo, I decided to start my descent and dip below the cloud cover. That was mistake number two.
I should have called FSS to get the current conditions. As I descended the clouds engulfed me and I was in solid IMC. Because my preflight planning had been so rushed I did not take the time to familiarize myself with alternative airports. I had not purchased approach plates because the forecast had been clear. As mistake after mistake piled up, I realized I needed help.
I called Fargo Approach and confessed my situation – my first good decision all night. Fortunately I had recently gotten my instrument rating and, although I had not been in much actual IMC, I was able to fly straight and level and follow the vectors.
ATC in Fargo was very helpful and gave me vectors for an ILS approach. That was more good news, because I was getting close to dipping into my fuel reserve. The landing was almost anticlimactic.
Even if you think you arent tired after a long day, remember that fatigue chips away with your decision-making process. When you need help, ask for it until you get it. Worry about saving face later.
I had been told these things time and again, and I thought I believed them. Now, I know theyre true.
O No, No Gas
I frequently fly relatively long distances in my Baron. One day I departed Hailey, Idaho, for a 3:30 flight to Santa Ynez in Southern California. As is my custom, I fed both engines from the main tanks during takeoff and climb, and then switched to the auxiliary tanks when I leveled for cruise. After two hours en route, and just as I started to cross the Sierra Nevadas around Mammoth Mountain, I checked the main fuel gauges to verify that the mains were indeed full or almost full, and then switched to the main tanks for the remainder of the flight.
After about 10 minutes – and smack over the highest part of the Sierra Nevadas, the left engine sputtered and quit. I went through the emergency checklist and switched back to the left auxiliary tank, which I knew had about 20 minutes of fuel left in it. The left engine started again. I changed my destination to Fresno, the nearest suitable airport, and continued to troubleshoot the problem.
I switched back to the left main and the left engine coughed again. Turning on the auxiliary pump had no effect, so I switched the left engine back to the auxiliary tank and it resumed normal operation. When that tank was down to about 10 minutes of fuel, I switched to crossfeed from the right main tank and landed at Fresno.
Although normal procedures do not allow landing with the fuel selector in the crossfeed position (due to possible fuel starvation in a full-power situation) Fresno has a very long runway and that seemed like the best option since I could not be certain that the left auxiliary tank was reliable.
After landing, investigation of the problem showed that the left main fuel tank was absolutely dry, even though the fuel gauge indicated full. What had happened was this: New O-rings had recently been installed on the fuel cap that were apparently slightly smaller in diameter than the old ones. This coupled with a worn fuel cap allowed the fuel to be siphoned from the left main tank.
Siphoning is very hard to detect visually on the Baron, even though you can see the fuel cap in flight. That explained where the fuel went.
But why did the fuel gauge indicate full? It seems as though some homeless insect decided to build a home in the vent for the left main tank. The tank is a rubber bladder mounted in the wing and suspended by snaps from the top. With a clogged vent and the fuel siphoning out through the ill fitting cap, the flexible bladder simply collapsed from the bottom up as the fuel was drained.
This kept the float for the fuel quantity sender at the top of the tank, so the gauge continued to indicate full. Aside from the obvious lessons about checking the fuel vents and fuel cap fit, there is one change I have made to my fuel management procedure as a result of this incident.
I now depart on my main tanks, and continue to fly on the mains for an hour so that the main fuel gauges indicate significantly less than full. I then fly off the fuel in the auxiliary tanks. Before I switch back to the mains, I check to make sure that the fuel quantity is still significantly less than full. If they read full or noticably higher, then I have a right to suspect fuel siphoning.
Big Flap Attack
I was launching from my local New England airport on a perfect day to get in some touch and goes in a rented C-172. I love everything about flying, so thorough preflights are just part of that experience. After engine runup, I was cleared to stay in the pattern.
Takeoff went well, nice pattern, and a squeaker of a landing. I felt all in life was well.
That is, until I applied full throttle for another trip around the pattern. I hit the flap lever to the up position, advanced the throttle, removed carb heat and unexpectedly became airborne at 44 knots in a slow flight attitude. I quickly rose like an elevator fighting to keep the nose low enough to prevent a stall. My only thoughts were this isnt right and Im still OK, fly the plane.
At about 50 feet agl I noticed the flaps were still extended to 40 degrees. The problem was that in this particular Cessna, the flap lever had to be manually held in the up position to raise the flaps.
I climbed enough that I could lower the nose, pick up some airspeed and bleed the flaps little by little. The rest of the flight was uneventful.
Never assume anything in a rental aircraft. If anything, rental aircraft should be preflighted by the book and then some. Im now very careful about what I fly and check everything from the squawk sheet to hinges and then check it again.
Perhaps more importantly, I learned to be skeptical of the advice some people may give, even if you think theyre well-qualified. I didnt check flap retraction during this particular preflight because an instructor once told me that in cold weather it might run the battery down. This incident left me wondering, if the battery is so low that lowering the electrical flaps causes it to deplete, who would want to fly that plane anyway?
This incident occurred early in my flying experience just after I got my ticket, and the only reason Im here today is because my instructor emphasized slow flight and stalls during my training. I am grateful that he taught me to fly the plane.
No, Use the Other Runway
Most pilots have heard the FAA, other pilots or their CFI talking about runway incursions or land and hold short operations.
As a commercial pilot, I was flying a Cherokee Six-260 during a flying day at the local airport. The field had only one runway, and picking the proper direction for landing and takeoff usually wasnt difficult.
The day was winding down, and I had my last group of five passengers rolling down the runway, when a local pilot in a Champ decided to use a taxiway for his departure.
He suddenly appeared from behind a hangar on an intercept course. I literally had to go underneath him in order to avoid a collision.
Just because there is no crossing runway for you doesnt mean theres no crossing runway for someone playing by his own set of rules.