By Ryan Ferguson
Is there a statute of limitations on 'stupid?' I hope so, but I suspect not.
I wrote my "Never Again" two years ago, and I've held on to the story to remind myself what havoc complacency can wreak. While I'm certainly not proud of the events that transpired as described below, my hope is that by sharing them, an incident or accident might someday be prevented.
Itís been quite some time now, but I still remember sitting in the cockpit, sweating like a pig and grinding my teeth together. I glanced at the compass. I was holding a steady heading of 210. The airport was dead ahead, about 5 miles away. The fuel gauge needle hovered on empty.
ĎThis canít happen to me,í I thought. ĎFor goodnessí sakes, Iím careful. I always go by the checklist. Really, Iím a good, careful pilot!í
Despite my mental pleadings, the needle still wavered on empty. I thought I saw it dip a little further to the left, into an ominous, black, unmarked portion of the gauge. I pulled the mixture back a little further, just enough to make the engine sputter a little bit, and enriched it just a bit to keep it running smoothly. I needed to eek every last bit of endurance I could get out of the nearly-starved engine.
I was flying an Extra 300XS, a red-hot single-place aerobatic airplane. It was my first flight in the aircraft and I was returning after wringing out the bird and sampling its fantastic capabilities. I was enjoying myself so much that I hadnít even been paying attention to the fuel situation until it was nearly too late. All of the things I had reveled in up till now -- the limitless visibility out of the bubble canopy, the incredible 400 degree per second roll rate, the fantastic control response -- disappeared in my tunnel vision. I saw two things: the fuel gauge, and the airport ahead.
Iíd read so many "I Learned About Flying From That" accounts in which a clear accident trail was so clearly marked, youíd have to wonder what kind of fool would have proceeded forward, compounding mistakes with other mistakes. Now, I knew that I was the fool, and unless I played my cards right, this airplane was going to become acquainted with the Florida brush.
The accident chain had started an hour earlier, when I was fueling the plane. I remember asking the owner (the airplane was being sold) how the fuel system worked, and how much fuel Iíd likely need for an aerobatic practice session. As I put fuel in the wing tanks, I incorrectly ascertained from the previous pilot that the wing tanks already held 10 gallons per side. Looking down into the tanks, I saw my reflection in the fuel before I added more. Since I was only going to be flying ten miles to northeast -- my normal practice area -- I added a couple of gallons per side Ďfor the kidsí and filled the main tank (the akro tank) which contained ten gallons. This would give me plenty, I thought, to get to and from the practice area on the wing tanks, flip over to the akro tank, get a little eyeballs-out time, and return to the field with plenty of fuel left over.
The next link in the chain was my unfamiliarity with the aircraft, its systems, and its instrumentation. The fuel gauge in the Extra 300XS has very few markings. I figured that wherever the needle fell on the gauge was Ďnormal.í I had nothing to compare it to. But I didnít stick the tanks. I was more interested in how to switch tanks, and the limitations on the fuel I could carry in the wing tanks and still fly aerobatic maneuvers.
That was a costly mistake.
The third link: distraction. The tailwheel rubber was suspect and we, as a group, were trying to determine if it was airworthy. There was a small chunk of rubber missing but the general consensus was that it would be no big deal. More time was spent looking at the tailwheel than anything else. I, the pilot of this aircraft that I was about to fly for the first time, had lost focus already.
"Like a flash of lightning in my head, I realized immediately what had happened. I had burned most of the fuel in the wing tanks on my climbout and cruise to my practice area. Now most of the fuel in the akro tank was gone, too. The fuel I thought I had on-board was never there."
Fast forward to the present. I had flown my last figure -- a hammerhead with a four point hesitation roll on the vertical downline -- had just leveled off, pointed back to the field, and looked at the fuel gauge.
Thatís okay, I realized; I was still on the akro tank, which is only good for a short aerobatic practice session. I should have a good 15 gallons or more left in the wing tanks to get home. I chuckled at the little scare I had given myself and twisted the fuel selector to the wing tanks and looked at the gauge again.
Like a flash of lightning in my head, I realized immediately what had happened. I had burned most of the fuel in the wing tanks on my climbout and cruise to my practice area. Now most of the fuel in the akro tank was gone, too. The fuel I thought I had on-board was never there.
Now I was nursing a thirsty airplane back to home base, and I honestly didnít know if I was going to make it. I briefly ran through a set of recriminations: how did I miss this when I switched tanks twenty minutes earlier? How could I be so stupid as to not stick the tanks? -- before I threw them out and dealt with the situation at hand. The guilt, shame, and self-loathing process would have to wait until after I brought plane and pilot back to the field intact. For now, I had some aviating to do.
Despite my best efforts to do myself in, I had a few things going for me. First, I knew this area like the back of my hand and knew several good fields I could put down in if I had to. I practiced in this area in my Pitts every weekend and had staked out the good forced landing spots long ago. Next, the aiport wasnít too far, just ten miles, and the Extra is a slippery bird. If I could get reasonably close, I should be able Ďdead stickí the plane in on runway 18, I reasoned. My home field was a busy international airport. One word from me over the radio and theyíd be rolling out, ready to assist if I needed them. Last, and most importantly, I still had some fuel for now, and I could maximize it by throttling back and leaning out the mixture to the breaking point.
Five minutes isnít a very long time, unless you think that each and every second you might start to hear the sputtering and backfiring of an engine that no longer wants to make power because itís been robbed of its combustive drink. The urge to add power and increase my speed was overwhelming. I wanted to get this ship on the ground, now! I knew I didnít have enough fuel in the akro tank to last very long, but I also knew that the wing tanks, from which I was currently sipping fuel, only had another couple of minutes to give. Despite the fact that it was useless information at this point, I kept eyeing the fuel gauge. I figured Iíd declare an emergency and land on 18 if I had to, but if I still hadnít switched tanks by the time I entered the pattern Iíd be find to land on on 9L, the runway in use at the time. I could easily glide in for a landing on 9L from a downwind position. I just didnít want to get sequenced behind a 737.
Things got better the closer I got. As I entered the downwind, I elected to switch to the akro tank. I had the field made and knew there had to be more fuel in the 10 gallon tank than I had left in the wings. Losing the engine on short final might be disconcerting, even if I already had the landing assured, and I wanted to avoid that.
Touching down on that runway was the sweetest feeling in the world. Actually, it was bittersweet, because the moment that the tires chirped I started wondering how the hell I had managed to get myself into such a bind. I had played the fuel management game countless times before and had always taken the time to be sure exactly how much fuel Iíd have aboard for a given flight. And a short pleasure flight had nearly been my downfall.
I think many pilots feel that they are safety-conscious and careful. I know that I certainly did. The lesson which this incident reinforced was: never take anything for granted. One should never casually get into an airplane and fly away without an explicit understanding of that aircraftís systems. That was my mistake and Iíll be sure not to make it again.
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