Fuel in the tank but running on empty [Updated]

Yesterday I went up with my instructor to shake off my winter cobwebs (and instead ended up in IMC having a lesson on the Garmin 530 and autopilot, but that’s for another post) and had a very near fuel emergency.

Both tanks were filled to the collar before we took off in the 172SP, plenty of gas for our some holds at OCN, an approach at KOKB and return on the ILS into KMYF. We weren’t the only ones with the same plan and ended up having to do two more holding patterns that planned while the other plane shot the approach. It was during one of the turns that we noticed that the fuel gauge showed the left tank getting low, and the right tank still near full. We resolved to switch from ‘both’ to the right tank after the approach but in all the activity in the missed approach we forgot.

Not long before KMYF the “L Low Fuel” light came on and the gauge was sure enough very near to the bottom. We switched to just the right tank and carried on. As we got closer and closer the fuel imbalance remained, the left tank gauge was getting lower and lower. Although we didn’t say it to each other I think we were both already planning our dead stick landing to a nearby golf course. On final we switched the tanks back to ‘both’, landed and taxied back to parking.

After we were done we inspected the tanks – the right tank was as full as it had been at the beginning. Neither of us could see any fuel in the left tank at all, I don’t know how many minutes of ‘usable’ fuel there was left but I think we were pretty lucky that we made it down without an emergency.

I haven’t heard yet what the problem was (the plane is already back out of the shop) but I don’t understand how, if fuel from the right tank wasn’t flowing at all, the engine kept running when we switched the fuel to the right tank only. Surely it should have quit?

At the time I didn’t think much of it, but the more I think about it (and tell the story) the more I think we dodged a nasty bullet.

[Update:] From the plane owner: I had Sorbi take the plane off the line and check the fuel flow from both tanks. I had a concern that perhaps the fuel valve was not working right. Pablo took the fuel lime off the engine and had fuel flow from left, both and right positions and found that fuel flowed from all three positions in comparable quantities. When he went to check, both tanks had equalized and had the same amount of fuel in them. The only thing we felt that could contribute is that if you were making a significant number of right turns where the fuel would travel to the right tank.

We did do a lot of right hand turns, probably held over OCN for 5 right-turn holds so maybe that was it?

Bad Weekend in San Diego

This past weekend saw two plane crashes involving Cessna 172s operating to or from my home base, Montgomery Field in San Diego.

The first one was on Friday when a plane en route from San Diego to French Valley (Temecula) was observed going down in the ocean about 30 miles west of Oceanside. After an extensive search, no body was found although plenty of debris from the plane was evident. Much has been made that the pilot was a “novice” and that he was not talking to any ATC facility once off the ground. This accident baffles me since if you look at a map of the area it should be impossible to wrongly navigate this trip.

oceanside airport - Google Maps

First this is a trip that student pilots make a lot during training out of MYF so the routes to it should be very well known. But mostly, it is easy because you just follow the coast. Weather was VFR so no reason why he could not see the land. To be so far off the coast makes me wonder if there was something more going on for the pilot to be so distracted to be flying in the opposite direction with such obvious navigational clues. Sad for a life to be lost, and for the flying club that lost one of it’s rental fleet.

The second accident occurred Saturday night when another 172 crash-landed just off Interstate-5 near Camp Pendleton (just north of Ocenaside) on its way from Orange County airport to KMYF. The three people on board suffered a range of injuries, at least two of them are still in hospital. According to an eye witness report the pilot stated that the engine had quit and he had been unable to restart it. Faced with a choice of the freeway or the beach the pilot tried for the latter and hit an unseen ravine. Not knowing where the engine out happened but in daylight the pilot may well have been able to see many places around that would have made decent landing strips. Hopefully all the people will recover well.

Our Flying Club Lost a Plane

Last night whilst browsing the club’s online scheduling website I noticed that one of the Beechcraft 76’s was in maintenance with the tag “aircraft totally destroyed”. I did some digging around and, sure enough, on October 4 2008 N6013X was substantially damaged whilst landing on a private airstrip in Eloy, AZ.

I am glad to see that the pilot was unharmed, sad to see that we lost half of our twin Beechcraft fleet and I wonder what this will do to the club’s insurance next year. The penalty for any accident in the club is that you have to write an account and lessons learned for the next newsletter, so it will be interesting to get his view of what happened.

An Unusual Cessna Injury

We all know about the classic Cessna injury – walking into the flaps or wing and taking some metal to the forehead. It’s like flying a retractable gear, it’s not if it will happen, its when….

Anyway tonight I got a good smack from the plane during preflight. I was stood with the door slightly open about to reach inside for the checklist or something. It was hot so I thought I’d open the window for while I was preflighting. I flipped the catch, the window sprang out with some speed and whacked me in the side of the head. It was so hard and unexpected I bit the back of my tongue! My CFI never warned me about that danger of flying!

Two Good Blog Postings to Read

If you’re looking for a little reading this afternoon, we highly recommend the following:

  • Head over to Krista’s blog and congratulate her on becoming a pilot.
  • Read this account of how good training overcame a stuck right throttle somewhere over FL.

Not much to report here. I’ve scheduled a couple of bookings, one this week for currency, and then a weekend in April for us to go somewhere (maybe Big Bear). Also talking to Bob about getting checked out in the club’s 210 so I can take it on a trip to Albuquerque.

Personal Minimums

Was reading some aviation magazines and blogs last night, mostly about “exciting” flights or accidents and it got me thinking that despite 300 hours of flying time I am still quite the ‘fair weather’ flyer. I find it hard to understand people who fly VFR into IMC because if the weather looks anything like it would be like that I don’t go, or I file IFR. Maybe this makes me a wuss, I don’t know. It obviously means I don’t fly as much as I could (though to be honest my wallet is the main captain of that decision).

Shortly after getting my Private certificate I took a short VFR trip to Riverside Municipal airport. Visibility was 4 miles which is VFR, right?! Getting to the LA basin I was met with a wall of haze, very hard to see much of anything. I had my Anywhere Map GPS showing me the way but it was not pretty. The tower gave me “suggested headings” to find the field but I can’t believe how late I saw it; the tower was still reporting 4 mi.

There are a few small hills on the way out of Riverside back to San Diego and I decided that my GPS would keep me out of the way. So, of course, on departure the PDA that was running the software froze and that was no longer an option. Some quick dead reckoning came up with turns and times and I was soon out of the murk and my heartrate back to normal. I called FlightWatch and RAL was still reporting 4 miles.

I really can’t believe that was 4 miles or, if it truly was, then I can’t believe that VFR minimums are 3 miles because I couldn’t see much of anything useful. So one of my personal minimums is 5 miles vis if I am going VFR, less than that and its IFR.

Losing All 4 Engines

I’m flying to England for a week and a bit tomorrow so its a slow work day today. Whilst reading about rumours of a Virgin 747 gliding into JFK this week with all 4 engines out (as you guessed, its not true) I was reminded of probably the most famous of the few 4-engine out incidents – British Airways Flight 9.

Hopefully on my (two-engine) flight across the pond tomorrow I will not be hearing the infamous words: Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress

A Failure to See and Avoid

Amazing to think that no one was killed in this accident in which a plane landed on top of another just as it had touched down.

Another report I read reported that the accident pilot was transmitting on the wrong frequency and so did not hear the earlier pilot announce that he was on final, also. Obviously the second plane was on a higher path than the first and, being a low wing it would have been difficult to see beneath him. Either way, its incredible to think that at no time did he see the other guy. One of the dangers of uncontrolled airfields!

Flying Club Prop Strikes

My flying club has had two prop strikes in two weeks recently, both in a Beech Duchess, leaving only one of our three twin-engineed planes in service. I don’t have any of the details other than one occurred at Oshkosh and the other locally at Montgomery Field. I expected both to appear in the NTSB accident database but so far I don’t see anything. I don’t know anything about these planes so I don’t know whether they have awkward landing characteristics (like the Cardinal) or if its just an unlucky coincidence. Either way, its a club rule that you have to write about your event in the club newsletter so all will possibly be revealed later in the year.

Marriage Proposal Goes Awry

From news in Canada:

ROME, Ga. (AP) – A plane chartered to help a man propose to his girlfriend crashed, injuring the couple and the pilot, authorities said.

Relatives holding a sheet with “Erica, will you marry me?” painted on it watched from the ground as the Cessna 127 circled low over the airport, stalled and then crashed Friday evening.

The couple, Adam Sutton and Erica Brussee, and the pilot were taken to a hospital with injuries that did not appear to be life threatening, authorities said.

Brussee suffered a broken leg, and the other two had cuts and gashes.

As Brussee was loaded into the ambulance, she said: ” ‘Tell Adam I said yes,’ ” said Joshua Willis, Sutton’s cousin.

The ring was lost in the wreckage, he said.