Delayed and distracted

September 1, 2003

Executive Director Bruce Landsberg recommends being on the ground when fuel remaining drops below one hour reserve.

General aviation has been living under some strenuous and somewhat confusing rules since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Both AOPA and the AOPA Air Safety Foundation have devoted significant resources to combating government overreactions and educating pilots. While some headway has been made on both fronts, the following story shows that there is still plenty of confusion.

This miscue should serve as a reminder that distraction, no matter what the source, can have some really unhappy consequences and that pilots in command must not become so bore-sighted on an objective that they forget airmanship. Distractions are like bullets — you never see them coming until it's too late.

A recurrent theme in these complex times is delay caused by going around temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) and awaiting clearance into and out of Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZs). Some of that is attributable to Class B airspace; during heavy traffic times for those primary airports a VFR pilot could frequently expect a 15-minute delay in getting clearance, even before the attacks. It can be much worse now. Obviously, hold time aloft is limited. If you wait for an ADIZ clearance long enough as high-octane avgas is steadily converted into low-octane air, the result is engine silence.

This summer, a new private pilot dealing with Washington, D.C., ADIZ clearance issues exhausted the fuel supply of his Cessna 172 with a forced landing and minor injuries.

In case you haven't flown in the D.C. ADIZ, here's a primer — you need to be on a VFR or IFR flight plan, talking to ATC, and have a unique squawk code. The pilot stated he telephoned a flight service station (FSS) at about 6 a.m. and filed two flight plans. The first flight plan was for a flight from Martin State Airport, inside the Washington, D.C., ADIZ, to Hagerstown Regional-Richard A Henson Field in Hagerstown, Maryland. The second flight plan, reportedly, was for the return flight to Martin State, and included a stop at Frederick Municipal Airport in Frederick, Maryland. (At this writing the accident is still being investigated and there is a question as to whether the pilot actually had a second VFR flight plan on file.)

The flight received clearance and departed Martin State at about 8 a.m., landing at Hagerstown at about 9:30 a.m., according to the pilot. After parking for about 20 minutes, the pilot departed for Frederick but did not activate his second flight plan since Frederick is outside the ADIZ. The Cessna landed at Frederick at about 10:10 a.m., taxied back to the runway for takeoff, and departed at about 10:20 a.m. Nearing the edge of the ADIZ at about 11 a.m., the pilot contacted Potomac Approach to obtain clearance into the ADIZ and to land at Martin State. The pilot apparently did not activate his second flight plan with FSS upon leaving Frederick, which would have been the proper procedure.

The controller could not locate the flight plan, and instructed the pilot to contact FSS to re-file. The pilot reported several unsuccessful attempts to contact Leesburg FSS, advised Approach that he was unable to contact the FSS, and was instructed to hold for clearance. During the next 45 to 50 minutes, he made repeated calls to Potomac Approach to obtain a clearance into the ADIZ. At about noon, the pilot informed the controller that he was "concerned" about the airplane's fuel status but no emergency was declared or priority handling requested.

Approximately five minutes later, the Cessna was cleared into the ADIZ and landing clearance was issued. The pilot stated, "The engine began to sputter, and I immediately knew I was out of fuel." The Cessna struck trees about three miles northwest of Martin State.

The fuel tanks were reported as full prior to departing Martin State. While awaiting clearance into the ADIZ, the pilot observed the fuel gauges getting "pretty low" and estimated he had approximately 30 minutes of fuel remaining. The engine lost power about 15 or 20 minutes later. When asked if he ever considered declaring a fuel emergency, the pilot replied "no" and stated he was not sure why not, except that he expected to receive clearance to land soon.

Doing the math on the back of an envelope, based on the pilot's estimate: Martin State to Hagerstown (1 hour, 30 minutes) plus Hagerstown to Frederick (20 minutes) plus Frederick to the edge of the ADIZ (40 minutes) plus the delay (50 minutes) plus the abbreviated arrival leg (5 minutes), adds up to 3 hours, 25 minutes. In reality, he may have burned quite a few more minutes. The owner's manual from a similar vintage Skyhawk estimates endurance at around 4 hours and 30 minutes, but that is with the usual caveats: new engine, absolutely full tanks, perfect setting of power, and proper leaning — performance that most of us won't achieve in the real world.

One of the most distressing parts of this mishap relates to the pilot, who reported 75 hours of total flight experience. He received his private pilot certificate in June 2002, at 55 flight hours, with the most recent flight before the accident occurring about 60 days prior. That means he was only flying about 20 hours a year, which is probably not enough for most individuals to retain any real proficiency.

It started with a nice summer's day and the opportunity to share the dream of flight with two friends. You don't need much imagination to figure out how the three of them are feeling about flying right now. It ended with minor injuries, a badly damaged or destroyed aircraft, and increased insurance costs for all. This doesn't help with public perception of GA either.

I won't lecture on the fine points of fuel management. The Air Safety Foundation has a complete safety advisor on the subject, and while most pilots are bored with this stuff, we're cracking up better than an aircraft a week because of fuel mismanagement.

The government's present security approach requires too much "handling" of routine VFR flights, especially those on the very edge of the ADIZ. ATC cannot handle the load on top of the usual IFR traffic. Both AOPA and ASF continue to press for reasonable solutions. In the interim, remember that the time in your tanks is finite and bullets come fast and quietly.

Know Before You Go, ASF's latest online course (, is a quick primer on how to deal with TFRs and ADIZs. It even qualifies for credit for the seminar portion of the Wings program. Fuel awareness information is available online. AOPA members also can review a detailed Q&A compiled by AOPA's aviation technical specialists.