Never Again

Gone fishing

July 1, 2004

Although I had been flying twins for the past 22 years, I found myself flying less, so I decided to throttle back a bit and spend some time getting to know a 1981 Cessna 182 Skylane. I was pretty safe, and determined to keep it that way.

After deciding I was still going to haul friends to factories and fishing holes, I got to thinking about a fuel totalizer. After mapping out a typical trip from recent years to Canada North Lodge, in Ear Falls, Ontario, I realized that 800-plus pounds of buddies and a little gear meant I'd have to leave off about 38 gallons of fuel. That still left me 50 gallons to work with, but having been used to the precision of a totalizer, and not being that familiar with the real-world fuel flow of the Skylane's Continental O-470, I wanted to be darned sure what I had left after a three-hour leg.

Early in my flying I always planned on landing with an hour of fuel at my destination. With the precision of a totalizer and 1,700 hours under my belt, I ultimately became very comfortable with the 45-minute reserve required for an IFR flight. So I was glad when I was able to get the totalizer installed in time for this year's trip. I wasn't going to have time to fill the tanks and fly 38 gallons out of them, so I did the next-best thing; I had already picked up a fuel stick for a 182 and found it easy to use.

Using the fuel stick to measure fuel burn after an hourlong training flight, the totalizer was right on, at eight gallons. Another afternoon flight, seven gallons — still right on.

The evening before our departure from Tulsa, and after double-checking what each of my three passengers weighed, I very carefully measured out 51 gallons, 26 in one side and 25 in the other, and loaded it into the totalizer.

A cold front had blown through the area the night before, leaving me with what would be pretty good VFR weather until I got into Minnesota. Two legs of two hours, 45 minutes each; clear customs at Fort Frances, Ontario; another hour up to Ear Falls; then an hour ride up a logging trail, and we'd have three days of remote bliss.

We settled in at 9,000 feet to avoid the worst of the unusual 30- to 40-knot headwinds. The sky was blue, the ride was smooth, and Center didn't bother us except with the occasional altimeter setting. I'd referred to the performance charts and leaned back to 11.8 gph on the fuel flow indicator and reveled in the fact that we were turning a 22-hour drive into a six- or seven-hour flight.

My friend Matt brought the fuel gauges to my attention as they began to edge toward E. Pointing at the totalizer I said, "This thing is good to a tenth of a gallon, and we have better than an hour's worth of fuel at these power settings." The fuel gauges were getting a little close to empty, and I kept my eye on them, but the left still showed just under one-quarter of a tank. I had never flown this airplane to the edge like this, but I had confidence in the fuel flow, and a quick check on the calculator showed I was going to be right on my mark of a 45-minute reserve when we landed for fuel.

I happened to be passing by the totalizer in a routine scan as it zipped from 11.8 to zero in about 1 second. Hmm, I thought as I quickly checked the fuel selector. At about that time the engine went from a hum to a whirr. I declared an emergency with Minneapolis Center: "I have an engine failure, possible fuel starvation, and we're looking for a place to land."

"Roger that, Niner-Eight-Hotel. Looks like Denison Airport is nearest to you — will you be able to make the field?"

"I'll let you know." I had already pulled out my checklist. I turned the fuel selector to Left, thinking I must have something left in that tank. The engine came to life and gave me two or three seconds of hope before it sputtered and quit again. Fuel blockage entered my mind. I knew I still had 13 gallons left.

Center asked if I would be able to make the airport. I replied no. Then the controller asked if there was a road going into Denison that I could land on.

Sure, that was the first thing I saw. I would line up for that long, straight highway, and, if I could make the field, veer off at the last minute and put it down on Runway 31. But if the semis coming and going weren't enough trouble, Highway 59 curved into some less-than-inviting wooded hills as it neared town, so we kept looking. I advised Center that the main highway was not where I would be landing. "Roger that. The sheriff has been alerted to the situation and is on his way out to meet you."

At about 4,000 feet and I don't know how many minutes later, an east-west road just south of town presented itself. Wind out of the west, minimal traffic — I advised Center of my decision. The closer I got the better it looked. At 1,000 feet, I was lined up. Then a van topped the hill coming our way. He was going to be clear, as long as no one else came barreling over the hill.

Until then I hadn't panicked. But just as I saw them, Don yelled from the back: "Power lines!" There wasn't time to start panicking. I pushed hard on the yoke and remember thinking, "I'm going to fly under some power lines. I hope my tail clears!"

I pulled up, bounced once on my left wheel, flew the next few feet back to the center of the road, and came to a grateful stop. At that moment the tension burst into cheers and slaps on the back. I was equally glad to be down and in one piece, but I wasn't too proud of myself. It appeared likely I'd run out of gas at 9,000 feet! I hurried the guys out of the airplane and sent two to the top of the hill to stop traffic. The driver of the van that had just passed came back asking if he could help.

I opened the baggage door and rummaged around for my stepstool. With my trusty fuel stick I was hoping to find some fuel in the left tank. Both tanks were bone dry.

After a long wait the local FBO operator was able to bring a couple of six-gallon cans of 100LL, one of which he poured into each wing. As soon as he was through I climbed up his ladder and stuck the fuel stick back in to check. I placed my finger over the top and pulled it out. It read 10 gallons. I immediately looked at the stick again and read, "C-182 LR — Bladder Tank Only." A mixture of relief and shame hit me like a brick. I have wet wings, not bladder tanks. I've been using the wrong fuel stick! There were no more questions. The airplane performed exactly as it should have. The totalizer was right on. The pilot just couldn't read!

Looking at the big picture, I also realized that the transition from a pressurized twin back to a single requires the same level of attention as making the transition to a larger aircraft. Flying even a "simple" aircraft involves details that can turn into gotchas if they go unnoticed.

Roland Rice, AOPA 1056089, is a private pilot with instrument and multiengine ratings, with more than 1,700 hours in 31 years of flying.

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