Never Again: Fuel shower

May 1, 2008

We’ve all read accounts of World War I pilots trapped in burning aircraft. Their only options were to ride it down and burn up in the process, jump without a parachute, or shoot themselves. Such thoughts were going through my mind on a particular flight in the summer of 1982—I was completely soaked with avgas and was wondering if my airplane, a 1946 Taylorcraft BC12D, was already burning behind me! Good thing I didn’t have a gun.

The day started with an early departure from Aerocountry, an airport just north of Dallas. I was headed for Pensacola, Florida, to spend a weekend with friends. I enjoyed a tailwind for the first part of the trip and stopped for a fuel and stretch break at the Laurel Regional Airport in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. This was a nice place, and refueling there easily gave me enough range to make Pensacola. Green grass surrounded the single runway, and soon I was chatting with a couple of older gentlemen sitting outside. They seemed genuinely pleased to see a young person flying an old taildragger, and I enjoyed the attention and the realization that I was flying my own airplane. It doesn’t get much better than that!

My Taylorcraft has three fuel tanks: a 12-gallon nose tank and two, six-gallon wing tanks. Fuel management is simple: when the nose tank is getting low (as indicated by your watch and a bobbing cork on a wire), you reach up and turn a valve on either wing tank. The fuel then flows from the selected tank into the nose tank, and then to the engine. To confirm that fuel is flowing, you simply reach up behind the instrument panel and touch the copper fuel line. It cools as the avgas runs through it. Also, the bobbing fuel cork rises as fuel refills the nose tank.

The fuel truck pulled up, and the attendant happily let me fuel the airplane. I topped off the nose tank and the right wing tank, and then carefully closed and double-checked the fuel caps. I did my usual walk-around inspection, hand-propped the airplane, and readied it for takeoff. My mental checklist in the T-Craft was very simple, and in no time I was taxiing for the runway. I decided I would depart from midfield. There was no traffic and besides, I would show the airport folks what a T-Craft could do.

I rolled onto the runway and pushed the throttle forward; in no time the tail was up and flying. I held the airplane near the runway to build up speed and then pulled up steeply and rolled to the left. That’s when everything went wrong. Suddenly, waves of liquid flowed up from the base of the windshield and across its entire length and width. The waves just kept coming and, in an instant, the smell of avgas was overpowering. The fuel was entering the cockpit, and within seconds my feet, legs, and lower body were soaked in fuel. I quickly leveled off and pulled back on the throttle, but there was no stopping the fuel.

My thoughts ran to the hot engine and the exhaust stacks. Could they ignite the fuel? Had they already done that, and was the airplane already burning behind me? There was no way to know, as rear visibility in the T-Craft is virtually nonexistent. I was maintaining about 500 feet and looked down at some ponds near the airport. Should I land there and hope the water would extinguish any fire? How much time did I have? I fully expected the airplane to turn into a Roman candle at any moment. What would happen then? Should I dive for the pond and hope for the best? Should I jump?

I reached up to turn off the mags and kill the engine—but wait! That could cause a spark and ignite the fuel in the cockpit. I quickly moved my hand back down the throttle. By now I was on downwind; the engine was idling, and since I was still in the air, I figured the airplane was not, in fact, on fire. The fuel was still flowing over the windshield but seemed to have slowed when I throttled back. I pulled the fuel cutoff switch, did a sweeping turn onto final, and let the T-Craft settle on the runway. Then I rolled onto the grass as the engine clicked to a stop.

My exit from the aircraft might have been the fastest ever. But I was on the ground. The T-Craft was dripping fuel off the fuselage, but all the fabric was still intact. There was no sign of a fire. I took several deep breaths—I must have been holding my breath from the time the fuel started flowing over the windshield. I walked around the airplane. All the gas caps were in place. I opened the engine cowling and looked around. The carburetor, gascolator, and fuel lines seemed fine. What had happened? Where had the fuel come from?

I was standing in front of the airplane just staring at it when I saw it through the windshield. The fuel valve on the right wing tank was in the open position. Now everything fell into place. I had not closed the valve after emptying the tank in flight. So when I took off, the wing tank vent developed enough pressure to force the fuel from the now-full wing tank into the full nose tank. The fuel that came over the windshield and into the cockpit was overflow from the nose tank.

Luckily, the experience had only cost me a few gallons of fuel. What it taught me is the danger of showing off—had I taxied to the end of the runway I might have caught sight of the open valve—and, more important, it taught me the need for a good cockpit checklist. Oh, I had one in my head all right, but it proved to be no substitute for a written one that ensures that you won’t overlook anything. Also, you can add to it as you learn more about your airplane. You can bet those fuel valves are on my checklist now.

Jay May is a 600-hour private pilot based in Midland, Texas. He is restoring the 1946 Taylorcraft BC12D mentioned in this article.