My personal "Never Agains"

The whoops I won't soon forget

November 1, 2009

As a regular reader of AOPA Pilot, the first thing I usually turn to is the “Never Again” column. I read it, and usually think something along the lines of “that poor sap” or “what the heck was that guy thinking?” The fact that I am sitting in a glass house with no clothes on constantly escapes me.

One day, after reading the column, I sat down and made a list of my personal never agains. It started with just one. Only one? Good. But as time passed I seemed to remember more and more questionable outings. I also noted that the majority of my never agains were clustered toward the early part of my flying career. Like a child, as an aviation newbie I had to learn my boundaries and my airplane’s boundaries—sometimes the hard way.

When we look back on all the less-than-intelligent things we’ve done, we tend to concentrate on those with consequences; the others—the ones that often involved luck and an oath never to do that again—we often just let go. However, it’s the ones without consequences that often result in the biggest never agains. Lest you think I am perfect (perish the thought), I thought I would share with you some of mine. And where in the past the names may have been changed to protect the terminally stupid or just plain ignorant, you can remain confident that they are mine, all mine.

Airplanes do require gas

One summer Friday evening I was flying a Cessna 172 from Orange County, California, to Shelton, Washington, to visit some friends. The airplane had been in maintenance for a few days and had work done on the fuel tanks and gauges. After a thorough preflight, I filled up the airplane with fuel and people and took off for Redding, California, where I planned to feed both man and machine. Redding was a little more than half way, about 500 statute miles and the flight was planned for about four hours. This 172 was a pretty religious eight-gallons-per-hour kind of airplane, so we should have had about eight gallons or 50 some odd pounds left on landing. Flying over Sacramento, a little more than an hour out of Redding, I noticed that the needle on the gas gauge was farther toward Empty than it should have been. However, I was not that concerned—I had been conditioned by previous airplanes with suspect gas gauges to suspect gas gauges—and normally trusted only fuel burn over time. Plus, because of the maintenance on the fuel gauges and tanks I think I was somehow predisposed to question them. So I kept going. But I made a mental note to stay high and descend late for Redding in case there were any problems. At the time I thought that was pretty smart. Looking at it in retrospect, passing over several perfectly good airports while planning ahead for a fuel exhaustion emergency doesn’t seem all that bright.

As we got closer and closer to Redding, the gauge got closer and closer to Empty. It became kind of a race to see what would happen first, Redding or Empty—at least according to the fuel gauge. But I still thought we were good because a tailwind had put us ahead of schedule, meaning we would be landing with even more gas than we planned, not less. Even so, I couldn’t help that gnawing feeling that maybe the gauge was right.

We finally got Redding in sight and landed. I asked the nice man at the FBO to top it off while we went and ate. When we got back, the guy was looking at me kind of funny as he handed me the fuel slip. It was then that I saw how much gas it took to fill it up—39.87 gallons. That’s pretty impressive for an airplane that only holds 40 gallons usable and 43 total. My jaw dropped. It still drops when I think about it. I never did figure out what happened, but the fuel burn the rest of the trip was normal. Now, I’ve got a new rule. Time aloft says we land—we land. Fuel gauge says we land—we land. Anything says we land—we land. The airplane does not manufacture gas, no matter what the salesman might say.

Can’t go up, can’t go down

I used to fly a lot between Southern California and the Pacific Northwest and usually went via Redding over the Cascade Mountains because it was shorter. Unfortunately, on this ugly December day in instrument conditions I was in a normally aspirated Piper Arrow with icing forecast at all altitudes from the minimum en route altitude (MEA) up. True, the same icing existed over the coastal range, but since the MEA was a few thousand feet lower, I figured I could get by. Plus, we know what happened the last time I went near Redding.

So there I was, cruising along over the coastal range of Northern California at the MEA when all of a sudden, I heard a clunk and the airplane started descending. Unexpected clunks are never a good thing in the car, let alone in an airplane in the soup. Through some breaks in the overcast I could see trees on the tops of the mountains below me and they didn’t look very far away. And with an unplanned descent, they were going to get a lot closer. I tried to call Oakland Center but couldn’t put a coherent sentence together. I couldn’t seem to come up with the phraseology for telling Center I was in trouble.

Then I noticed the flashing amber light and recalled from reading the POH that it was an indication of a gear lever/gear position disagreement. The gear handle was up, so the gear must be down. But why? The Arrow’s infamous automatic gear system had deployed. It must have iced up, and thinking my airspeed was low, it dropped the gear, assuming that I was planning on landing—which I was, but just not right then, thank you.

After fumbling for what seemed like forever to find the override in the center console, the gear came up and I started climbing. Yay. I had figured out what the problem was before swapping paint with pine trees. After another minute or so, I was able to get a complete sentence out over the radio, requesting vectors to the nearest bathroom, which happened to be Eureka. I spent some quality time there reevaluating my life choices and came up with another new rule—Don’t file at the MEA unless absolutely necessary. If there’s the possibility of trouble and I’m filed at an altitude where I can’t go up and I can’t go down, I can’t go.

After a while I continued on to Concord and then LaVerne/Brackett Field east of Los Angeles. It was not my original destination, but I had a college basketball game I was supposed to referee that night and my unexpected stop in Eureka now required me to fly directly to the game. I landed, grabbed my refereeing stuff out of the back, hiked across a field, hopped a fence, and made it just in time. That was the first and only time I’ve ever flown to a basketball game. It’s not that I mind flying to a game, it’s just that I don’t want to be forced to do it because of poor choices earlier in the day.

Taking a friend flying

Not long after I started my airline career, I took my friend Kelly on a trip through southeast Alaska. It was just me taking a buddy flying, along with 100 or so other folks. I would point out the first landing was made by the other pilot and, truth be told, it wasn’t all that great. When I went back to the cabin to check on how things were going, Kelly wanted to know if that had been my landing. Of course, I threw my crewmate under the bus and said no. However, the next leg to Sitka was mine, and if there were any issues with that landing everybody could just blame me. That turned out to be an unfortunate statement on my part.

Sitka lies in a little cul de sac of terrain with a fairly unique 6,500-foot runway surrounded by water on three and one-half sides. It’s always fun to land there. On the approach it was typical Sitka fall weather; a little bumpy, a little windy, and a lot dark. I put it on the ground fairly smoothly and was pretty darn happy with myself. I thought it was about an eight. That’s when I learned that an eight in the front doesn’t always feel like an eight in the back. Kelly was sitting right on top of the landing gear—which I’ve learned is not the best seat location if you’re looking for positive comments.

It was our last stop for the evening, so I went back to the cabin, expecting to get my due accolades and revel in them all the way to the hotel. Instead of “Wow, that was great,” I got, “Wow, what the heck happened?” I’m still living that one down to this day.

A tip—if you’re going to bring a friend along for the first time when you’re somewhat new to an airplane, bring one who’s expendable. That way, if the landing stinks, you can just ditch the friend and find a new one. Unfortunately, I’ve been friends with Kelly since I was 13, so I’m totally hosed to this day.

Marc Henegar is a commercial airline pilot living in Bend, Oregon.