Proficient Pilot

There is no excuse

February 1, 2010

Reading Rod Machado’s column about fuel gauges ( “License to Learn: Show Me the Money,” January 2010 AOPA Pilot), I was reminded of one of the most bizarre experiences of my aviation career. (Keep writing, Rod; I am approaching the point where I can use all the reminders I can get.)

My ex-wife and I were visiting South Africa with friends Jack and Donna. We had departed Johannesburg in a Beech Baron that we were using for our weeklong flying safari. Our first stop was Hluhluwe (pronounced shloo-shloo-e), which had a rough strip hewn from the wilderness. It was identifiable from the air because it seemed to be the only area clear of elephant mounds. We spent an incredible two days viewing rhinoceros and other wildlife.

While conducting a preflight inspection on the morning of our departure, I was delighted to discover that animals had not chewed on the tires or the de-icing boots. Unfortunately, I could not visually confirm the fuel level because of wing dihedral. The tanks could be three-quarters full but all you could see was the outboard bottom of each tank. No problem. The fuel gauges confirmed that our tanks were three-quarters full, which is what they had been after landing two days earlier.

After a takeoff that was so rough that it seriously threatened nosewheel integrity, we turned north toward our next destination, Londolozi. It was one of South Africa’s finest game reserves and reputedly was one of its most luxurious lodges.

A direct heading for Londolozi required overflying Swaziland, a small country, I was told, that was unfriendly toward those in an airplane bearing a South African registration. This was before the end of apartheid in South Africa. “We recommend that you circumnavigate the place,” the advice continued. “Our airplanes occasionally do overfly Swaziland because the only way the Swazis can enforce their sovereignty is with a squadron of Super Cubs and other light planes used to spray tsetse flies and control malaria.”

Feeling brave, I opted to save time and overfly Swaziland and the scattered cumulus clouds that polka-dotted the landscape. The silent alarm sounded when we were abeam the capital city, Mbabane. Both fuel gauges indicated only slightly above Empty. How could we be that low on fuel, I wondered? The adrenaline began to flow. Did we have a fuel leak? No, that can’t be it. How could we have fuel leaks in both tanks? Had someone siphoned fuel from the tanks while we were in Hluhluwe? Could be, I thought. Ahead was the bushveld. What should I do, make an emergency landing in Swaziland and risk Lord knows what consequences or continue toward our destination and risk fuel exhaustion and a subsequent forced landing in the bush? Neither choice was appealing.

I pulled the throttles back to save fuel and began a gradual descent. “Mbabane Tower, this is Beech Baron Zulu-Sierra-Juliet-Foxtrot-Mike, seven miles east, request immediate landing.” The controller replied to our South African call sign courteously and with a clearance to land on any runway.

A Jeep-like vehicle with armed soldiers escorted us to transient parking. After deplaning we were taken in silence to a Quonset hut on the other side of the field and ushered inside. A very large man sat behind a desk. He wore a military uniform and a menacing scowl. His jacket was so emblazoned with medals and decorations that he seemed a caricature of Ugandan strongman, Idi Amin Dada.

“You want to visit Swaziland?”

“Well, I would like to buy some fuel, if that is possible.”

“But, sir, you cannot buy fuel unless you first arrive in Swaziland. I repeat, would you like to visit Swaziland?”

I felt like saying, yes, but only long enough to refuel and without having to spend time in a Swazi jail. “Yes, sir,” I said sheepishly. “We would like to visit Swaziland.”

“Good,” he said. “Visas cost 200 U.S. dollars per person.” He then looked up with a wide grin and added, “We take American Express.”

I handed him my card and, as requested, our passports. He opened and spread them on his desk. He then removed a box of rubber stamps from a drawer and proceeded to stamp blank pages with great flourish and fanfare.

“After you buy fuel, will you want to leave Swaziland?”

I could feel it coming, and it did.

“Exit visas also cost 200 dollars per person.”

I handed him the credit card. Again.

We were driven back to our airplane, and I arranged for fuel. It turns out that our tanks were substantially more than half-full when we landed. After topping the tanks and for the duration of our flying safari, the fuel gauges behaved normally. Upon returning later that week to Johannesburg and after returning home, I did substantial digging into what might have caused both fuel gauges to have read so erroneously. I never got a satisfying answer. Experts told me only that the anomaly had to have been some sort of temporary aberration related to the electrical system. According to the Beech dealer that operated the airplane, Beech Sales Pty Limited, the problem never recurred.

Whatever the problem was, it cost us $1,600 (in 1980 dollars). But this was preferable to the alternative. There is no excuse for running out of gas. I also am thankful for not having to write this from a prison in Swaziland.

Barry Schiff was inducted into the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame in 2003. Visit the author’s Web site.