Never Again: Just land

March 1, 2010

A warm summer night and a vacant but familiar airport seemed perfect for practicing takeoffs and landings. I was a new private pilot on that long-ago night, and I was night current, too. But I wanted to be especially sharp for an upcoming flight and decided to get some additional practice. I was planning to take an old friend on a sightseeing trip a few days later, and I wanted to make a favorable impression by flying with confidence and precision.

At the time, I was working an afternoon shift, and the morning schedule at the FBO where I rented airplanes was full. The solution was simple: I’d fly after work.

It was well after 11 p.m. when I rolled into the parking lot of Marine City Airport—a neat little field just north of Lake St. Clair, Michigan, with a 2,250-foot paved runway. The weather was warm and the sky clear, with light winds. I planned to stay in the traffic pattern for the entire duration of the short flight. In spite of the fact that I had just completed my shift at work and had nothing to do after the flight but drive home and go to bed, I remember feeling oddly rushed, even though I was the only person who would be flying at the airport that night. With the keys in hand, I went to preflight the friendly Cessna 152.

The preflight was uneventful except for all the mosquitoes swarming around me—and dipping the fuel tanks revealed that the previous pilot hadn’t topped them off. Should I add fuel now, or fill the tanks at the end of my flight? The thought of fending off the mosquitoes twice while balancing on the strut of the 152 wasn’t appealing. I figured there was well over one hour of fuel in the tanks, and I only planned to fly for a few minutes. I’d still land with the required 45 minutes of avgas in reserve, and I’d be staying in the traffic pattern, so getting lost or encountering headwinds weren’t concerns.

I strapped in and started the engine, announced my intentions on the absolutely silent radio frequency, and took off into the night. The airplane climbed especially well with its light load, and I was exhilarated by its performance. Minutes later, I set up for a normal approach and landing.

Turning final, however, I was too high, and I wasn’t comfortable performing a slip in the darkness. No matter, I’d just go around. The second time around I made some adjustments by extending the downwind, but not enough. I knew from flying at this airport in daylight that there were power lines between me and the runway that I couldn’t see, so my approach was still too high—and no better, really, than the first. Around I went again.

“What’s the problem?” I wondered. “I land here all the time. Why am I having so much difficulty tonight?”

The third approach looked better for a time, but it was too fast for the relatively short runway. Climbing out for the fourth time, I began to get very concerned about my ability to land before running out of fuel.

The needles on the fuel gauges were dipping below one-quarter, and I felt disbelief, fear, and dismay at my stupidity. If I couldn’t get the airplane on the ground soon with the engine running, it would surely go down when the engine stopped. The added pressure made my flying worse, and I botched my next two approaches as well.

I finally forced myself to concentrate by talking my way through the landing procedure. At last an approach looked good. The threshold passed beneath me, followed a moment later by the firm planting of the mains on the runway.

My left arm was cramped from holding the yoke so tightly, and I was just beginning to breathe normally as I taxied the airplane to the pump and pulled the mixture to idle cutoff. Turning the mags and master off, there was no denying how shaken I had become. I sat quietly for a few moments as the gyros wound down.

The airplane was back on the ground and nothing was bent. I was safe, if a bit rattled. I set about the task of topping off the fuel tanks. But my sense of calm didn’t last very long. As the numbers on the gas pump rolled higher, a knot formed in the pit of my stomach. The precious liquid now reached to the rim of the right tank and the meter registered 13 gallons. I swallowed hard. Moving to the other tank, I watched in disbelief, again, as the total climbed higher. I knew I was going to catch it from Doug, my instructor, who also operated the FBO, when he saw the number of gallons on the fuel slip—but I had to know. The meter climbed, the knot in my stomach grew, until finally the left-wing fuel tank was full.

When I put the nozzle back in the pump it read 23 gallons for an airplane that only holds 26 gallons—and four of those gallons are categorized as unusable! I can’t describe the sensations that came over me. It was more than shock, or disappointment, or humility. I knew right then that I had to reexamine every aspect of the way I flew, and the way I thought about flying. All my actions that night—even the ones that took place long before I got into the airplane—had to be evaluated.

When I showed up at the FBO that Saturday, Doug did sit me down for a candid discussion. That was certainly no surprise. We had a good talk, and I made an appointment for more night dual instruction.

I never did enter that short flight in my logbook. But I learned more from those few minutes than all of the flying hours that came before, or the many hours that followed over more than 21 years since.

There were many valuable lessons learned, among them: Don’t rush. Rushing always leads to mistakes, and it distorts facts and priorities. Fuel requirements are only FAA minimums. Fuel gives pilots time and options, and we can never afford to run short of those.

Ever since, I’ve made it a point to land with far more fuel remaining than the FAA requires. Instead of landing with as little fuel as possible, I try to bring as much as I can. Know your limits and get frequent training. Finally, when you are in the airplane, first, last, and foremost, stay calm—and fly the airplane.

John Shonka, AOPA 896507, is a commercial pilot with instrument and multiengine ratings.