Never Again: Music in the night

What is the engine telling you?

December 1, 2012

lights in the night sky

Never Again

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When you make the same trip a number of times, I guess it’s easy to become complacent and assume certain expectations. Such assumptions became my problem one December night, many years ago.

I had a job to fulfill in Buffalo, New York. I hadn’t flown much because of a busy schedule, so I decided to get in some flying time in my 1964 Cessna 172 Skyhawk.

I had flown a Civil Air Patrol mission about a week before. They had refueled my aircraft for the return flight from the former Zahn’s Airport on Long Island, New York, to Teterboro, New Jersey, my home field. I assumed I had enough fuel for this trip, which was a direct routing of Teterboro, Wilkes-Barre, Elmira, Buffalo. I had made this trip to Buffalo many times, and my average flight time was two hours, 45 minutes. So, I filed a flight plan for my usual 2:45 ETE with gas on board for 3:30 hours instead of my usual four hours fuel on board.

When I bought the airplane, the previous owner cautioned me that the fuel gauges never read correctly. The left gauge always read more than the right gauge. Since I never flew longer than three hours at a time, I never felt that I should be concerned about how high or low the fuel gauges read.

Also, it was about that time that the FAA issued a directive that, because of an incident with a Skyhawk flying above 5,000 feet and having a fuel problem, that anyone flying a Skyhawk above 5,000 feet should use the left or right tank, and not both as was taught in the early flying lessons. Before I bought my airplane—N3500S—I belonged to a lot of clubs and flew Cherokees and other aircraft where I had to use either left or right tanks. I knew it would not be a problem for me to do that routine.

My habit was to take off with Both selected and then when I got to my selected altitude, I would change to either the left or right tank and continue monitoring them for balance.

I left Teterboro about 4 p.m., climbed to 6,500 feet, and headed for Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. I noticed that I was about 15 minutes late at this checkpoint, but so what?

I headed up the Susquehanna River toward Elmira. About halfway there it became dark, and, for the first time in all my flying, I heard the engine sound change its pitch to a lower sound. I’m always aware of sound, especially in flying, because I am a musician and piano tuner. I quickly used the carburetor heat control and was pleased with the back-to-normal sound. It was music to my ears.

As I was getting closer to Elmira, I switched tanks. I was looking down at the city lights, which I always referred to as fireflies. It was dark, and then looking ahead I couldn’t see any clouds, just white. I thought that my windshield was icing up, and I knew there was no defroster in the airplane. When I looked out the window and again saw the lights below, I figured I was getting into clouds. So, down I went to 4,500 feet and it was clear ahead now.

When I got over Elmira I checked the time and again found that I was about 15 minutes past my check time. I again shrugged it off and figured that I would only be about a half-hour late, but still good. I continued to Dansville where I noticed that one gauge read empty. So I changed to the tank with the gauge that showed one-quarter full and flew on.

When I was over Warsaw, I checked with Buffalo Tower and was told that I was about 40 miles away. I relaxed and listened to the purring of the engine and thought of the musical arrangement I was supposed to work on in Buffalo.

Suddenly it became quiet, and I became very active. First I pushed the mixture control in, then quickly pulled out the carburetor heat control. Nothing happened. I quickly looked at the two gas gauges. The left was one-quarter full and the right read empty. I thought I still had enough fuel—so what was the problem?

I remember reading in one of the airplane magazines that someone with a problem with his engine used the primer control to get some gas to the engine and was able to make it to an airport. But, nothing happened when I tried priming the engine. The propeller was still windmilling.

I called the Buffalo tower as soon as it got quiet and asked how far I was from the airport and was told 18 miles. I knew I couldn’t glide that far. I did trim the airplane for best glide speed while I was hitting all the controls.

If I was over the New York Thruway I’d go for a landing on it, even though I might get a summons. I knew I was south of it and instead of circling I kept heading north toward the Thruway. I was slowly losing altitude as I tried to figure out what was wrong.

The Buffalo controller called me and asked, “Three-Five-Zero-Zero-Sierra, what are your intentions?”

I started to laugh. I wanted to answer, “Idiot, I just want to land safely,” but I nicely answered that I was still trying to figure things out. I was at 1,800 feet, and I knew that in that area I was only about 800 feet above the ground.

I didn’t know what else to do, so I reached down and moved the fuel selector to the Both position. The engine came back to life and the airplane quickly climbed back up to about 3,000 feet. I headed for the Thruway. If the engine failure happened again, I’d be over a reasonable landing strip.

I called Buffalo Tower and asked if I could be number one to land because of the fuel problem. Tower said that I was the only one in the area and cleared me for an approach and landing. I followed the Thruway to the approach lights for Runway 23 and landed.

I taxied to the local FBO and asked them to fill the tanks. They put in 36 gallons of avgas. I felt that I had had enough fuel to ease my mind and not think that I came in on fumes. After all, the airplane had two 21-gallon tanks and the placards around the wing fuel cells read 19.5, which added to 39 gallons.

At Teterboro a month later, my mechanic told me to look at the placard between the two front seats. I did. Boy, was I surprised to see that it read 36 usable for level flight—18 for each tank. So I did have a close call that winter night.

What did I do wrong? First, I should have filled up both fuel tanks. Then when my checkpoints came up late, I should have realized that I had headwinds. I had never really thought of winds before, but after this flight I began to look for all answers for any trip. It takes only one event to wake you up and get smarter. Your life depends on how you plan any trip.

I have more recommendations to make. It wouldn’t hurt if you took up some music lessons, to be aware of pitch sounds. Flight instructors should make their students aware of pitch changes in sound. Flying has many sounds connected to it, for climbing, cruising, landing, and turns. Learn the normal sounds of flight.

Herman “Hi” Babich is an inventor and pilot who lives in Coconut Creek, Florida.