February 1, 2013
Listen to this month's "Never Again" story: A sleepless night. Download the mp3 file or download the iTunes podcast.
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More than 25 years ago I bought a used Beech Baron 58. Within a week of my purchase, a longtime mechanic friend phoned: “I don’t mean to meddle. Be leery of Beech fuel gauges. Know your fuel by time and fuel burn.”
I heeded his advice. What’s more, nearly all of my flights are under two hours. To be a good FBO friend and/or avoid a ramp fee, I would top off at each stop. So, between knowing this fuel burn, the fuel remaining, and nearly always topping off the tanks, I became oblivious to the fuel gauges. Yet I always landed with 45 minutes of fuel on board. On more than one long trip, I have stopped for fuel to avoid landing with more than 30 minutes but fewer than 45 minutes aboard.
Last summer I planned a trip from Oklahoma to the East Coast. I planned to refuel in Coshocton, Ohio (I40), which has a great cookout each summer on weekends. I phoned my FBO the night before to instruct them to “have the Baron topped with 100LL and on the line at 7 a.m.” A sleepless night ensued.
At 4:30 a.m. I shaved, showered, and headed for airport. Prior to leaving my home, I phoned the FBO and said, “I woke up early. Go ahead and pull the Baron.”
As I drove to the airport, I realized I had forgotten to mention fuel; then I remembered I had requested a top-off the previous night. I phoned Flight Service on the way to the airport, got a briefing (CAVU the entire route—no airmets). I filed IFR anyway.
I cranked the engines, obtained the ATIS, and called clearance delivery. Clearance delivery and ground were combined at that early hour; the controller replied, “Clearance on request and you are ready to taxi?”
“Affirmative,” I said. I was cleared to taxi and taxied to the run-up area near the threshold. As I reached for the checklist, Clearance Delivery called. “We have your clearance, are you ready to copy?” I put down the checklist and copied. I failed to pick up the checklist again. Now, you know what is next.
In cruise I set 65-percent power based on a horsepower calculator. After about a half-hour, I noticed a true airspeed five to seven knots faster than usual. I pulled out the calculator and rechecked power settings. And then I noticed that the fuel gauges were in the yellow, at one-sixteenth per side.
My first thought was, This cannot be—the gauges are malfunctioning. Then I thought, I’m in no hurry—I want to get on the ground and check.
I hit the GPS for the nearest airport. There was one a few miles off to the right. I banked and saw the airport. I pulled the power at 9,000 feet msl, dropped the gear, and told ATC I was landing at that airport. I dove at top of the green arc to the airport. According to the automated surface observation system, winds were calm.
ATC asked, “Please state reason for diversion.” I replied: “To use the restroom, check weather, and take on fuel.” I did not lie to ATC or incriminate myself.
I gave a big sigh of relief when the mains touched down with the engines running. I called the unicom. No answer, but at that point I did not care if fuel had to be trucked from elsewhere.
I taxied toward the FBO and spotted two fuel trucks, and next to them a self-service pump for 100LL. After filling the tanks, I did the math. Three gallons useable on each side. That was 11 minutes at normal cruise. Morals of the story: Always use your checklist for prestart, post-start, pretakeoff, and prelanding—no matter how well you know your airplane. Know your fuel both by gauge and math. Scan regularly. And do not fly fatigued.
Aircraft Power and Fuel,
Pilot Training and Certification,
The FAA encourages pilots to do a number of things in order to increase safety, but does not require them. Check out these three actions that are recommended.
Your CFII usually follows up route-planning drilling with a review of appropriate regulations, and today’s selection is 14 CFR 91.185, "IFR Operations: Two-way radio communications failure."
Over the past several weeks, the Air Safety Institute has observed a cluster of general aviation accidents occurring in close succession. The Air Safety Institute recommends that GA pilots conduct a pre-holiday safety pause and risk review. See these safety steps to take before your next flight.
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