Never Again: A sleepless night

Fatigue and flying don't mix

February 1, 2013

never again

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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.