December 1, 2004
It was another one of those severe-clear days that western Colorado is famous for. I had just opened a new franchise in Montrose and the franchiser needed to fly to Mount Pleasant, Utah, from Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
I left Montrose Regional Airport in a rented Cessna 172XP in which I had several hours and was quickly circling the little valley that hid Glenwood Springs Municipal Airport. This little airport is one of the most beautiful in the country, with mountains rising nearly 5,000 feet above each side of a narrow canyon, and an equally narrow paved strip in the bottom of the valley. A sit-up-straight-and-pay-attention approach, to say the least. Sadly this little airport is now on the endangered species list. The lack of flat building sites in the valley has caused the local developers to take aim at closing it so they can build houses.
But the trip west to Mount Pleasant promised a beautiful ride. With clear skies and unlimited visibility, it's not uncommon in the West to see mountain ranges more than 100 miles away. We landed in Mount Pleasant Airport about 10:30 a.m. and spent several hours completing our meetings there. We returned to the airplane, and after I completed the preflight we departed for Glenwood Springs, about one hour and 15 minutes away.
We had been in the air for about 40 minutes when I happened to glance at the fuel gauges. Empty! What? I sat stunned for a couple of seconds, and then I retrieved my flight plan from my bag and reviewed my fuel calculations. I should have had enough fuel for two more hours with an extra half-hour of fuel still available. I tapped the gauges — not a wiggle. I checked the breakers — all in. It had to be just those old fuel gauges that have never been known for their reliability, I thought.
I was now just north of Green River, Utah, over some very rough terrain and high mountains. After a few minutes of arguing with my uneasiness I decided to turn a little south and get out over the desert and Interstate 70. Just in case, but in my mind there was nothing to worry about. Not yet.
I watched the runway at Green River Municipal disappear behind us and we pressed on toward Glenwood Springs. But try as I might I could not get that little nagging voice to shut up. I decided to change our destination to Grand Junction, Colorado, and check the fuel level. After a few minutes the nagging voice convinced me to pull back the power to economy cruise and retrim the airplane.
Once I started to listen to the nagging, the concern increased until I subconsciously had a private little emergency going on. My passenger seemed to be having such a great time riding along and marveling at the scenery. I, however, was now to the point that little beads of sweat appeared on my forehead. All I could think of was how inviting that runway at Green River had looked.
Finally I could see over the last little range of mountains and had Grand Junction in sight. I thought of a little airport at Mack Mesa Airport, which was now only about 10 miles away, just inside the Colorado border, so I started looking. I really wanted to put this thing on the ground. As the little strip came into view there was a groan down in my chest — the big X was plain to see at the end of the runway. Well, on to Grand Junction.
With only about 20 more miles to go, I called Grand Junction Tower a little early, and the controller cleared me for a right base approach to Runway 11. I was almost there. My ears were starting to resemble those of a distant relative who has a reputation for braying — and I felt just as low. I was straining to hear every revolution of the engine. What? The tower wants me to circle to let two F-4s on final land ahead of me? I started to declare an emergency, but boy would I feel stupid if there wasn't anything wrong — not the best assessment in retrospect. I circled to the right just by chance, and it seemed to be a very big circle.
I was on final, and then finally the wheels were on the ground. I taxied up to the fellow directing us to the tiedown. Before I even got the door open the fellow with the chocks in his hand was at the door with that look on his face that said, "You've got to see this." I got out and followed the lineman to the right side of the Cessna, and there to my sinking stomach was the reason for the empty readings on the gauges. The whole right side of the airplane had a beautiful blue streak on it that was not there when I took off. After a mechanic studied the situation for a while he came to me with the verdict. The right tank had ruptured and crossfed all the fuel overboard. We had less than a cup usable in the left tank.
One thing for sure: I will never again let a perfectly good airport disappear behind me when there is even a hint of a problem. It is so much easier to quiet that little voice when you use a little sense instead of dismissing something as nothing for convenience' sake.
Steve Millican is pastor of CCF Ministries and the vice president of Colorado Airlift Outreach, a mercy mission whose main ministry is to fly volunteer doctors, dentists, and optometrists to free clinics in Mexico. Millican owns a Cessna 210.
Additional information on fuel exhaustion may be found at the following links:
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Aircraft Power and Fuel
Reviewing this regulation will make you a more effective plane spotter when ATC calls out fast traffic in busy (and haze-laden) airspace.
When examining details for VFR operations in and around major terminal areas, a must-have resource is the current local terminal area chart.
The Santa Paula, California, airport evokes an old-time airfield, complete with antique airplanes dating back almost a century. Consider visiting the field when you attend the AOPA Fly-In at Chino, California, on Sept. 20.
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