Never Again Online: Framing the problem

July 1, 2005

My family had begun to enjoy the advantages of general aviation as we used our Cessna 182A for trips to visit relatives away from our home base in Indiana. On this particular weekend in July, we had planned a trip to Michigan to attend a wedding. We were going to go up on a Friday evening and return on Sunday, giving us enough time to attend the wedding as well as visit with family members we don't see often.

One of the precautions I had to keep in mind, when flying with a family of four, was our overall weight and whether it was placed within center-of-gravity limits. Since this was a wedding we were attending, we couldn't get by with packing just shorts and sneakers. As much as I could cut back on baggage in the past, I was not going to meet my weight and balance limits without reducing fuel as well. So, on the Thursday before the trip, I met the fuel truck at the airplane and, using a measuring stick, had the plane fueled sufficiently to make the trip out and back, with a 45-minute reserve. The flight was planned VFR both ways, so we would be well within regulations and what I thought were my personal minimums.

Our Cessna had been a great plane for VFR cross-country flights, but to increase its usefulness, I upgraded myself with an instrument rating and the panel with several new instruments: a Garmin GNS 430 GPS/nav/com, a GMA 340 audio panel, and an S-Tec Thirty autopilot. After this work was done, we also noticed that one of the fuel gauges was not working, so a few weeks before our July trip, we had new gauges installed.

Needless to say, on our trip to Michigan I was feeling pretty good about our new panel, and the airplane was flying great. I was ready to fly anywhere.

The weekend went as scheduled and on Sunday afternoon we said our goodbyes and headed out to the airport for our return trip home. The weather in Michigan was solid VFR, but although the conditions in Indiana were acceptable, I didn't want to arrive in the dark if the conditions worsened. We departed Adrian, Michigan, for our flight to Indianapolis Metropolitan Airport at approximately 4 p.m. local time.

About halfway home, as we cruised over Fort Wayne, Indiana, at 8,500 feet, my wife commented that she was concerned about our "new" fuel gauges. They showed very little fuel remaining and we still had about 40 minutes before arriving at our destination. I knew I had measured the fuel myself and felt that we should have plenty left for our trip, considering the flight to Michigan and our anticipated fuel burn on the return trip. Nevertheless, I was getting nervous. Doubts began to creep into my consciousness. Had I measured correctly? Was the fuel burn as I had planned before we left? Was our flight time behind schedule? These questions were nagging at me as I tried to concentrate on the flight. What if I had a fuel leak? Were the fuel caps on tight before we left?

There was a cloud layer in front of us that looked pretty solid, so I decided to descend down to 6,500 feet before I got too close. As I continued on, I began to think that maybe I should conserve fuel as much as possible; I could begin a very slow descent as I approached Indianapolis. About 15 miles out, the engine began to run rough.

I've heard the phrase "framing a problem" used before and I was a prime example of doing just that. After worrying about fuel exhaustion somewhat, I began to think the roughness had to be caused by fuel starvation. I did not try to think of another cause since my mind had been predisposed to come to only one conclusion-we were going to run out of fuel.

I looked below us and saw a grass strip that I was somewhat familiar with. It was rather isolated, but looked very inviting at the moment. I advised my wife and kids that we were going to make a precautionary landing at that field to see what was going on with the engine. At that time I was about 3,500 feet msl and had to lose altitude.

What if we lost the engine and did not make the field? Fear was creeping up my spine. To avoid that, I kept the airplane close to the end of the runway as I tried to lose altitude by pulling power and executing a slip. I thought all was going well until I came down to the runway and realized I had not bled off enough speed and was not going to be able to set it down in the 3,500-foot length of the runway.

I immediately planned for a go-around to try to come in slower the second time. However, on the turn to the downwind, the engine stopped and the stall horn blazed in our ears. We were going down. With the left wing low, I was concerned about how to land safely. With the stall horn sounding, I knew that some controls might be less than effective. But somehow I was able to get the wing up enough so that we landed at a 45-degree angle to the runway. Unfortunately, the approach caused the left wing to touch first and we came down on the nose gear immediately. The gear sheared off and the prop hit the ground as the airplane tumbled over onto its back. We all survived with only slight injuries, mostly to me, and crawled from the airplane. The airplane was totaled and our lives forever changed.

So what exactly happened? As it turned out, we had plenty of fuel to complete our flight. The fuel gauges were misleading, as we all know that many are. The FAA, after exhausting all other possibilities, concluded that carburetor icing was the culprit. In fact, conditions were ideal for it that day. There had been moisture in the air from an earlier drizzle and that weekend we had record all-time lows for high temperatures (in July, no less). Because I had put blinders on to any other source of the problem, I never considered carb ice to be a factor. In fact, I contributed to ice formation by pulling back on the power for a slow descent from altitude to conserve fuel after leaving Fort Wayne, and contributed further by pulling power when trying to lose altitude when trying to get down to the grass strip.

I learned a lot that day. For one, I could've refueled in Michigan and assured myself plenty of fuel for the return trip and still stayed within weight limits. Also, when I saw the fuel gauges low, I could've landed at an earlier airport and added fuel. And finally, I realized that we could never be too proficient when it comes to emergency procedures. If I had better planned my descent, and not worried about missing the airport, I could've come in at a proper speed for landing.


Mark A. Hiatt, AOPA 4551363, is a private pilot who owns a Cessna 182. He has accumulated more than 200 hours in three years of flying.


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Posted Thursday, June 30, 2005 10:27:13 AM