February 1, 2006
This trip began like many others. A friend of mine had asked me to accompany him on a flight to Virginia to pick up his girlfriend and return to Pennsylvania for the weekend. He had requested my help because, as an instructor, I represented added encouragement to him in instrument conditions and a complex aircraft, in which he was building time.
We met at the flight school and discussed the IFR flight plan I had filed, and we gathered our gear for our nighttime departure. We boarded the aircraft, a Mooney M20C recently acquired by the flight school to train students for the commercial certificate and complex endorsement.
The trip to Virginia was uneventful. During the winter in the Northeast, many evenings are overcast with limited visibility, so at 6,000 feet we had not seen the ground for several hours. We landed, loaded our passenger, and quickly checked the airplane for the return flight.
After takeoff, we contacted center and were on our way. Shortly thereafter, I noticed the left fuel gauge indicating less fuel than what should have remained. I found this very unusual, considering the Mooney had a fuel selector that dictated the tank to be used. Funny thing was, the selector was on the right tank. Unfortunately, in my experience, many fuel gauges in light aircraft have a tendency to vary as the flight progresses only to correct magically before reaching empty. Given that we were in instrument conditions at night, I put the fuel situation in the back of my mind and decided to "keep an eye on it." A few minutes passed, and my friend noticed the gauge reading also. He brought it to my attention, and we discussed the implications. Once more, we continued to navigate our way toward the Washington, D.C., Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), while we watched the fuel gauge for movement.
About 30 miles southwest of the Patuxent VOR, I realized that our fuel situation was worsening. I warned my friend that we might have to make a stop and that we needed to gather all the information we had to determine our exact position and available airports in the area. Now, 20 miles from the VOR, I contacted center and described our fuel situation to the controller. I requested the closest airport with fuel; my first thought was that the aircraft had a slow leak, and maybe the fuel drain had been stuck following a fuel strain for debris. The controller described an airport, 2W6, which was located seven miles to our west and northwest of the Patuxent VOR. The controller said the name of the airport was St. Mary's. I quickly grabbed the instrument approach procedure charts for the area and searched, first under St., then Saint, then Mary's. I asked the controller if the airport had a different name. He stated that it might be listed under "Captain Walter Francis Duke at St. Mary's." I searched for Captain, Walter, Francis, and Duke. Nothing. I glanced at the fuel gauge, which during the past few minutes had lowered to next to nothing. I knew I had plenty of fuel in the right tank, but I checked to make sure. To my horror it, too, was beginning to drop.
Now I was very confused, but I continued the hunt for the chart. I contacted air traffic control to convey my newest situation and to ask for more help in finding the approach procedure. The controller instructed me to look on page 173, where I would find the approach profile, and he claimed that if I did not find it, he would read it to me. On page 173, I found Lancaster, Pennsylvania — an airport that I had flown to many times — but unfortunately, it would not help me in Maryland; so I asked the controller to read the approach to me. He stated, "Upon reaching the Patuxent VOR, track outbound on the 114-degree radial at 2,400 feet, procedure turn inbound 294 degrees to the station, and descend to 680 feet outbound on the 293-degree radial for 6.9 miles. If you go missed, just make a climbing right turn direct to Patuxent at 2,000 feet to hold." I read the instructions back to him and prepared to shoot the approach. While I was dialing in the approach, my friend had not given up searching for the airport chart. Just seconds from our reaching the VOR to begin our outbound course, the controller chimed in and said, " Leonardtown — the airport is listed under Leonardtown."
I made the turn outbound as my friend cheerfully stated he had found the chart. I looked at it to find that I was about to make a potentially fatal mistake. Instead of descending after the procedure turn inbound to 680 feet, I was to wait until crossing the VOR before starting down. I admitted to the interpretation error, and a few minutes after leaving the VOR, I spotted the airport and landed without incident. We shut down and went to investigate the fuel tanks, only to find two nearly full tanks.
To this day, the reason for the gauge reading is not known, but there are some very important lessons I learned.
Prior to leaving the flight school, I grabbed the instrument approach procedure charts for Virginia and Pennsylvania, which happened to contain Maryland. Most pilots, including me prior to this incident, get only the procedure charts for their departure, destination, and alternate airports. They fail to consider the need for charts for additional airports in between. In this case it would have proven to be very important, since I had not contemplated the need to land in Maryland.
Also, many airports are not listed under their given name. For example, Orange County in Montgomery, New York, is listed in the approach procedures as "Montgomery/Orange County," and thus, would not be found if looking for "Orange County." By the way, 2W6 is actually called "Leonardtown/Capt. Walter Francis Duke Regional at St. Mary's."
Lastly, never trust your beliefs. I knew the gauges had to be wrong but I couldn't explain the readings. Just because you are not using fuel from a certain tank, or gauges "should" be reading differently, don't fail to take action and troubleshoot. When in doubt, land, inspect, and enjoy the scenery. You can always take off and continue the trip — alive.
Matthew Kemp, AOPA 04275477, is a charter pilot from Pennsylvania with CFII and MEI ratings. He has accumulated 2,000 hours over a six-year period.
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