Never Again Online: I think I can

July 1, 2006

It was my first day to tow gliders on my own. The Piper Pawnee was topped off with fuel, and I was eager to please the glider pilots who wanted a tow and the chief pilot who was monitoring my performance.

After 10 or 12 tows, I looked at the fuel gauge. It showed around five gallons remaining. I was already hooked up to take off with another glider, so I reminded myself to get some fuel before the next tow.

After releasing the glider, I spiraled back down to the field with a trip to the fuel pump in mind. At about 1,500 feet agl I heard a call on the radio from an inbound T-6 stationed at the airport. The pilot was requesting traffic advisories. I announced that I was entering a downwind for the south runway and that I had just released a glider at 10,000 feet msl to the west of the field. I added that I would keep up my speed so the T-6 could continue its straight-in approach. I was eager to see the old classic airplane come in.

I slipped the Pawnee, landed, and quickly taxied back to the hold-short area so that I could tell the ground crew not to pull out another glider. I radioed the T-6 pilot that we would wait for him to land. I settled in and watched the old pro land the aircraft with ease.

"Well, back to work," I thought after the T-6 had cleared the runway. Distracted by the T-6's landing, I pulled out for another hookup. I worked out the slack and waited for the glider pilot's rudder waggle that gives the "go" signal when I thought of my fuel status. I looked at the gauge. No fuel indicator needle visible. Now what? I should have gone to the pumps, but I felt it was too late now.

Numerous thoughts raced through my mind. "If I disconnect now, I sure will be embarrassed. The crew will have to push the glider back off the runway while they wait for me — the stupid new guy — to get fuel. How accurate is that fuel gauge anyway? — I doubt it is really that close to empty. It won't take much fuel to tow this guy up. I don't want to let these guys down. I'll make it — I'm gonna go." I added power and took off.

Turning downwind at 300 feet agl I still did not see any sign of the fuel gauge coming alive. Now I was really uncomfortable. As I passed through 2,200 feet agl, the engine quit. Of course I knew why it happened. I also knew that without fuel, I wouldn't be able to restart the engine. I pointed the nose down. "I need you to release now!" I radioed to the glider pilot, while I wagged the Pawnee's wings and stomped the rudder pedals. The glider let go just as I reached for the tow hook release in my aircraft. I radioed, "Mayday, mayday, mayday, Pawnee One-Two-Three is engine out."

My mind was racing. I couldn't stop thinking about how stupid I had been. It took some serious concentration to remember the Pawnee's best glide speed. I was now at 1,500 agl and fortunately set up perfectly for a right downwind back to the active runway.

As I turned toward the runway I started going down like a brick. I realized I might not make it to the blacktop, so I cut the corner and headed straight for the numbers. I was coming down fast, and I had to force myself to push the stick forward to maintain airspeed. When I realized I wasn't going to make the blacktop I headed for the grass area between the runway and the taxiway. I cleared the gliders in the hold-short area, set the Pawnee down on the grass, and came to a stop. I made a careful effort to shut the airplane down properly, and got out with weak knees.

I realized afterward that I should have pulled the mixture to idle/cut-off, shut down the mags, and turned off the master before I landed. I also had completely forgotten about the 200-foot tow rope attached to the tail of the airplane. I should have released it before flying directly over the gliders in the hold-short area.

Believe it or not, we towed that airplane to the pumps, filled it up, and I was back in the air for three more tows that day.

I've had some time to contemplate how I got myself into this situation. It is so obvious to me now that I should have never even thought of taking off. So why was this not obvious to me then? And, what have I learned from it?

I was new and wanted to impress the club with my "can-do" attitude. I let myself get distracted by the sight of a cool airplane — the T-6. I was unfamiliar with the fuel consumption rate of this airplane and should have taken a conservative approach toward fuel management. Instead, I convinced myself that I probably had enough fuel for 10 more minutes of flight. I wanted to avoid embarrassment and let my ego get the better of me.

Practice emergency procedures — a lot. You will want to rely on often-honed skills and habits to penetrate the fog that can settle in your mind during an actual emergency.

And, beware of the thought "I think I can."

C. Todd Hunt, AOPA 1221562, is a former naval flight officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. He holds a commercial certificate with instrument and seaplane ratings and has been flying for 15 years.

You can find additional information about engine failure and practicing emergency procedures at the following links:

Look for the latest installment of Never Again, in the August issue of AOPA Pilot. The story relates a pilot's dilemma of flight in thin air.

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Posted Thursday, July 13, 2006 1:00:24 PM