Never Again Online: Power lines

August 1, 2002

I was cruising at around 3,000 feet agl, looking at the cars below me and trying to guess how fast they were going, when it happened. First, a large shudder ran through the engine compartment. Then the rpm dropped by more than half, and the aircraft slowly started bleeding off airspeed as I tried to maintain my altitude. When I felt the shudder, I somehow knew that the airplane had run out of gas. Despite this, I very quickly pushed in the mixture knob and pulled out the carburetor heat, then checked that the throttle was in and the primer was locked. Just as I'd expected, nothing happened; the rpm remained the same.

The engine started to sputter. The airplane slowed to just 60 knots, and seemed to want to stay there, but for how long I did not know. So I pointed it in the direction of the nearest airport, a tiny strip called Lodi which should be just five miles away according to the chart, but which was not yet in sight.

Since about a week before the mishap, I'd been taking the airplane, an old Cessna 152, on a winding cross-country trip from Washington state to Southern California, visiting as many airplane museums as I could on the way. I'd chosen that particular airplane because by the time I'd decided to take the trip, it was the only one available for my summer break, all the larger aircraft having been rented off to some other adventurer. Besides, it was cheap (as far as airplanes go), and with its limited range, I'd have the opportunity to see more airports up close and personal. It sounded like a good idea at the time.

When I felt the shudder I was near the end of the flight, the first one on my way back to Washington. I'd been flying for three-and-a-half hours, and it was just starting to get dark. For the entire day, I didn't see a cloud in the sky and the flight had, for the most part, gone without a hitch; that is, until I ran out of gas.

After continuing on with the engine sputtering, the thin black scar that was Lodi's runway appeared on the horizon. Up to that point I hadn't taken a single glance around to look for an alternative place to land. If I had, I could have been on the ground by the time I started to guess if I could make the runway, which looked very far away. I must have thought that if I could make it to an airport I could just refuel the airplane and take off as if nothing had happened.

Just as I started lining the airplane up with the end of the runway and tuned the radio to the traffic advisory frequency, the engine came to a complete stop. After that, the Cessna stayed at 3,000 feet for a few moments before losing altitude. At that point it looked like I could make it to the airport as long as I cleared the power lines near the end of the runway, and that didn't seem out of the question. I declared an emergency, but there didn't appear to be anyone in the pattern. Despite this, someone's voice came over the radio and wished me luck.

For what seemed an eternity, I watched the power lines as the airplane glided closer and closer to them. Still at 60 kt, I eventually passed over the lines, just barely clearing them, and breathed a sigh of relief. But when I looked forward again, there, in front of me was yet another row of power lines.

I yelled as I yanked back on the control wheel with all the strength I had. I looked straight up, away from the menacing power lines and my impending doom.

Suddenly, from the left side of the aircraft there was a huge bang, and the airplane veered in that direction. With the stall warning horn going off, I shoved the wheel forward and banked to the right, the aircraft still moving forward. When I looked down again a taxiway filled my windscreen. I decided that it would do well enough, but I was coming in way too fast. Again I pulled back on the wheel, but the Cessna, apparently having stalled on its trip over the power lines, wouldn't respond. So, I just sat there and waited for the impact; it didn't take long. The 152 slammed into the taxiway, and the nosewheel very promptly collapsed. The airplane stopped in a remarkably short distance, less than a hundred feet, veering to the right and almost off the taxiway before coming to rest.

I checked to see if I was damaged before switching everything off and jumping out. Considering the worst that could have happened, I was doing pretty well. Upon exiting the Cessna I noticed that, in addition to the nosewheel collapsing, the fuselage had buckled quite a bit and on the left main-landing-gear leg there was a huge telephone-pole-size dent, complete with what looked like tar and bird droppings.

I looked back to examine the power lines, but instead ended up looking at two guys emerging from a field. "Are you OK?" one of them shouted.

I paused and said, "Yeah, I guess." After all, I was. The power lines, by the way, looked just fine too.

After an impromptu introduction the three of us started to push the 152 down the taxiway to the ramp at the end of the runway. When we got there the airport looked completely deserted.

It turned out that the right fuel cap had come off, probably sometime during the flight, and allowed the gas to spill out; the rest of the fuel was very quickly consumed. I was unable to detect this because, as I had been taught during flight training, the fuel gauges in a Cessna 152 are notoriously inaccurate. I'd made the mistake of not checking that the fuel caps were properly tightened after topping off. Throughout my trip I'd been in a big hurry. Such a big hurry, in fact, that it's a miracle something like this hadn't happened earlier.


Tim Tracy is an art student at the University of Washington and a private pilot with 150 hours.


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