Never Again Online: This never happened before

August 1, 2005

I have mulled over a long time the question of whether to inform others of the following experience because my adult son, Andrew, and I survived the event and believed that, sooner or later, it would be completely forgotten. But I have not forgotten it and finally have decided to share this experience because it might, just might, save some vacationing pilot from never returning home.

Andrew, now with a young family of his own and a successful professional practice, and I have been blessed with a splendid relationship and with wives who fully understand the importance to us of occasional trips together. This past summer we traveled to Alaska, our second trip there after an extraordinary fly-fishing trip to the Katmai region a few years ago. We wanted to explore the interior. We made a few reservations in advance of our departure, including a bush-plane trip north of the Arctic Circle. The pilot I selected, through the Internet, was in the flight-seeing business and had a Cessna 185. Somehow it was comforting to know that the airplane we would be using would be one I could fly, if necessary. I have been a private pilot for a long time and while I have not accumulated a great many hours, those I have flown have been about equally divided between tailwheel airplanes (such as my own American Champion Citabria) and tricycle-gear airplanes, with some high-performance time. I never flew a Cessna 185, but I figured the seat of my pants could get used to it if necessary.

When the date of our flight-seeing trip arrived, it was CAVU (ceiling and visibility unlimited), and Andrew and I were excited soon to be able to view northern Alaska, including a number of native villages, perhaps landing at one or two of them. We met the pilot on schedule and after introductions I watched him do his preflight at the tiedown. It was somewhat quickly accomplished, I thought, but what the heck, not everyone is as careful as I am. I also watched the fuel tanks being topped off. Here I thought that he drained fuel from the various sumps somewhat quickly, but then again, not everyone is as careful as I am to ensure that any water that has settled in the tanks and/or fuel lines is fully removed. And I was a bit bothered when, after the tanks were full, the pilot did not grab a wing tip and shove it up and down a few times. When I first soloed a Piper J-3 Cub, I was told to wiggle the wings after fueling and I did so. I always did so thereafter, irrespective of the airplane I was flying. For me, it was the thing to do as a part of fueling the airplane, no less necessary than attaching a ground wire.

The time came to begin our flight. I successfully coaxed Andrew to take the right front seat so he would get a better view for taking pictures. Andrew, for his part, tried to coax me into taking that seat so I could persuade the pilot to let me fly the airplane myself, an activity that Andrew knew was more interesting to me than just looking out the window. He was right, of course, but I prevailed. This meant that I entered the airplane first to access the rear seat. Upon doing so, I immediately caught sight of a large placard stating that after refueling, following some period of time, the pilot should in effect wiggle the wings. At this moment I recalled reading about fuel-starvation problems in airplanes with bladder tanks. I also remembered that Cessna 185s had such tanks. My response was, to myself, that perhaps the airplane had been flown earlier that day and that this pleasant, middle-aged, well-spoken, and experienced bush pilot was simply incapable of ignoring such a prominent placard.

The flight north was nothing short of delightful. We took photograph after photograph and listened raptly as our pilot talked of the geology below and the small native communities ahead. We landed at one, a gravel strip, common to such communities and to Alaska. Upon taking off, we caught some great photos of a wrecked airplane that, unlike us, didn't complete the takeoff process. About 30 minutes later we landed at another tiny village, got out of the airplane, and went into a small store — near numerous 55-gallon drums of fuel that had been flown in — that sold some of everything that also had to have been flown in. We especially appreciated the flown-in coffee, which the three of us drank. Finally, Andrew and I had photos taken of us in front of a rough sign as proof that we were well north of the Arctic Circle — absent a photo of our GPS reading. Time to return.

At this time, Andrew insisted that I sit in the front right seat. I figured he wanted to sleep, as he often did in the rear seat of my Citabria. Now not only was I presented with the "wing wiggling" placard directly in front of my face, but also immediately alongside the placard were the fuel gauges — you know, the ones certified as accurate only when empty. Both gauges showed their needles slightly below the one-quarter-tank mark. We still had a long way to go southbound, all of it utterly remote, and much of it covered with highly photogenic, jagged young mountains. I know it wasn't my airplane, but my inner voice shouted, "I'm paying for the trip and I paid for the coffee. Put in some damned fuel before we head south!" That is precisely what I would have done had I been pilot in command and not a tourist. To my everlasting guilt, I casually called the pilot's attention to the fuel gauges and without more explanation, accepted fully his response that there was plenty of fuel to get us back to where we started several hours ago. It was, of course, his airplane.

After takeoff, I simply could not remove my eyes from the fuel gauges. I was truly mesmerized. I neither listened nor spoke. I simply waited for the engine to quit once we were midway across those photogenic mountains.

And it did. A few burps and then silence.

"This never happened before!" the pilot said.

"It doesn't matter," I said. "It's happened now."

To his credit, the pilot flew the airplane. We were set up in a stable glide slightly above stall speed, giving me lots of time to search for a place to crash while the pilot attempted to start the engine. Absent major intervention, a crash it would be — a quick death or a slow, painful one with the most serious of injuries — as I could not see in the fading light and shadows cast by the mountains (now only about 800 feet below) an area of level land for a noncrash landing. All the while I was angry with myself that Andrew was on board. At some point during the silent glide, I asked him how he was doing. He said he was doing fine, placing all of the small stuff in the rear seat into one container that would cause less shrapnel upon impact. What a guy.

During the restart procedure, the pilot flipped a switch that energized the backup fuel pump. A few burps, a restart, and he initiated a very gentle climb away from the mountains that were soon to claim us. We still had about 30 minutes to our destination. My eyes continued to focus only on the fuel gauges, now shivering at about one-eighth of a tank, close enough to be accurate.

Finally, our runway was in sight. Thankful simply to be alive upon landing, we took our pilot with us for an unusually good steak dinner.

Never again will I casually accept another pilot's actions affecting my safety when they run so contrary to my own. My mistake, potentially fatal, was to disregard my own knowledge and experience that has kept me safe and happy to fly. I believed, as we were about to slam into the mountainside, that the low level of fuel we carried was interrupted in its gravity flow to the engine by folds in the collapsed, nearly empty bladder tanks, or, alternatively, that folds in the tank precluded full removal of water that had remained there until it was fed to the engine instead of fuel. I should have asked the pilot why he didn't grab a wing and wiggle it after fueling at the start of the trip, or should have asked permission to do so myself. And I should have insisted that he add fuel at the village we last visited — and if we were too heavy to add fuel, one of us should have stayed behind. True, it was his airplane, but that didn't excuse me for ignoring my training.

Seymour Strongin, AOPA 980156, is a private pilot based in Maryland.

You can find additional information on fueling procedures at the following links:

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Posted Thursday, August 04, 2005 10:08:57 AM