So Near and Yet So Far


Some things do get better, and in recent years, general aviation’s fuel-management record has been one of them. Ten years ago, an average of three airplanes crashed each week because their pilots couldn’t manage to get fuel to their engines. Last year it only happened half as often, a much sharper drop than the 20-percent decrease in the number of accidents overall. But this means an average of six airplanes a month are still lost to the most avoidable of all GA accidents, and many of them go down less than 10 miles from an airport.

On June 23, 2009, a fixed-gear Piper PA28-180 attempted a forced landing in a cornfield just west of Sanborn, Iowa. The landing gear left tracks through the corn stalks for about 100 feet before the nose gear dropped into a ditch and the airplane flipped over. All three men on board were killed, their deaths attributed to “blunt force trauma of the thorax.” Investigators were unable to find a single corn stalk that appeared to have been cut by the propeller. The fuel tanks were intact. One cup of fuel was found in the left tank, two and a half cups in the right, and none at all in the carburetor.

The flight had left Fort Atkinson, Wis., a little less than three hours earlier. In the left seat was a 64-year-old, 722-hour private pilot. The right seat was occupied by a 65-year-old private pilot, a co-owner of the airplane. Along with the 60-year-old back-seat passenger, they were bound for Winner, S.D., on a hunting trip.

The straight-line distance from Atkinson to Winner is 484 nautical miles, barely within range of a Cherokee 180 departing with full tanks into light winds and landing with the minimum legal daytime VFR reserve. But the Cherokee didn’t have full tanks. The exact amount of fuel at departure was never determined, but records show that 12 gallons were added prior to takeoff. A witness at the Fort Atkinson airport heard the three discuss the need for a fuel stop, one mentioning that “filling the tanks to the tabs” wouldn’t give them enough for the entire trip. Indeed it wouldn’t: According to the POH, this provides 36 gallons of usable fuel, good for three and a half hours endurance at 75 percent power in cruise. A relative recalled that they had planned to depart with partial fuel due to the warm weather and attendant density altitude.

Track data retrieved from a Garmin 295 GPS found in the wreckage indicated that for the first hour and 40 minutes, the Cherokee cruised west at altitudes between 4,700 and 4,900 feet msl. Then, over the span of 27 minutes, it climbed to 9,000 feet, remaining there for only two minutes before beginning a descent back to 2,400. The airplane maintained altitudes between 2,400 and 2,900 feet until the last two minutes of the flight, when it slowed abruptly and began a steady descent to the ground.

The NTSB did not speculate on the reasons for the climb. Weather in the area was generally clear, so it’s unlikely they were trying to stay above the clouds, and with the handheld GPS on board, it doesn’t seem likely they were trying to spot an airport. Perhaps they were hoping to find more favorable winds or smoother air at a higher altitude, only to be disappointed.

The NTSB did note that “the airplane overflew several airports that had fuel services available.” The last of those was at Spencer, Iowa, barely 30 nm east of the crash site. The next would have been at Sheldon, a mere 3 nm further west.

Another item found in the wreckage was a kneeboard. Clipped to it was Sheldon’s page from the Iowa Airport Directory. If they hadn’t burned the extra gas in the climb, they might have made it there—and maybe learned to leave enough margin to make their safe arrival a matter of planning rather than chance.