Who can you trust? That’s often a tricky question. Getting it right can be critical in the air, especially when your instruments start telling conflicting stories.
On July 30, 2006, a brand-new American Legend AL11C (Legend Cub) was ditched and eventually sank in Lake Michigan after losing engine power during cruise flight. The owner was bringing the airplane home to Wadsworth, Ohio (3G3) from Oshkosh, where he’d taken delivery during EAA AirVenture.
Because the buyer didn’t have a tailwheel endorsement or current flight review, he arranged for an ATP/CFI who’d served as a Legend demonstrator pilot to fly with him. The ATP did not request any payment; his goal was to reach an air-carrier airport and get a commercial flight home to Dallas.
Departure from Wittman Regional was delayed by a taxiway accident that closed the airport. The pilots took turns climbing onto the right wing step to see what was happening. When ATC advised that the first four airplanes to reach the engine start line would be allowed to depart, other pilots helped them get there second, and they were cleared for takeoff. The owner (the pilot flying) chose a course south to Fond du Lac, then southeast over Lake Michigan. The ATP made several comments about how far they were from shore before the owner “…reluctantly turned back closer to the shore line.”
Two hours into the flight, the ATP noticed that the left tank indicated empty while the right showed only about one inch of fuel remaining. The owner argued that the “fuel gauges must be malfunctioning as the EIS [electronic information system] indicated that the rate of fuel burn was 5.8 gph with 8.3 gallons of fuel remaining,” good for another hour and 20 minutes. However, he did agree to divert to Gary, Ind. as a precaution. Twenty minutes later, both tanks read empty, but the owner pointed out that the EIS still showed a fuel flow of 5.8 gph with 6.1 gallons left. Four minutes after that, the engine stopped. The ATP secured the baggage while the owner set up a glide; the airplane touched down flat at stall speed, and both men escaped without injury. The Coast Guard rescued the ATP about 40 minutes after the ditching, but the owner drowned after the airplane sank. His body was recovered on Aug. 2, 2006. His family confirmed that he didn’t know how to swim.
The wreckage was retrieved on Aug. 7, 2006, from 38 feet of water. The right fuel cap was missing, and divers couldn’t find it on the lake floor. Blue stains ran from the filler neck back to the trailing edge of the right wing and along the right side of the horizontal stabilizer. The fuel cap had been the only handhold available when climbing onto the wing step.
The NTSB attributed the accident to both pilots’ failure to assure that the fuel cap was secure, causing siphoning and fuel exhaustion, and cited the decision to fly beyond gliding distance of shore as a contributing factor. Noteworthy, though, was the owner’s insistence on believing the fuel totalizer when faced with conflicting indications. The totalizer measured fuel flow but not fuel quantity, which it computed based on an input starting value. The fuel gauges were tried-and-true sight glasses, chosen by the manufacturer for their simplicity and reliability, but the owner accepted the totalizer’s more reassuring figures. And the ATP deferred to him, despite being the only one qualified to act as pilot-in-command.
Mid-air is a bad place to try to figure out whether there’s a problem. Given a chance that something’s wrong with the airplane, it’s generally best to land and sort things out on the ground. And there’s also something to be said for staying within gliding distance of shore.