Never Again

Low-fuel flight

May 1, 2005

Barring extenuating circumstances, an airplane should never run out of fuel.

Still, I've had employers and passengers get upset with me because I either topped off the tanks, delaying the departure, or stopped en route, delaying the arrival. For me to fly in an "I'm about to run out of fuel" condition was unthinkable, or so I thought.

In July 1981, an aircraft sales company at Gillespie Field in California asked me to bring one of its customers and his family back from a dirt strip (since closed) near Halls Crossing, Utah, 30 miles northeast of Page, Arizona. The family had been vacationing there for several weeks and the pilot who had flown them to Halls, in the company's Cessna P210, couldn't make the return trip.

The airplane was loaded with goodies, including a Shadin fuel computer. I asked the company pilot to explain how it worked, but it didn't take me long to realize that he didn't understand all he knew about it. I changed the subject.

"Do you have any words of wisdom about the runway at Halls?" I asked.

"It's a one-way strip; landings are made uphill."

"Am I going to have a weight problem?"

"No, a big portion of their load was food. They won't be bringing that back home with them. You should be pretty light. You'll be refueling at Page. Don't fill the tanks. Have them put in 20 a side."

"Why?"

"Because of the short runway and high density altitude."

I took the Shadin manual home for an in-depth perusal. I also looked up airport information on Halls Crossing and Page Municipal airports. I couldn't understand the pilot's concern about Page. It had a 5,500-foot-long paved runway. At an elevation of 4,300 feet msl and a temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the density altitude would be 7,000. I was more concerned about Halls. Its density altitude would be 6,500 feet, and I'd only have a 3,800-foot-long unpaved runway. That evening I placed the manual in the glove compartment, topped off the tanks, and reset the fuel computer.

The next morning, I took off into a cloudless sky. As I flew along, I kept glancing at the fuel computer. The usual cumulus clouds started building as I approached Parker, Arizona.

About 30 miles before crossing the Grand Canyon, the red low-fuel light came on. Since I was flying on the left tank, I peered out the left window to check for a leaking tank. There wasn't any fuel spewing off the rear of the wing.

That was good news. But there was no way I could have used enough fuel to cause that light to come on.

I didn't want to cross the canyon at low altitude with a red light glaring at me, so I switched to the right tank and the light vanished. When safely across the canyon I switched back to the left tank and stayed on it until I entered the pattern at Halls.

On my landing rollout, I noticed a large hump at the midpoint of the runway. I knew this could cause an airplane to become airborne at an inappropriate time on takeoff.

The passengers and a mountain of baggage and boxes were awaiting me at the far end of the runway. I asked if they'd had this much stuff on the inbound trip. They said yes. So much for "You'll have a light load." I realized that, at this weight, the takeoff was going to be a bit dicey.

The engine started without a problem and the runup went off without a hitch. So far, luck was with me. Now if it would just hang around until I finished my climbout. As I looked down the runway, I knew I could not abort the takeoff past the midpoint because of the inadequate length of the remaining runway. I locked the brakes and ran the engine up to almost full power, released the brakes, shoved in the rest of the throttle, and kept neutral pressure on the wheel. As I neared the hump, I exerted forward pressure on the wheel, enough to ensure the hump wouldn't catapult me into the air. It worked. Approaching the end of the runway, I knew it was going to be a close call.

With three airplane lengths remaining, I put in the first notch of flaps and tugged back slightly on the wheel. The airplane came off with inches to spare. As soon as I cleared the runway, I lowered the nose and slowly retracted the flaps. By now the cylinder head and oil temperatures were close to redline. I reduced power a bit. Slowly the temperatures started decreasing. There were no further low-fuel-light problems while en route. After landing at Page, I filled the tanks as instructed by the company pilot, but my inner voice said, "Add more fuel."

Our return flight was hot and bumpy. As I flew abeam Palm Springs, the left fuel gauge needle nudged the Empty mark. I switched to the right tank. As we neared Ramona, the right needle also nudged its Empty mark. One of the kids mentioned that both tanks were empty.

"According to my calculations, we still have 30 minutes of fuel left. But I'll be more than willing to land at Ramona for fuel." But the father didn't like that idea. We continued on to Gillespie. When I called the tower, I told them I was on minimum fuel.

About a half-mile out, the tower controller told me to change to Runway 27 Left — the short runway. At this point, I was high enough and fast enough that, if I had a complete engine failure, I could have made the right runway with no problem. However, being that high and that fast meant I couldn't have landed and braked to a stop on the left runway.

"You cleared me to land on the right runway. That's where I'm going to land. Remember, I'm at minimum fuel and won't be able to go around."

At that point, the other pilot in the pattern called the tower and drawled, "Tower, this is Apache Nine-Eight-Bravo. I'm retired, so I got plenty o' time. I'll taxi to the left runway. I'm not in a hurry like that high-strung woman."

I landed on the left runway without problems from the tower and taxied back to our parking space at a sedate pace — I didn't want to run out of gas on the taxiway. After the passengers left, I had the airplane refueled and hung around to find out how much it took.

"You took 79 gallons," the gas attendant said. "I've never put that much fuel in a 210."

I had 14 gallons left. In theory, I had enough fuel to fly another 45 minutes, if the bottom of the tank contained no dirt, water, or other contaminants. However, with that little fuel, I couldn't pull the nose up very far, because the engine would quit.

One good thing did result from this flight: I now believe in my inner voice 100 percent.


Millie Carlson, AOPA 178355, is a retired flight instructor and airline transport pilot who learned to fly in 1944. Her book, The Hard Way, is available at El Cajon Flying Service at Gillespie Field in San Diego, or by calling 619/448-1034.


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