Never Again

Flight into fear

October 1, 2007

I have been involved with SCORE International Off-Road Racing for as long as I have been a private pilot. As a race official for the Tecate SCORE Baja 1,000 off-road race I was at the starting line in Ensenada, Mexico, and since my duties included the timing and scoring of the event it was imperative that my staff and I reached the finish line in La Paz, Mexico, before the first racers did.

No commercial flights existed from Ensenada to La Paz but there was one from Tijuana, and we sent some staff the 60 miles north to catch the flight. SCORE made other flight arrangements for the rest of us. I would fly with a volunteer pilot in a Piper Comanche 250.

I met the Comanche pilot — he was an instrument-rated pilot with about 500 hours and many previous flights in Baja. The area's vast distances, lack of civilization, and rugged terrain make Baja beautiful but unforgiving, so experience is crucial.

As the pilot preflighted the Comanche we discussed the logistics of our upcoming flight. I questioned the distance of our flight and the potential endurance of the Comanche, but a quick review of the estimated four-hour flight against a planned 12-gallon-per-hour burn and two 30-gallon tanks made short work of that conversation.

We departed into the clear afternoon Baja sky headed to over fly San Felipe and Loreto — the only other airports in Baja with fuel at the time — on the way to La Paz. As we buckled up the pilot advised me that we might have to trade headsets as one of the two was "scratchy." I had noticed the noise and suggested that he try adjusting the squelch on the intercom. He did and the noise went away. A tiny red flag went up in the back of my head that he missed something that seemed obvious to me, but I dismissed it.

The sun was just beginning to retreat over the Pacific side of the peninsula, making for a lovely sunset. Although we were making good time, we were still about 100 miles from Loreto. The shadows in the canyons below us were lengthening and a light haze was starting to fill them. I enjoyed the sight until the pilot said, "I don't like this." I wondered if he was referring to the dusk and haze, and another flag unfurled as I thought it all appeared quite normal.

We established radio contact with Loreto Tower. As we had no DME on board and the yoke-mounted GPS was becoming difficult to read in the rapidly fading light, the pilot was unable to provide the requested distance information. In search of the GPS manual, the pilot began to reach for his flight bag in the rear seat and the aircraft banked considerably. To stop this I offered to help him. Pushing the "power" button illuminated the display — but only briefly. The system was running on batteries, which were fading. Another red flag went up.

We spied the lights of the small town of Loreto and were right on course for the airport. Loreto Tower assigned us an 11,000-foot altitude direct to La Paz, about 140 miles south.

The red flags of concern were now flying in my face and I began to worry about the outcome of this flight. Earlier I had observed that whenever the pilot was distracted the aircraft would bank and begin a turn, and these turns seemed to go unnoticed by him. I kept consulting my watch, wishing that I could accelerate the time. Then I discerned a soft glow ahead of us. A ray of hope that we might be OK began to surface.

Then the situation worsened: The engine quit and we experienced the silence of the wind milling prop at 11,000 feet over a totally uninhabited portion of the peninsula on a night with no moon. The pilot was taken by surprise. I said, "It's an empty tank, isn't it?" He acted quickly and correctly. The engine responded to the fuel, and I breathed again.

The glow I had seen on the horizon appeared to be La Paz, and we estimated that we were now about 75 miles out. But the pilot had expected us to make La Paz on the tank that had just run dry. He estimated that there might not be enough fuel in the other tank — the one we were now running on — to make it. He then pointed out that the fuel gauges were almost useless, the tank that had just emptied showed almost three-eights full, and the other about one-quarter full.

We had probably 10 to 15 minutes of fuel remaining. And by our estimation the airport at La Paz was at least 20 minutes ahead of us. We were going to land somewhere in the very dark desert, very soon. Almost mocking us, the lights of La Paz became clear, and we could even make out the airport's rotating beacon.

The tower advised us to expect a DME approach, but the pilot asked me for the VOR approach plate. I suggested that he declare an emergency. He ignored my suggestion.

I had a VHF FM handheld radio with me, and my fiancée and staff in La Paz also had radios. My call was answered quickly. I informed them of our emergency situation and clicked off the radio and tossed it onto the back seat.

We were now cleared for the VOR approach. The pilot misheard and asked for the DME approach plate. Just then the tower repeated the clearance and the pilot asked for the appropriate chart. I handed it to him, held my shaded penlight on it, and said that I felt we should declare an emergency and request a straight-in approach. He asked the tower for a straight in, but the request was denied. I again urged him to declare an emergency. The pilot acquiesced. The tower responded immediately and asked how much fuel we had left, and how far out we were. We could only guess our distance and we had no idea how much fuel was remaining. That the engine was still running at all was a miracle. The pilot provided our estimated distance and minutes of fuel remaining. We were cleared for a straight-in approach, and a descent to 5,000 feet.

The pilot elected to stay at 11,000 feet until we had the airport made. I was glad, at least this would increase the likelihood of making the runway, and would expand our options should fuel run out before we landed.

The relief I felt as the VASI lights slid past us, and the wheels contacted the runway, was incredible. I had truly doubted we would make it. The semi-tropical heat and humidity was notable even at this hour, and I popped the door open to ventilate the cabin as we headed for the transient tie down area. The left tank was completely dry, and by the pilot's calculation after refueling, the right tank had contained approximately three gallons of life-sustaining avgas.

What went wrong on this flight? Numerous items contributed to the fuel emergency, including the pilot's inadequate preflight preparations and the aircraft's unreliable fuel gauges and an inaccurate EGT gauge (which contributed to our less-than-perfect leaning during cruise). I should have trusted and acted upon my instincts when the warning flags went up after the pilot's questionable behavior during the flight.

I feel if I had suggested to stop in Loreto, whether for fuel or to spend the night, the pilot would have welcomed the opportunity. However, I had "get-there-itis" when we were less than an hour from our destination, and it seemed very important to get there as soon as possible.

I also should have relied more on my experience. My total time as PIC was almost three times that of the pilot, and my Baja flight time (especially at night) was perhaps 10 times his.

Thankfully, we survived the flight to be able to review and share it so others may avoid these mistakes, lest they not be as lucky in their outcome as we were that dark, frightening night over Baja California.

Jim Russell, AOPA 5493040, is a private pilot who has accumulated more than 1,200 flight hours during 36 years.

"Never Again" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for pilots to learn from the experiences of others. Manuscripts may be submitted via e-mail to neveragain@aopa.org or sent to Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.