Never Again: Landing on the strip

July 1, 2009

“Hey Jim,” the phone call from a good friend and coworker began. “How about we check out the dry lake bed today?”

My friend was an accomplished Coast Guard navigator and avionics technician. We had flown together several times and decided to rent a Cessna 152 and fly the hard-working trainer to a dry lake outside our home base in Las Vegas, Nevada.

We arrived at the airport and discussed our plan. First we would get ATC clearance through the Las Vegas Class B airspace direct to the dry lake southwest of Boulder City. As a child, I had been introduced to radio control aircraft on its flat, expansive surface. I had also flown ultralight and experimental aircraft there with my wife. The dry lake bed’s seemingly endless surface was also fun for driving as fast as you dared. We planned to fly the length of the flats a few feet above the ground to demonstrate and practice crosswind drift control. After that we would land, shut down, and step out to listen to the stark quiet of the desert.

We checked in at the flight school counter and awaited the 152’s return. It was June, so the temperature was quite hot and the density altitude was more than 5,000 feet. Thankfully, we had a long departure runway and a long distance to climb before reaching the mountain pass on our way to the dry lake. Aircraft performance could be anemic in the high desert with its scorching temperatures. We routinely flew with fuel tanks only half full to maximize performance, and I figured half tanks would be plenty for our 90-minute flight.

The aircraft arrived and was in good order. I topped off the oil, performed the preflight inspection, dipped the tanks, and determined they were slightly more than half full. We received our clearance and departed from Runway 7. Acceleration was slow and the climb even slower, but the airplane performed as I expected. We received vectors from Las Vegas Approach and were awarded with an aerial tour of the strip.

“Hey, Jim,” my friend said. “Take a look at the oil temp.”

The oil temperature had crept up near redline. I enriched the mixture, lowered our pitch, and increased our speed. The oil temperature started to recede. We leveled off at an altitude sufficient to make it through the mountain pass and reduced power to cruise. With the high oil temperature in mind, I kept the mixture rich.

We flew south, made our way through the volcanically formed pass, and laid out before us was the smooth, dry lake. I started a slow descent toward it. We made several practice approaches without touching down. Finally we set our bird down, completed the shut-down checklist, and exited the airplane. The only sounds were the faint ringing in my ears and the whistling of the antennas in the dry desert wind. Our airplane had transported us from the busy bustle of Vegas to the expanse and solitude of the lake. Then we climbed back in, performed the required checklist items, and departed.

We flew to Boulder City for one touch and go. I could have bought fuel, but according to my calculations, we still had more than the required 30-minute VFR reserves.

Climbing out of Boulder City, I called ATC and got a clearance back to North Las Vegas Airport. The sun was just setting over the Spring Mountains to the west and the jeweled city was starting to sparkle. I suggested a night strip tour. ATC had just issued a clearance for a lower altitude when the engine began losing power. Pitch to 60! Fuel valve pushed down! Mixture pushed harder into the panel! Carb heat pulled out! Magnetos on both. The fuel-gauge needles were bouncing all over the place but they appeared to indicate one-quarter tank remaining. “Las Vegas Approach, Zero Seven Papa has lost its engine. Going down.”

My friend had been scanning the ground looking for a suitable location for a forced landing. We were over the congested city with nowhere to land. He suggested the city streets. They looked inviting but I knew the light Cessna’s airframe was no match for any car. Hey, wait, a dirt lot. I started a slow turn back toward the lot and aimed the nose at the corner of the square. I planned to land diagonally for the most possible length. As we approached the perimeter, our speed and altitude were on the mark for just barely crossing the power lines. I slammed down the flaps to full deployment.

Looking down out of my window, the power lines flashed by the main wheels, I rolled the aircraft steeply to the right to make the most of the field length. Driving the little Cessna to the dirt without any flare resulted in a firm touchdown with the brakes pushed to what felt like the firewall. The rollout was a violent shuddering. As hard as I tried to stop, the aircraft rolled over a sidewalk, and we went into a four-lane street divided by a raised concrete median. The nose gear struck the median with great force, shearing it off. The mains were next, bending the tough gear and mangling the aluminum structural box. The destruction reduced our speed and we slowly slid sideways, coming to rest against the opposite sidewalk.

My friend and I got out of the aircraft and looked at each other and the airplane in disbelief. We had escaped without injury. It didn’t take long for firefighters and police to show up. Shortly thereafter, an FAA inspector arrived. He did not talk to me or acknowledge my existence. The inspector removed a clear tube from his pocket and checked the wings for fuel. I was mortified by the lack of fuel. Up to this point I truly did not consider that I had run the aircraft out of fuel. There it was, staring me in the face—no fuel. Looking at the mortally wounded Cessna, all I could think was, “My fault! How could this happen?”

The inspector left the scene. A police officer offered a mobile phone for me to call for a ride. I called my wife and wasn’t sure she would believe what I was about to tell her. “Can you pick me up at the corner of Charleston and Pecos?” My wife, of course, thought this was a joke and it took a few minutes to convince her to come get me. I handed the phone back to the police officer and thanked him. With that he said, “By the way, those gouges you made in the street, the city will probably send you a bill for the repairs.”

What came next, dealing with the FAA in the following weeks, is another story but in short, no violation was issued. The cause of the fuel miscalculation was the disparity in book-referenced values and actual fuel flow rates. By flying with the mixture rich at a high power setting, I was using far more fuel than I had anticipated.

These events forever changed me as a pilot and as a mechanic, and my friend and I continued working together for many years. He never cast blame or criticized me for causing the accident. Regretfully, I never told him I was sorry for endangering him. Let me rectify that now: Robert, please accept my sincere apology.

Jim Skibinski, AOPA 4379895, is a regional airline pilot and CFII as well as a certificated airframe and powerplant mechanic.