We were on an overnight trip in Burlington, Vermont. I was the first officer on a Piper Chieftain, and my captain and I had been scheduled for a leisurely afternoon departure. However, the morning that was peaceful quickly turned hectic — as usual, things changed at the last minute, leaving us in a rush to depart that morning for a pickup in Philadelphia. To save time, my captain called in a fuel order to the FBO from the hotel, and soon we were rushing out to the airport.
When we arrived at the FBO, I paid the fuel bill while the captain performed a cursory preflight, quickly sumping the fuel tanks and checking the oil in both engines. Soon we were on board with the engines running, ready to taxi. No need for a clearance — the skies were blue forever — so we called ground and headed for the runway. At the hold-short line, we set the parking brake and completed a normal engine runup. Nothing unusual, except we noted that the lineman had filled one of our auxiliary tanks only half-full while topping off the other one. Not a big deal; we made a mental note to mention it to the line guys when we returned later that afternoon.
It was my leg, so the captain called the tower for a takeoff clearance, and I taxied onto the runway. We got our clearance, and I advanced both throttles. "Airspeed alive ... engine instruments in the green...80 knots." Everything looked normal at this point, except the exhaust gas temperature (EGT) gauge, which was slightly fluctuating up and down. All other instruments looked normal, so we concluded that it must be a bad gauge.
Lesson 1 — Trust your engine instruments, and don't get into the habit of saying it's probably a bad gauge.
"V 1 — rotate; positive rate — gear up."
Lesson 2 — Always abort the takeoff with any negative indications on your instruments during the takeoff roll. Make it a part of your before-takeoff briefing and say out loud, "Any negative indications during the takeoff roll, I will abort the takeoff."
As we climbed through 1,000 feet, I felt the nose of the airplane slowly pull to the right. I looked down at my instruments and saw that the right engine's EGT was at zero and the (cylinder head temperature) CHT gauge was past the redline. I also noticed that the manifold pressure and rpm were dropping off. Dead foot, dead engine. It became clear to me that we were losing our right engine. We completed the necessary checklists, declared an emergency, and brought our crippled airplane back around for an otherwise uneventful single-engine landing.
Back at the FBO, we had a mechanic look at the airplane. We soon learned our problem: fuel contamination. Our one auxiliary tank was filled with one-half Jet A, the other half 100LL. We were told that one of the linemen mistakenly thought that our Chieftain was a turboprop and started to fill it with jet fuel. Apparently, he soon realized his mistake and figured he could just fill the rest of the tanks with avgas.
Lesson 3 — Always be present while your plane is being fueled, especially if you are flying an aircraft with a reciprocating engine. Linemen can and do occasionally make mistakes. Remember, even though a turbine engine can operate with jet fuel or avgas, a reciprocating engine will not operate with jet fuel.
In retrospect it's easy to see how this situation occurred. It is a classic example of an accident chain. First, our schedule changed, which caused us to rush. Second, we called in a fuel order from the hotel, which meant we weren't present during the fueling. Third, the captain missed discovering the fuel contamination when he sumped the tanks during the cursory preflight.
It is important to realize that fuel contamination is easy to miss, especially when there is a 50/50 mixture of jet fuel and avgas. It hardly looks or smells any different and is really only noticeable if you rub the fuel between your fingers. Avgas evaporates quickly whereas jet fuel feels slightly greasy or slippery.
Finally, we noticed the discrepancy in our fuel quantity between the two wings, and even the fluctuating EGT. We did nothing about either of those two factors, so at the end of that long list, we had the engine failure. Had we reacted differently to just one of those "clues," the in-flight engine failure never would have happened, because we would not have taken off in the first place.
Remember the old saying, "It's better to be on the ground wishing you were flying, than ...." Well, you know the rest.
Chad Pensiero is a Newark-based captain on the Embraer 145 for Continental Express. He has over 4,000 hours.
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