Finally, I was flying again!
After putting my love for aviation on hold for a number of years while putting the kids through college, my wife Mary had encouraged me to get back into flying. I went at it with enthusiasm, got current, and even completed my instrument rating. Getting into the air again also rekindled a friendship with my old flying buddy, Jerry.
We had known each other for over 30 years but had lost touch during my self-imposed grounding. Jerry had continued to pursue flying with a passion and logged thousands of hours, including a great deal of real-world IFR experience.
Jerry and I took turns as safety pilot during simulated IFR. Jerry flew right seat with me in a Cutlass I rented from our local FBO. I returned the favor in Jerry’s own Cessna 182RG. Later, Jerry and I began flying his airplane exclusively and trading time in the left seat.
It was a great experience flying with a good friend, building IFR experience in a fantastic, well-equipped airplane, and having a very experienced IFR pilot mentoring me. It was all great fun and good experience, but in the year since we’d started flying together again, we had never taken a “real trip” together.
We decided to change all that on a July morning by heading from our home base in Virginia to Florida on a mini vacation! Mary and I were going to visit her parents while Jerry and his wife played golf in St. Augustine.
We filed an IFR flight plan, loaded our passengers and luggage, and launched into the longest cross-country flight of my fledgling IFR career—Winchester, Virginia, to Jacksonville, Florida, with a rest and refueling stop in Florence, South Carolina. The weather was forecast as clear all the way to just north of Savannah, Georgia, with a weak front moving across northern Florida. Jacksonville called for 800 broken, 3,000 overcast with light rain with a possibility of afternoon thunderstorms.
I flew the first leg to Florence under the hood and shot a respectable GPS approach. After taking on some fuel, we were back in the air again with Jerry flying the leg to Craig Municipal Airport in Jacksonville.
The forecast proved accurate and the clouds thickened near Savannah. Soon we were in the clouds and light rain. The METAR at our destination showed 700 overcast with light rain. Jerry flew a flawless ILS approach and landing on Runway 32. We made arrangements to have the airplane fueled and tied down. Jerry asked the line crew to put 25 gallons of fuel in each tank. As we left the airport, I was thrilled with the experience and walking on air.
The front moved through that evening, and we enjoyed the unseasonably cool July weather that weekend. Monday morning was hot and hazy, however, when we met at airport to begin our trip home.
During the preflight aircraft inspection, I was surprised to see that the fuel tanks were only one-third full. Apparently, the line crew hadn’t put in the fuel Jerry had ordered. We repeated our order for 50 gallons. I drained the left tank and found several small drops of water about the size of the eraser on a pencil in the fuel strainer. I had never seen any water when I drained this airplane’s tanks before, so I drained several more cups until no more water appeared. When I checked the right tank, it showed no water at all on the first cup. I drained several more, and they were all clear, blue, and free of water.
It was my turn to fly, so I strapped into the left seat and prepared for flight. The runup was normal, and soon we were cleared for takeoff on Runway 32. Everything was normal on the takeoff roll until just before we hit 60 knots. I was just about to rotate when suddenly the engine lost power. I immediately aborted the takeoff.
As we taxied back, the engine was running smooth, all the gauges were in the green, and everything seemed normal. We performed another runup, and soon we were cleared to attempt another takeoff. Once again, as soon as the airplane reached 60 knots, the engine lost power.
Craig has some excellent repair facilities, and we taxied to the closest one.
The helpful staff pulled the cowling off the airplane and started checking things out. While Jerry was supervising the mechanics, I hitched a ride in the crew car back to the FBO where we bought the fuel and told them about what had happened. They were very professional and pulled their fuel test data. They even went out to the fuel truck that had refueled our airplane and strained some fuel. It was 100 percent pure avgas.
The mechanics inspecting the plane found no problems, either. They drained nearly five gallons of fuel from each tank and found no evidence of water or other contamination. They taxied the airplane to the run-up area and did a full power runup. The engine didn’t miss a beat.
Jerry and I buttoned up the cowling and made a short test flight with Jerry in the left seat. We flew around the pattern for a few minutes, returned to Craig, and landed uneventfully. Everything was normal.
We all climbed aboard and launched for Florence. The day was beautiful and clear, but I put the hood on as we cruised up the coast at 7,000 feet. Everything was running smoothly, and I put the two aborted takeoffs out of my mind. We passed just north of Savannah and were cleared direct to Florence. As I reprogrammed the GPS, I noticed that the fuel gauges showed that, even with the fuel selector on “both,” we were burning more from the left tank than the right.
I reached down and switched the fuel selector to the right tank. Fifteen seconds later the cockpit fell silent as the engine coughed once or twice and then quit. Jerry and I responded immediately: fuel pump on, mixture rich, prop forward, switch tanks, trim for best glide speed. I called ATC and told them about our problem. I had been under the hood when the engine stopped and was only now getting visual references. It turned out we were directly over the beautiful X made by the crossing runways of the Beaufort Marine Corps Naval Air Station. As we began to circle and descend over the airport and continued to talk with ATC, the engine came back to life. What a sweet sound that was!
We informed ATC, and a controller cleared us to circle over the airport while we made sure the engine would continue running. After several three-sixties, we decided to continue. We climbed back to 7,000 feet and resumed our course to Florence. The rest of the flight to Florence and the following leg back to our home base in Virginia were uneventful.
After the flight, Jerry and I reviewed what had happened. Clearly, we had a problem with water contaminating the fuel. The most likely cause was a combination of empty tanks and the humid Florida air combined with the exceptionally large temperature change we had experienced. As an additional factor, the low dihedral angle of the 182’s wings may have made getting the water out in the fuel samples more difficult and helped to mask the extent of just how much water had condensed over the weekend.
Lessons learned from the experience: Always supervise the fueling of your airplane, and don’t take anything for granted. I should have rocked the wings and allowed enough time for the fuel to settle before draining the tanks.
Looking back on this flight, I can’t help but think about our incredible good fortune. Just a few knots faster and we would have been airborne when we lost power. That could have led to an off-airport, forced landing. When the engine did quit, we were at high altitude, in good weather, and right over an airport. Having two qualified pilots, great familiarity with the airplane, and a thorough understanding of emergency procedures, teamwork, and just plain old luck contributed to our good outcome.
Jim Jennis ( AOPA 558394) is an instrument-rated private pilot who has been flying since 1975 and has about 450 hours.