I was climbing out of Hood River, Ore., on my way to Jean, Nev., for the last R.A.C.E. (Rutan and Composite Enthusiasts) air race of the year. I’ve always loved racing, and my LongEZ was a fast machine.
It was November 8, 1997, and the weather was perfect. I cruise-climbed to 17,500 msl in about 20 minutes. My airplane, “Speedracer,” was tricked out for racing with lots of aerodynamic modifications and a hot-rod Lycoming 0-290-D2 engine with angled valve heads and 10:1 compression. At some of the races, I would average over 200 knots for the 120-mile course.
I was picking up a great tailwind and settled in for the ride at 170 knots on autopilot with a fuel burn of six gallons an hour—amazing economy in that highly efficient airframe. Two hours into the trip, everything seemed perfect except for one thing: I kept getting an occasional whiff of fuel! I checked the fuel filters, visible in the back seat with a mirror. Nothing was amiss. At one point I was wondering if I had a bad bottle of oxygen as it seemed like the smell would go away whenever I took the canula off. Also, my right leg was getting cold. I guessed the small piece of foam had blown out from around the elevator torque tube and was letting cold, high-altitude air blow in. It had happened before.
At about 20 miles south of Alturas, California, I overrode the autopilot and banked over to look at something on the ground. When I leveled the wings the sun shined on the cockpit from a different angle, and suddenly I could see a light spray of fuel pouring a mist of avgas on my leg. My heart rate shot up, and within about five seconds I had shut down all electrical equipment including the electronic ignition. (The switch for the electronic ignition was about three inches from fuel spray). I was now operating on one magneto and the battery backup for the GPS. I did a steep 180 back towards Alturas. But as I got closer to the airport, I couldn't see it. Patchy ground fog completely obscured it. The fuel spray seemed to be getting worse. The only way I could stop it was to shut down the engine. If I could have seen the airport I would have shut down the engine and glided in.
I headed for the next closest airport, California Pines. But when I got close, it was socked in by ground fog, too. The next closest airport was Cedarville, about 20 miles away. Plan D was to look for a couple of grass strips that were marked on the sectional on the way to Cedarville.
By now I'm so scared that my feet are shaking on the rudder pedals. I have never wanted to get on the ground so bad in my life. I had taken the Halon fire extinguisher out of its holder, pulled the safety pin, and cradled it between my legs like a can of beer.
As I was looking for the grass strips, I spotted what looked like a hard-surface runway. As I flew over it I could see a big white X on each end. There were a few buildings off to one side, but the place looked deserted. I guessed on a north wind, flew a left base and pulled the mixture on final as soon as I had the runway made. The pavement was extremely rough. My wheelpants, which clear the ground by less than an inch, took a beating but stayed on. I climbed out of the plane with the largest sense of relief I have ever felt. Only then did I notice that the seat of my jeans were soaked with avgas, as well as my entire right leg. There was at least a gallon of fuel on the floor of the plane and the seat (which sits on the floor) was soaked. I took the seat out to dry in the sunshine and started mopping gas up with a big towel out of the baggage.
I was starting to feel pretty good when a guy in a Chevy Blazer drove up. He got out and was wearing what I thought was a security guard uniform. He walked up to me, sort of got in my face and said: “Do you know you just landed inside a prison?” Yikes! He turned out to be a really good guy and even measured the distance I thought I'd need to take off with his odometer. He said that it was a minimum-security prison and wasn’t too worried that I was planning to launch a prison break with the help of my airplane. Then he helped me kick big rocks off the runway for about half an hour. He told me that the runway had been closed for decades and I was the second guy to land there in the last 10 years. The other guy had run out of fuel and was trying to glide to Alturas. He couldn’t make it and landed at the prison instead. His friends brought him some avgas and he flew out.
The fuel leak problem was easily found by turning on the electric boost pump for a couple of seconds. A clamp that held the quarter-inch line that went to the fuel pressure gauge had broken. (Actually there is a good chance that it was partially broken when I had installed it years before). I had purchased a bag of Boeing surplus clamps, and some of them had been used before. Rubber insulation covers most of the steel clamp. I have never again installed a clamp without inspecting the steel first.
The line had sprung from the clamp and apparently had been rubbing on a bracket for a very long time. I got out my tool bag, cut the fuel line to the pressure gauge, then folded it over three or four times, clamped all the folds and left them there. No leaks.
I thanked the prison guard for his help then took off from that torn up runway with the speedbrake down to protect my airplane’s wood propeller from damage that loose rocks or gravel could cause. I climbed out, did a thank-you barrel roll for my new friend and headed for Jean.
On the way, I picked up the best tailwind of my flying career—a 70-mph push at 17,500 msl. I couldn’t resist pushing the nose over until I saw 300 mph ground speed on the GPS. I try very hard to learn from my mistakes, always double check my work and, if possible, get others with fresh eyes to look it over too.