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Running on empty

What was I thinking? Clearly, I wasn’t

By Camden Walters

It was to be a beautiful weekend across the East Coast as a high-pressure system dominated the area—perfect for the cross-country flight from my home base in Northern Virginia to a skydiving event in South Carolina.

Illustration by Alex Williamson, sidebar Steve Karp
Illustration by Alex Williamson, sidebar Steve Karp

I reserved the Cessna 172 with extended-range tanks from my local flight school months in advance to ensure I had the space, weight, and endurance needed to get myself and a friend to our destination. Unfortunately, the flight school called the day before to inform me the 172 was down for maintenance. I was offered an alternative: a Cessna 152.

I recalculated the weight and balance and fuel endurance and came down to one plausible option: cut the amount of fuel we took off with to keep the airplane below its maximum gross weight. I had to fly a little over an hour to pick up my friend, so I would add a couple gallons of fuel, but not top off.

The flight to South Carolina was smooth. It was only within the last 20 minutes of the flight that I started to get that nagging voice in the back of my head. Should I land short or push through? The estimated time en route was fairly accurate, I reasoned, and maybe I would barely dip into my reserves. I pushed on and landed. Maybe I was worried about nothing?

When we packed up the 152 Monday morning I called the FBO for fuel. “Our fuel man won’t be here until one o’clock,” I was told. That was three hours away! No, I wanted to get home at a reasonable time. I scoured my sectional for a nearby airport and found one an easy 14 nautical miles away. I reasoned that the short hop would burn less than a gallon of fuel, and surely I had at least that in the tanks, judging from the sloshing I could hear as I rocked the wings. We took off for what was, in retrospect, the longest 14 nm of my life. Once airborne, I throttled back, leaned the mixture, kept my eyes on constant scan for a suitable landing place should I need one, and barely heard the engine over my pounding heart. Several minutes later, we landed at our fuel oasis.

It was an odd sound, the fuel making a distinct metallic patter-patter as it splashed onto the bare metal of the near-empty tanks below.

I think back on that morning with a sickening feeling in my stomach. I had always been such a careful planner; what led me to that reckless decision? And why was I selfish enough to put a trusting passenger and friend at such risk?

Clearly some external pressures were at play, but the aircraft was pivotal. Sure, the 152 was airworthy, but the fact that the aircraft changed while my mindset did not put me in a position I should have never been in. I had failed to shift my mind that this trip had become a longer, two-stop cross-country.

What haunts me the most is to think what would’ve happened if the math didn’t work out. What if my headwind component on the trip down was just a knot or two more? What if I had leaned the mixture one quarter turn less? What if the numbers from the book weren’t exactly like real life (as is almost always the case)?

I hope these questions always haunt me. Never again will I stack those cards in such a careless way. Never again will I bet my life on one less puff of headwind.

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