Trying to stretch your fuel, especially during a flight over water, is always a bad idea. On April 25, 2005, the pilot of a Piper Archer was forced to ditch in Lake Michigan less than seven miles from the Milwaukee-Wisconsin shore after the engine quit. The pilot survived the ditching but was never found and presumed drowned.
The pilot arrived at Niagara Falls International Airport at 8 p.m. and had the fuel tanks topped off with 40 gallons of fuel. During the refueling, the line technician talked to the pilot about his upcoming trip and planned route. The line technician asked if the pilot planned to stop in Muskegon, Michigan, to refuel. The pilot responded that he would not stop, citing weather as a problem - cloud bases were projected to be 4,000 feet with rain. The pilot stated that he planned to fly direct to Madison, Wisconsin, and assured the line technician that "the trip was planned for three hours, and he had four hours of fuel on board." He also said that when he had flown the same route eastbound, he had "plenty of fuel reserves."
Three and a half hours into the flight, the pilot flew over Muskegon on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Half an hour later - and still over Lake Michigan - the pilot told Milwaukee Approach that he would need to refuel before continuing to Madison. The pilot decided to land in Milwaukee.
At 12:04 a.m., four hours and two minutes into the flight, the pilot called Milwaukee Approach: "Milwaukee Approach, I'm, I'm running out of fuel right now." Eight minutes later, the pilot called, "I have land in sight, but I don't think I can glide that far. I'm gonna be touching water soon." The Archer ditched in Lake Michigan 6.3 nautical miles from the shore.
After ditching, the pilot used his cell phone to call 911 and reported that the airplane had run out of fuel, he did not have any flotation equipment, and he knew how to swim. The Coast Guard began search-and-rescue operations immediately, but their efforts were unsuccessful. The airplane was located three days later at a depth of 148 feet. The pilot was never found.
The pilot held a private pilot certificate that was issued on June 19, 2003. His logbook showed 120 hours of experience, 30 of which were in the same make and model aircraft.
Winds aloft at 3,000 and 6,000 feet along the route of flight were forecast to be out of the west (240 degrees to 280 degrees) between 26 knots and 42 knots. Based on this information, it appears that the pilot had a direct headwind for the duration of the flight.
The NTSB determined that the cause of this crash was the pilot's inaccurate preflight planning and his delayed en route decision to make a fuel stop, which resulted in fuel exhaustion and subsequent ditching.
This accident could have been prevented had the pilot stopped for fuel before continuing over the lake. Under ideal conditions with perfect leaning for best economy, the Archer would have a range of five hours and 24 minutes at the most. Leaned for best power, the range decreases to four and a half hours.
Once the pilot committed to flying over the lake without refueling, he was taking a chance. The pilot was also unprepared for ditching in the water. In April, the water temperature in Lake Michigan is usually less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, a person has between 15 and 30 minutes before hypothermia sets in but can survive up to two hours with a flotation device. He had none.
Pilot never think they will run out of fuel; however fuel management accidents happen at a rate of three per week. With proper preflight planning and in-flight fuel management, most of these accidents can be prevented.
For more information about fuel management, read the AOPA Air Safety Institute's Fuel Awareness Safety Advisor, where you'll find fuel management tips such as planning to have one hour of fuel in reserve upon landing.
Accident reports can be found in ASI's accident database.