I was tired. Heck, I was tired all the time. It was the early 1980s and the country was coming out of a really deep and protracted recession. I was really glad to now have more flying than I could handle after such a long, dry spell but this unwanted and inevitable side effect of fatigue was with me most of the time.
I was working for my good buddy, Tony Barnum, hauling freight for the Jeep Company in Toledo, Ohio. Tony’s son Eric was in charge of Crow Inc., but Tony kept a hand in the flying part of it. We had a small fleet of Navajos, Aztecs, and Seminoles, left over from the now failing dealership, but they were not the best airplanes for hauling the freight. So we ended up buying three of the “finest Beech 18s in captivity, east of the Mississippi River,” as I used to say.
Usually a BE-18 is a stepping stone for a rookie pilot, and a very demanding one at that. This was not the case for me as I already had about 5000 hours of multi-time in pistons and turbine airplanes. I also had a type rating with over 600 hours of PIC jet time when I left a job flying a Sabreliner and took the job as chief pilot and check airman for Crow Executive Air Charter, so this was a fun thing for me, flying the ole Beech.
We were very busy at the time. Of the five or six pilots we had (I always thought that it was funny to call a guy or gal “captain,” and I still do because I think we should all fly like “captains”), half were rookie pilots that rode the right seat. We called ourselves “the Beech Boys.” We referred to the rookies as the “cast of thousands.” There was much more flying than our small crew could handle so we farmed out a big chunk of the flying we had to other charter operators.
It was my job to break in these new pilots. We had a moderate amount of turnover compared to most Beech operators. I think this was due to the fact that it was a fun place to work and there was no pressure to complete “the mission.” I used to tell them, “If you don’t feel like flying, don’t, no problem.” The equipment was well-maintained. The Beeches had custom paint jobs and were well equipped with decent radios which included good intercoms and even Lorans when they came out. One of them even had a radar in it. I always wondered why all of the big jets I flew for the major airlines didn’t have intercoms, especially when they preach how important communication is. Some airliners had what they called an intercom in them that had to be jerry-rigged to work but, they were a far cry from great units we little airplane drivers have in our planes.
When it came to breaking in new pilots, one of the many things I stressed was that the he or she needed to supervise the fueling of the airplanes. I had heard of a few local crashes involving piston airplanes that had jet fuel put in them. They were usually fatal. I would read about them in the magazines. Bob Hoover was selling a system to prevent it. I even had an up close and personal experience with one very close call.
Several years earlier when I was working line service, Tony flew back into Toledo in the Grumman Mallard to top off with fuel before proceeding to his destination. He had picked up a group of businessmen someplace else and was heading to a fishing camp up north with them.
He had radioed ahead to set up a quick turn and I was standing by with the 100 octane truck running and the hose uncoiled. Tony taxied straight up, shut down, and then crawled out the nose hatch and on to the top of the fuselage to get on the catwalk to the fuel caps on the wings. I was on the ladder and handed him the hose so he could fuel the airplane himself. We filled both wings and off he went.
As I was walking around the back of the line shack, I saw the Mallard taking off and it was about twenty feet in the air when both engines started cutting in and out. Thinking fast, Tony got the wheels back down, which is no small feat in a Mallard. He had to help the engine driven hydraulic pump by using the manual hand pump located behind the copilot’s seat. He was really busy but, with great skill and ability, kept the Mallard from going off the end of the 7000 foot runway. He was even able to keep the motors running long enough to taxi back to the FBO, all the while belching smoke and with wheel grease afire due to the hot brakes. A tremendous feat of pilot skill.
We unloaded the fishermen and dropped them off at the terminal lounge while we tried to figure out what happened. We took off the fuel caps and smelled the fuel but couldn’t tell anything from that. We drained some fuel out and looked at it but still couldn’t detect any jet fuel. It wasn’t until I stuck my finger in the tank and noticed it took a long time to dry out and there was an oily film left behind. That is when we determined it was, in fact, jet fuel.
“You filled me up with jet fuel!” Tony yelled at me. “The heck I did! I handed you the nozzle and YOU filled it up!” The 100 octane truck was sitting right in front of you,” I replied. He had to agree with me; there was no mistaking the fact that we pumped fuel from the 100 octane truck. That was clear. I even confirmed that I filled up the truck with 100 octane from the fuel farm storage tank. That fuel had been delivered that morning, which I supervised, and we examined the paperwork that came with the delivery. It said it was 100 octane. It wasn’t until some time later that we determined there was a mix up at the factory and the driver had picked the wrong paperwork with the shipment. We now had a fuel farm full of avgas with jet fuel mixed into it.
A postscript to that part of this story is we had the Mallard on its way a couple of hours later and the oil company paid for much more than the drinks the boys had in the bar that morning.
So back to my checking new pilots out. It was about midnight; it seems like it always midnight when you’re hauling freight. There was a light drizzle falling, and it was cold; it seems like it’s always cold when you’re hauling freight. Did I mention I was tired? I was checking out a new guy that came to work for us. He was a fighter pilot in the local Guard unit and needed to get some multi-engine time. He was sharper than the average guy with the amount of experience he had and as fate would have it, it later turned out to be my boss for one of the jets I flew out of Pittsburgh for the airline.
Anyway, I was standing there in the drizzle explaining to him that I knew he was tired and he wanted to go into the FBO and get a hot cup of coffee and check out the vending machines and all of that, but it was important for him to stay and supervise the fueling, while it was taking place.
As I was explaining this policy to him, the fuel truck had arrived and the lineman placed and climbed the ladder and was in the process of pumping fuel in the nose tank of 02B. I don’t remember how much this tank held, but I knew it could feed both engines simultaneously when selected, and this was the first tank we would burn off after climb out. As I was explaining this, Bob (a name I made up to make the story more juicy) was listening intently while I droned on about the dangers of getting jet fuel pumped in by accident from the wrong truck.
“Like this one?” he said as soon as I stopped talking. I looked at the fuel truck sitting right in front of me, pumping fuel in the nose tank as I was speaking, and read the words, JET FUEL, written boldly on the side of the tank. We stopped the fueler immediately. Fortunately he had only pumped a few gallons in the tank by this time.
After some discussion, we decided that we could take off and make it the rest of the way on the other four fuel tanks we had. The only thing we had to do was remember not to select the nose tank. If you think that I, or any of my pilots, are not capable of doing just that, you, my friend, are an amateur.
What are the chances of this happing? It turned out to be the perfect teaching moment, rather than the perfect storm. I am sure the line service guy learned his lesson. Bob couldn’t argue with the policy, and hopefully passed it on to others. But what about yours truly? First, I thought it was funny. It turned out to be kind of like a circus clown act. My droning on about safety, my student taking it in, while the lineman is actually doing what I am talking about not doing. You can’t make this stuff up!
Second, it reinforced something I already knew: you have to supervise the fueling, but the most significant thing for me was something that I have been experiencing since I started instructing. My students teach me more than I could possibly learn in school. You have to be an instructor first, and a good instructor as well, to appreciate my remarks.
By the way, when we got back, Ronnie, our lineman turned mechanic, drained the nose tank and the story had a happy ending. So the take away for you is don’t do like I see most pilots do. That is allowing for the fueling of their aircraft to take place without directly supervising the process. It is an airplane, not a car, boat, motorcycle, or lawn mower. The consequences of your failure to fuel properly are not nearly as challenging with them. If you don’t, the story’s ending might not turn out so funny for you, or your passengers, or your partner, or your children, or your… well, I hope you get the point.
Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org