It was a nice spring day and I took the opportunity to catch up on some outside chores. With a small farm and barn, along with horses, fences, woods and such, there are always chores. In my profession as a corporate pilot, I have plenty of time to do these chores and other things around the property. However, the cell phone makes sure I am only a ring away… on call.
Sure enough, after a fruitful day, as I get ready to settle in for the evening, the phone rings. It’s my office marine dispatcher wanting to know if I can fly a tugboat captain home right away as he has a family emergency in progress. Of course, I say, what is the situation? Well, it seems the fellow’s mother is dying and not expected the last the night. Here it is, already Saturday evening, and there is only one way to get this guy home in a timely fashion, and that would be via company helicopter and airplane. He is aboard a tugboat somewhere in the upper Chesapeake Bay, headed north to New York, and needs to get off the boat right away to fly home to North Carolina.
I tell the dispatcher that I will probably do the flight, but will need to check the weather and a few other things, and get back to him. So, I begin the planning and make a few calls to get things rolling. First off, the weather is not good. There is a front moving through the area and there are thunderstorms in lines and clusters moving along at a pretty good clip. The thunderstorm line is from about the Carolinas to New York state moving east northeast at about 30 knots with all the associated weather phenomena that goes with it.
The terminal reports I am interested in are not that bad, but the area forecast is a real doozy. Makes you want to crawl back into the easy chair and forget the whole thing. But, I do plan to try to get the fellow home. His mother is about to die, and I know the fellow. After a long career of doing this type of flying, I know it can be done with proper planning, timing, and a little bit of good fortune maybe.
I drive to our office and hangar where we keep the helicopter, a Bell 206L Long Ranger, to roll it out and get ready to start the trip. Of course at this time of night, on the weekend, there is no one there, so it’s a one-man show getting the helicopter out, and after a few minutes I am ready to go, checking to make sure all the proper gear is aboard for a night flight partially over water. First though, I need to get some fuel at a nearby heliport for the trip to the tugboat in the upper Chesapeake Bay, about a 40-minute flight down and 35 minutes back to the airport, PHL, where I keep the airplane for the next leg of the trip. Fueling the helicopter on this Saturday night is another one-man operation. No one is there, but I have a key to the fuel truck and fuel it myself.
Departing the heliport, fueled for the round trip, weather checked one more time, I am told the line of weather has about an hour or more before reaching the Baltimore area, so I should be ahead of it. Of course flight service is not recommending VFR flight this night, nor are they encouraging about the weather. It’s a tough call, no doubt. There are other thunderstorms and rain along the coast, but for now I have a fairly clear shot down to the upper Chesapeake and back.
Transiting the Philadelphia Class B airspace, I ask for radar following and as usual the tower controller asks for my destination and I give it to him, though he is a bit befuddled as I can give him no identifier, just a general location since I only have an estimate of the location and the vessel is underway. I will be landing on a barge that is located in the upper Chesapeake Bay and moving northeast at about 8 to 10 knots.
Clearing the Class B airspace, I settle in for the 40-minute trip. I enjoy flying the helicopter at night. It’s smooth and hums right along at 110 knots, power set at 80% torque, Loran set with a new waypoint, latitude /longitude for where I expect the tugboat to be for my arrival. I should mention that this was well before aviation GPS and real time weather in the cockpit. But the Loran works very well. Not as accurate as GPS today, but good enough to get you there in the general vicinity.
The weather though, is interesting once again. Warmer air mixing with cooler air, frontal activity, moisture, even some jet stream activity to add spin to the tops of the line. I see lightning cracking out to the west and off to the east, but where I am flying is a nice clear corridor with about 10 miles visibility. This leg of the trip will be ahead of the weather. It’s the airplane segment that has me thinking. But at least with the airplane, a King Air 200, I will have more tools: radar, strike finder, more speed to maneuver, and higher altitude.
Arriving in the area of the upper Chesapeake Bay, I call on FM radio to the tugboat with my position and intentions, and ask for their location. “Turkey Point” they tell me. Now, I don’t think Turkey Point is marked on any aviation charts, but I do know where it is. It’s quite a long appendage of Maryland land in the upper Chesapeake Bay with the Susquehanna River to the west and the C&D canal to the east. Rumor has it that it got the name Turkey Point back in the 1960s when astronauts were first orbiting the earth. One of them looked down as they orbited over the northeast United States, and remarked that from where he sat, the land at the upper Chesapeake Bay looked like a turkey gizzard. True or not, rumor or not, that’s what it is called.
But arriving at the vicinity of Turkey Point, I see a number of lights down there on the water, red, green, white, blinking, some moving, and some stationary. Which set of lights is my landing site? I query the tugboat again and he says he has the lights on for me. So I ask him to turn his lights off for a bit. He does, and sure enough there he is! Right there in the black hole! I fly overhead the hole where the tugboat and barge must be and ask for him to light up again. He does, and I set up the approach to land. The tug crew has raised a small lighted windsock for me to judge the relative wind, and along with the tugboat and barge speed and direction, I approach and land perpendicular to the barge which is moving northeasterly at 10 knots. All goes well, and I am glad I don’t have to deal tonight with any wave action, as I do occasionally when landing on these barges while they are offshore in the Atlantic Ocean during their transit from Virginia to New York and beyond.
For those landings, and departures, there are more moving parts to contend with: wind speed and direction, vessel speed and direction, wave action, spray, swells, vessel roll, pitch, and heave.
But this night the landing is easy, and the tug captain is standing nearby ready to board the helicopter and depart on the next leg of his journey home. I am thinking about this particular tug captain, because I know he does not like to fly. He is spooked by it. He had told me that many years ago he was scheduled to take an Eastern Airlines flight from his home in North Carolina to the Gulf, but he missed the flight for some reason. That flight crashed and he figured that was a sign for him to avoid flying altogether. But on this night he had few options if he wanted to get home in time to see his dying mother.
The flight back to Philadelphia went quickly and smoothly, which I am sure was a good thing for the passenger in the back, notwithstanding the occasional lightning flashes to both sides of us. Now it was time to get the King Air ready for the flight to NC. Time for me, the pilot, to switch gears from helicopter thinking to King Air thinking. There is a difference, as you would imagine, but for me it requires a deliberate thought process. I’m not sure what it is, maybe the transition from intuitive flying to more procedural flying? Whatever the case, I’ve done it enough times to know the difference and know that I need to slow things down and be deliberate.
Now it’s time for the nuts and bolts part of being a pilot. Preflight the King Air, weather check with FSS, fuel top off. The fueling is done (more on that later) while I am inside trying to analyze whether I can run ahead of the line of storms, or will I have to fly down the back side. In those days, there was no real-time NEXRAD picture to look at on the computer or phone like we do today. But at that time I was somewhat dependent on the briefer, who is looking at the charts and giving me his synopsis of the weather. Of course he once again tells me VFR flight is not recommended, though I never understood why since I have filed an IFR flight plan for the trip at FL260.
Clearance received, cleared for takeoff to the west, and off we go. I had told the passenger in the back to stay strapped in as there was a chance for a few bumps, but not to worry. We’ll be landing in Washington, NC, in about an hour and a half. Climbing out on the SID, I felt good to be flying this King Air 200; a very capable and solid airplane, with plenty of electronic equipment and plenty of fuel.
As is my habit, I normally fly the aircraft to final altitude and then engage the autopilot. So, I was a tad busy with the flying, radios, radar work and so forth. In between layers of broken clouds and in light rain, but smooth conditions, I am climbing out of about 5000 ft. for 9000 ft. when I look out the left window to the south where there is a light show going on with frequent cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning, and to my surprise, what in the heck is that out there?! There is a very large plume of fuel streaming off the left wing. How far back the stream goes I can’t tell, but it seems to be a long way and a lot of fuel is going out of the wing! As I am looking at this, there is frequent lightning going on about 30 miles south of me, as well as the same situation some distance to the west. I had been concerned about the line of weather now approaching the Delmarva Peninsula, but right now I had another issue to deal with.
Clearly, I would return to PHL. Looking at all that jet fuel streaming aft off the wing, and at what rate I did not know, I told ATC departure that I needed to return to the airport. More lightning flashes are occurring and the storms, while about 30 miles away, seemed much closer. Maybe it was the moment, but those storm clouds, when illuminated by the flashes, were a nasty looking lot; with bright whites, dark grays, and black areas. Lots of depth and contours. Forbidding really. Makes a person want to go some other direction. ATC calls me back and asks why I want to return to the airport and is there a problem? I would rather have had a vector at that point, but I told ATC I had a fuel leak and wanted an immediate return to the airport. They asked me if I was declaring an emergency, and to state the souls on board and fuel remaining. I told him two souls and the fuel aboard in pounds of fuel, reading it right off the fuel gauges.
The controller then asked for the fuel aboard in gallons, at which time I said you figure it out, I’m kind of busy right now. At the time, I thought the airplane was flying just fine, and other than the fuel leak, albeit it seemed a large one, I said no. No declared emergency, but I would accept no delay returning to the airport. The wing fuel leak and our proximity to the frequent lightning did cause me to think it might not be a good idea to stay out there much longer or we might turn into a flying Roman candle! Later on I would second guess that decision, but at the time that was what was done.
Vectoring back to the airport, told we were number two behind a Delta on a five-mile final. We intercepted the ILS and had the runway in sight about five miles out. I briefed the passenger in back that we were returning to the airport due to a fuel leak, and boy did he look concerned. Will we have enough fuel to get back he asked? And he said he sure could see the fuel leak from his seat!
On final, landing to the west, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on the airport. Never in my life had I seen so many lights! And I don’t mean the category 2 runway lighting and associated approach lighting, but rather all the ground vehicles. Fire trucks galore, cars, trucks, and vans, all with lights flashing and parked alongside both taxiways on either side of the 9000 ft. runway. On landing, I noticed the fuel leak ceased after touchdown, and so began the long taxi back to the FBO, flanked on all sides, front and back, by the emergency responders. Nice to know they were there, and I had no complaints about it, but I couldn’t help thinking that it looked like something out of a 70s movie, Airport!, or something. Would George Kennedy or Lloyd Bridges be on the ramp when I got there?
Parking at the FBO, and exiting the aircraft, the air was thick with the smell of jet fuel. The fire official, a brusque official-looking guy wanted information right away, and I had to tell him that the fuel leak appeared to be stopped and I had a passenger to attend to first. Then I would be glad to answer questions and do any required paperwork, which I did a few minutes later. The usual name, rank and serial number, what happened and so forth. Sign here and good night.
But what exactly had happened? That would have to wait for the next day, because I was worn out and had to drive the passenger to a nearby hotel. I told him I would call him in the morning once I had dealt with the problem, and we would see if the flight home would occur at all. Frankly, I was not sure he would still be there at the hotel the next morning, considering his attitude about flying in the first place.
Driving home in NJ a little later, the sky caved in with rain, wind, lightning and thunder. It went on for hours it seemed. In a way, I was glad not to have had to traverse around that weather twice that evening. The next morning would reveal what had happened to the airplane and why.
Earlier I mentioned that I had the airplane topped off while I was busy doing the flight planning and getting the weather picture best I could on the telephone. It turned out the fueler, at this established and well-known FBO, had allowed the fuel nozzle, while in the filler neck, to lever backward by its own weight or it was pulled back, causing the soft metal of the anti-siphon filler neck to open a wide gash. Not unlike opening up a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon with a church key back in the day. The King Air has an anti-siphon flapper below the filler cap, and the soft metal neck is prone to bending or gouging open. If damaged like this one was, when the aircraft becomes airborne the negative lift on the wing siphons the fuel right out past the filler cap where that seal is apparently insufficient to stop the siphoning.
Not being one to give up easily, we have the problem fixed temporarily the next day by about 10 am, and are on our way to North Carolina in clear air, arriving there before noon. I had a mechanic look at the fuel filler, Sunday morning no less, and he quickly fixed the problem. Using a crow’s foot, he reached in there and bent the metal to near flush. Solved the problem, no fuel leak! I will order a new filler neck on Monday.
The story ends with the tugboat captain getting home in time after all. I learned later that when he walked in the door at his house his mother was in the kitchen playing cards! She went on to live a few more months. But to my knowledge I don’t think that tugboat captain ever flew again.