The morning was warm and sunny with a light breeze blowing out of the east. Perfect for a runway 8 departure from North County airport in Southern Florida to Flying W airport in Lumberton, New Jersey. This was the return trip of our first long cross country and it was with some excitement, not to mention trepidation, that I checked the weather (again), went over the charts (again) and tried to think of anything I missed.
My wife Diane had flown with me many times before, but most of our trips were within a few hundred miles of home. While not nervous, she was a bit anxious, and I did my best to reassure her that everything was going to be fine. We had planned a stopover in Charleston where we would eat the lunch Diane had packed and stretch our legs before resuming the flight north.
I called Flight Service one last time in the car on the way to the airport and the briefer confirmed what I already knew: the weather was fine for the trip. We were both quiet in the car on the ride to the airport, each ensconced in our own reverie. The sun was just coming up and the few early risers on the way to work that morning drove by us, probably contemplating their own upcoming day… as we did ours. None of us knowing what the day would bring.
At the airport, I returned the rental car and did the pre-flight on my A36 Bonanza, while being especially careful to follow the checklist. After checking off all the items, I loaded the suitcases and verified the weight and balance, noting the CG. Finally I was ready to go.
After announcing on the CTAF that I was taxiing to the run-up area and slowly taxiing into position on the run-up tarmac, I went through the “before takeoff” checklist. At some point, I dropped my pen but after fishing around awhile I could not find it and gave up. Being the good Boy Scout that I am, I was prepared with another pen and continued on with the checklist.
Now, the Bonanza has an item on the checklist that reads:
“Fuel Selector Valve – Check Operation, then Select Fuller Tank (feel for detent/confirm visually)”
Because the fuel selector is by the pilot’s left foot, and consists of a three-position switch, my procedure was to check it by reaching down and turning the handle to verify that it went from left to right, or vice versa, and was not in the “off” position. (I had full fuel in both tanks so there was no need to look for the fullest tank).
As usual, I reached down and made this check. With everything set to go, I told Diane to be sure she was strapped in and I happily looked forward to soaring into the morning sky. I advanced the power and the 300 hp Continental IO-550 began to barrel us down the runway while I continued looking at the trees at the far end. Racing toward them, I checked my airspeed and fuel flow and began to rotate… and just before I did… the engine died! Like in Dead. Fortunately, its death occurred short of the crossing highway and the trees.
After rolling to a stop and sitting dumbfounded near the end of the runway for a moment, I called the FBO for a tow and tried to determine what happened. Finally, I figured it out… it was the pen.
The pen had dropped onto the top of the fuel selector and wedged itself so that the handle turned, but not all the way. I had never visually checked the selector and simply relied on feel. With the switch in the “in-between” tank positions, neither tank drew fuel and the fuel stopped flowing when I advanced the power. To be sure, we were extremely fortunate that there was not a lot of fuel left in the lines after the taxi, run-up and wait for our clearance. A bit more fuel and I would have been airborne and then collided, with devastating effect, into the trees, and I would not be here to tell you about it. I can tell you that our pleasant reverie in the car on the way to the airport did not envision such a near-death experience.
I guess the moral is: no matter how carefully you check and double check, watch out for the little things. They are the ones that get you.
I suppose there is also an alternate moral which is: if something drops, pick it up!