It was a very pleasant and clear summer day in July 2011. I had planned a flight from my home airport of Truckee, California (TRK), to Salem, Oregon (SLE), with a fuel stop in Siskiyou County (SIY). I was flying solo in my Citabria 7KCAB, which I had owned for several years and in which I had logged about 1200 hours. I loved that airplane and knew it well, having flown basic aerobatics in it. It had inverted fuel and oil, and I had flown it into many back country strips in Idaho and Utah.
The Citabria is not the greatest cross-country airplane; it’s very light and so especially in hot weather you can get bounced around pretty good. More important is that the fuel capacity of 26 gallons requires that you manage your fuel consumption carefully – especially in western states like Nevada where fuel availability can be a real issue.
My stop in Siskiyou was uneventful. I had the fuel station to myself, filled the airplane’s tanks, emptied my own and was back in the air. I’d flown to Salem before and was familiar with the route. Although I had a Garmin 296, I still carry a sectional chart and refer to it often. Old habit but I’m not completely comfortable with my situational awareness unless I can match the terrain to a chart. Turned out I really needed to know my precise location.
As I approached Salem, I called the tower about 10 miles out to advise them of my location and intentions. I guess it was a slow traffic day as the tower cleared me to land on that initial call. I wasn’t expecting that, but I had plenty of time and was starting my landing procedure when the engine “missed.” It was just a short blip but after so many hours in the airplane I noticed it. Then in only seconds the engine stopped completely.
I let Salem tower know I was having engine trouble and would not be landing. They asked to be advised when able. The first thing I did was set up my glide and turn 180 towards the Albany airport I had just passed over. I checked for a restart but then got back to the landing. I was not certain I could glide to Albany and there were buildings surrounding the runway (at least it appeared that way to me), and I did not want to involve anyone or anything else so I opted for a field. Fortunately, there was a field of high grass with no apparent obstacles so I set up my landing. Everything was going well and the field was big enough with no obstructions, at least none that were visible.
On the landing roll, I had the tail down, stick back and the fence was in the far distance so I felt I’d made it. The next thing I knew I was hanging upside down by my shoulder straps. I had run into a berm or hole in the ground that I couldn’t see through the tall grass. The airplane had nosed in and flipped onto its back, ending upside down in the field.
I was hanging upside down and I think I may have hit my head hard enough on the dash that I may have blacked out for a few seconds – I didn’t remember nosing over. So I turned everything off, released my harness and climbed out. As I crawled out, I saw a pick up truck driving into the field towards me. A passerby had seen me land and drove right out into the field to help. Shortly after, more people and an ambulance arrived. I felt fine but decided to go to the hospital and get checked out. I was fine. I was treated far better by everyone than I deserved.
The FAA field man was at the site when I returned from the hospital and he was pretty sure I’d run out of fuel as there was no smell of gas. Of course I knew that wasn’t possible because I’d fueled at SIY. I even showed him my gas receipt as proof. So what did happen?
When I fueled up, I’d left one of the gas caps on the wing and failed to put it back on. It took less than two hours to suck the fuel out of both tanks. The FAA guy asked if I’d been distracted when fueling but I had to say no it wasn’t that. The truth is I did not follow my practice of a walk-around check. I rationalized that I’d just landed after a flight without incident and all I’d done was fuel up. All it would have taken was a simple walk around the airplane to have avoided the accident.
Another lesson was keeping track of time after topping off is not enough, even though I got away with that for years. The fuel gauges are on the wing root and I was told not to rely on them; better to know your fuel burn and keep track of your time. Since they were not in my scan of the other instruments I fell into a very bad habit, again one that contributed to this accident.
So there were at least two lessons for me but my biggest takeaway was the risk of complacency. Pilots follow checklists and form habits for good reason. We don’t know we’ve missed something unless we suffer a consequence. My bad habit of using time and hourly burn rate did not consider possibilities like a broken fuel line for example. The habit of a preflight walk around after a quick stop is cheap insurance as are other habits that provide some measure of added safety.
I’m now more than ever aware of the risk of complacency and try to always follow the routines I’ve adopted over the almost 50 years of flying that have helped keep me safe.