The simple reason I ran out of gas

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.

Citabria fuel gauge
The fuel gauges in a Citabria are not in the normal instrument scan.

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?

Citabria
The Citabria is a forgiving airplane, but it does need fuel.

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.

25 Comments

  • Interesting. This is the second article I’ve read in the last two days about someone running out of fuel because of a gas cap being left open. That should be a clue to all of us to make that walk around every time!

  • I am based at Truckee also. I can see how that can happen. When I had a 182 I can remember taking off thinking “Did I put the fuel cap back on?” never left it off, but I can see how easy it is to do. It could happen to anybody. Take Care in Carson.

  • My hanger phone rang while fueling, climbed down from ladder, answered the phone, hung up, moved the ladder to the other wing and finished. Smelled gas ten minutes later, while in flight. Yes, the fuel cap on the first wing was never put back on. IT “CAN” HAPPEN…….DON’T GET DISTRACTED DURING PRE-FLIGHT!!

    • Second that. Don’t get distracted. Sterile cockpit, sterile pre-flight. Do the preflight after refueling. Confirm caps on tight… and look closely at the caps (cowl doors, gear, tiedowns, doors, etc.) during your pre-start walk around. It’s also your final chance to catch stuff like a forgotten chock, item left on a wing or tail, etc)

  • I can’t fly unless I’ve checked my fuel caps twice…very anal about this I too ran out if gas while taxing in from training flight.sonething you never forget.

  • Very good article. This is how we learn……by sharing our experiences with others. You very well could have just saved someone’s life. Thanks!

  • Distracted by a passenger’s arrival during preflight, I left off the engine oil filler cap. Fortunately, weather was CAVU, we were about 4000 ft AGL, & were between 2 airports within gliding distance when I saw a black streak come across the cowl. One glance at the oil pressure– bottom of the green and falling– and I realized what I had done. Power to idle, mayday call (should have been pan pan), & the best landing of my life. For days afterward, all i could think about was, “What if it had been night? Over rough terrain or water? IFR?” Distraction can be a killer. Oh– and it is amazing what a mess it makes to stream 2 quarts of oil all over the fuselage. It dripped for months.

  • Habits, practiced routines, double checking, brain fully on, eliminating distractions, checklists, a moment to reflect before engine start. Things we all know and must deliberately embrace. No one gets a pass; we are all vulnerable every time we fly.

  • When your Citabria ran out of fuel, about 10 miles south of Salem (KSLE), why did you choose to glide to Albany (KS12) about 10 miles south, instead of Gilmour(OR86), or Ames(21OG) less than 2 miles east or west?

    • Good question, both were better options. I guess because I’d just flown past Albany so knew its location and thought I could make it there. Once I decided not to try there were plenty of good fields and I didn’t want to take time to look for other airport options. I’d been taught that one of the mistakes that’s easy to make in this situation is to keep looking for a better option and lose focus on the landing. In hindsight it may have been the smarter decision to look further for other airports but I only had so much altitude and wanted to concentrate on setting up the landing.

      • I would suggest that Mr. Gorman’s decision to fly towards Albany is consistent with human nature. Set a course of action and focus on executing it.

        It’s similar to when a scuba diver runs out of air, he or she is supposed to reach for the brightly colored alternate regulator (air hose mouthpiece) attached to their buddies chest. In practice, they pull the regulator from their buddies mouth. They want what is apparently working.

        Mr. Gorman had a visual on Albany. It was something that was apparently working. I think Mr. Gorman’s actions were appropriate. There have been times I’ve been looking for an airport and didn’t see it until directly over it. Even with a GPS looking for the other two airports would have added another element of uncertainty to the situation.

  • For all of us, whether it’s a 296 or a 796, or even an old 90, practice with the Nearest button to see how quickly you can spot the nearest airport 🙂

    §91.205 Powered civil aircraft with standard category U.S. airworthiness certificates: Instrument and equipment requirements. (9) Fuel gauge indicating the quantity of fuel in each tank.

    Was your Citabria airworthy before the incident? Don’t answer that, just think about it.

  • Well Bob L I can tell you like to have the last word so I’ll only say that my fuel gauges worked fine, as I said in the article I failed to include them in my scan. My airplane was airworthy it was the pilot that was faulty.

  • “It took less than two hours to suck the fuel out of both tanks.” Actually, the two hours is what you got out of the other tank. Because of the suction over the top of the wing, a missing gas cap will drain the tank in a couple minutes. We had a guy take off in an A36 where the cap popped off (so he says) and I could see the plume of fuel streaming out. Fortunately he saw it as well. By the time he made it around the pattern and landed, the tank was empty. His comment was “Well, that’s the most expensive pattern I’ve even flown!”

  • An interesting and informative story but I’m more concerned about the aftermath; sure he survived after leaving the gas caps off but what did the FAA and his insurance company have to say about his actions? That’s another lesson.

  • Avemco insurance covered the loss less the deductible and the Citabria was repaired and is still flying in 2018. The FAA field rep who I spent a few hours with while the airplane was being prepared to be moved out of the field, recommended no additional action be taken beyond me spending an hour with a CFI. Then later his supervisor decided the more appropriate action would be to put me on a two year probation without any restrictions but if I had another incident there would be unspecified penalties. I also called the NTSB and they had no interest and said no written report was necessary. I hope this was helpful. As embarrassing as this whole experience was for me I do feel good that no one was hurt, no property damaged and that the Citabria is flying still.

  • Shane, thanks for taking the time to comment and share a story that makes us all think about safety when flying. It’s usually the little things that multiply into larger problems when in the air.

    I also wanted to say its ridiculous that some of the people commenting only had criticism or some other smart ass remark. We should thank this gentleman for sharing an embarrassing story that he was not obligated to share for the sake of others safety and awareness.

  • I once took off from Lake Hood, near Anchorage, Alaska, in an Aeronca Champ. The lake was closed due to high winds, so I had to sail backwards into the north cove to taxi back to the fuel cock I didn’t ant to climb out and mess around with the wind, all asked the young attendant to handle the fueling. Clearly, he hadn’t secured the left wing fuel tank cap, and I exercised the pilot’s option to take off after having sailed once again into the north cove. With the tower’s clearance across Anchorage International’s east runways, I was off.

    I later picked up a passenger at Kenai Lake, after fighting my way through a pass in the Chugach Mountain range. I landed in a quiet area of the sixty-mile long lake, loaded that passenger aboard, and once again lit out. A few minutes later, the engine quit dead as a stone. I had flown one hour on a four hour fuel load. In the heavy mountain turbulence, I hadn’t smelled the gas being vented overboard. There followed an emergency landing in the low water, very rocky Kenai River.

    I have never conducted a flight using those gauges throughout my 22,000 hours of Alaska bush flying. But I forever after included them in my scan!

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