Columbia River
6 min read

A few years ago, two other pilots and I decided to make a trip from Seattle to Oregon for a fly-in. Each pilot would be a separate airplane with passengers. I was flying a Cessna 172 with my son as the only passenger with me. Two aircraft were leaving Renton Municipal Airport with the third joining us enroute. The destination was Hood River in Oregon.

Our route would take us in a fairly straight line with a path that would lie between Mt. St Helens and Mt. Rainier. This meant flying over some mountainous terrain, albeit under 10,000 feet. We also elected to use flight following on the way down. Being a pilot who had under 80 hours at the time, I was aware of flight following and had no issues with the procedures and hand-offs the entire way.

Hood River fly-in

A visit to a fly-in is a lot of fun, but it’s easy to get distracted.

After spending time at the Hood River fly-in and deciding it was time to head back home so the airplane was available for the next renter, I started my pre-flight on the aircraft. When dipping the tanks, I noted that one tank was about half full and the other tank was closer to three-fourths full. At that point, I realized that I had neglected to lean the engine during the flight down, likely due to the added task of flight following and discussions with my son about the crater and the Mt. St. Helens eruption. A rookie mistake for sure, but I had fuel for the remaining trip back because I planned to lean the engine once at altitude.

On the takeoff roll, I noted that we need most of the runway to get airborne. Mental note to self at the time that I should have recalculated the density altitude. The local temperature was higher than forecast so I should have taken that into consideration. However, we were airborne and on our way.

The return route was intended to mirror the route we had taken down so I was heading west along the Columbia river, watching for other aircraft and getting ready for my turn north, which would require climbing to get above the rocky elevations. As we started the inland portion, I noted that the aircraft was only climbing at 50 feet per minute. I was a bit surprised, as the specific 172 I was in had been equipped with a climb prop by the flying club that owned it. Again, the density altitude was playing into the performance as it had during takeoff.

Knowing that I would not achieve the required altitude to fly over the rocky regions for my return flight, I elected to do climbing spirals to gain the altitude. With only 50 fpm or less over land, I wondered if the Columbia River would offer some change in air density due to the water temperature being a bit cooler than land temperature. So we did the climbing spiral over the river, which netted me 25 to 50 fpm more in climb performance

Once I reached my target altitude, I started north along the route of return and began focusing on trimming the airplane and leaning the engine. The fuel gauges had been consistent with what I expected on fuel burn during our climb. I knew that the circling would burn through more than planned originally, but the gauges still seemed to be offering me peace of mind that I was ok on fuel, until we reached the point directly between Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Rainier. Then the left gauge started bouncing between empty and one quarter tank and the right gauge bouncing between one half and one quarter full. How much fuel do I actually have? Why is that left tank going down faster than the left? What happens if it runs out first? Will the fuel still feed from the right without interruption?

For the first time, I was truly concerned about my safety, and that of my son, in an airplane. How had I let myself get in this situation? What are my options? Will I become a statistic? Looking down at the terrain below me, I know there are no “good” places to set an airplane down that has just run out of fuel. Should I turn around and go back to Hood River? No, I was a little more than half way home but regardless, even if I filled up at Hood River, based on my previous takeoff, I likely wouldn’t get off the runway with the added load of full fuel. What were my options?

Columbia River

The Columbia River is a beautiful place to fly, but the terrain can challenge a 172.

This flight took place before we had EFB capabilities on the iPad through ForeFlight or Garmin Pilot, but the 172 I was flying did have a Garmin 430. Having spent time with Garmin simulators and having taken training for the Garmin G1000, I was aware of the capabilities of these units. I immediately went to the NRST function on the GPS and started to cycle trough the airports, looking for one that had fuel. KPLU popped up showing self-service fuel and it was only 20 miles away. That’s when I punched the Direct To button and changed course.

We landed at KPLU without incident and with fuel to spare. After filling up the tanks, I did some calculations on capacity and fuel burn and realized that the gauges were not being kind to me at all. Ultimately, I would have had sufficient fuel to reach KRNT, although my reserve might have been less than the required 30 minutes.

Here’s what I know for certain that I did wrong:

  1. Inadequate flight planning that allowed for conditions beyond forecast (density altitude had changed while I was en route and at Hood River)
  2. Did not lean the engine for flight at altitude on the trip down (in hindsight, would this have resulted in a takeoff problem at Hood River with additional fuel?)
  3. Did not perform a density altitude calculation at Hood River to determine flight performance before takeoff and return trip.

What did I do right?

  1. Used the capabilities of the aircraft and equipment I was flying
  2. Learned about the technology and equipment that was in the airplane so I was familiar with its capabilities and how to effectively use it
  3. Continued to work the problem. I did not resign myself to failure nor did I let my bad decisions impact my ability to analyze the situation and work a solution
  4. Took immediate action to address the problem and therefore broke the accident chain

Ultimately, the experience led me to take time away from flying as I evaluated my desire to fly and my abilities. I took a full two years off before I went back to it. Before I did fly again, I sat with my original CFI and discussed the incident and my thoughts. After good feedback and discussion from him, we hopped in a plane and did some solid flight review to knock off the rust, build the confidence back again, and truly enjoy the experience of flight.

Gerry O'Brien
Latest posts by Gerry O'Brien (see all)
13 replies
  1. David Ward Sandidge
    David Ward Sandidge says:

    Gerry; Don’t criticize yourself too harshly. You made some good decisions – especially for someone with only 80 hours. GA fuel gages have often times been notoriously unreliable. In fact, many gain their real value as recycled plastic… Trust your watch and your empirical knowledge gained over time with the particular airplane/engine combination. Use the fuel gages as a backup system. Know exactly how much fuel you have in the tanks each time you leave the ground; know the fuel burn rates for various power settings at normal altitude (s); always remember, realistically speaking, an airplane has no “range”, it has only “endurance.” Distance is a fickle factor; time is the loyal factor.

  2. Gerry O'Brien
    Gerry O'Brien says:

    Thanks for the reply David. At the time, it almost resulted in the decision to no longer fly. I am a person who takes things too seriously at times but mostly because when I do something, I want to do it properly and correct, every time. This is not always realistic but I recall, during my training, reading and hearing about pilots at the 100 hour mark making stupid mistakes due to complacency.

    Ultimately, my issue with flying has been lack of consistent time in the air on a fairly regular basis.

    Even now I have very spotty flying time.

    But I have resolved to fix that. I plan to get back to another club I have a membership in, get some yoke time, and then complete my instrument rating. This should help to keep me in the air more and gain back that level of confidence and experience I had when flying twice a week during, and right after, my initial training.

    • dave sandidge
      dave sandidge says:

      Gerry, I can’t tell you what to do, nor can I tell you how to operate; no man can really tell another what to do… I can only tell you of some of the problems airline pilots face daily; there are two big ones: We fly so much (I fly about ninety hours a month), that we find ourselves going through the motions almost in a catatonic state. We can easily get to the point where, if we’re not careful, we can complete a whole checklist and not remember a thing about it – or if we even really ran through it. We can brief an approach like experts and not really even think about it. Complacency is our enemy. We must constantly be on guard against it. The number two problem, which is actually a normal state of operation, is what I call the “little bites syndrome.” We are constantly making mistakes – some little, some not so little. But we trap them early. There are two of us up there, and what one misses, hopefully the other catches. It happens every day, all day. Fatigue is the number one cause of these ever-present mistakes. Aviation training companies and schools do trainees a terrible injustice when they graduate them from their schools with no introductions to “Operating When Fatigued.” New-hires learn about that on the job. HELLO! Welcome to the REAL world of aviation. It’s called “Comatosia.” If there is a third issue it would be this: Even after over 26,000 hours logged, I still get “behind the airplane” if I have not flown in three or four weeks – after a vacation… I have to take my time, follow SOPS, be diligent and even religious about checklists and established procedures. Remember, the airplane is fast enough on its own. You (I) can afford to slow down and take your (my) time in doing the right things at the right time. Aviation is a serious business – even when it’s only for fun. I read that you’re going for an instrument rating. Good. Very good. Keep learning, keep training. Always strive to get better. And that goes for myself just as much as it goes for you or anyone else. The airplane wing is no respecter of persons; if it is abused it will kill a thirty-thousand hour pilot just as fast as a thirty-hour one. You (I) must think about the wing; be one with the wing; know the wing.

  3. Andy K
    Andy K says:

    I think that a rate of climb of 50 fpm is a major red flag-especially if you’re under gross. I agree with David that fuel gauges are notoriously unreliable. Good job getting down without incident.

  4. Joe Gutierrez
    Joe Gutierrez says:

    Being a low time pilot is no excuse for running out of gas, or nearly so! The excuses you mentioned are just that, could of been killer excuses! Two words to describe what you did, ” run out of fuel! your a fool!! no if and or butts..If you want to do that by yourself, go for it, the cemetery’s are full of pilots that did that, but for Christ sake, don’t take anyone with you, ( your Son!!!) Holy crap man, please don’t do it, Flying an airplane can be very unforgiving just in case you didn’t know that. Good and better decision making in the future..

    • Gerry
      Gerry says:

      Wow, just wow. This is a story about fuel gauges not running out of fuel. In case you didn’t read it all, I didn’t run out of fuel. I worked the problem and created a positive outcome.

      The purpose of these stories is to help other think about things and learn from other people’s mistakes.

      I can’t take anybody seriously when they comment as if they are perfect and don’t make mistakes, but their grammar is atrocious.

      • David Ward Sandidge
        David Ward Sandidge says:

        Obviously, Joe didn’t comprehend the events in your story. Oh well, you tried. Don’t worry about it, my friend. It was a very good learning experience for you – and for all of us.

    • Phil
      Phil says:

      Joe, sounds like you have a self-righteous attitude of “It’ll never happen to ME!”
      That could kill you some day.

    • Drew Kemp
      Drew Kemp says:


      I think you owe Gerry an apology. He has demonstrated without question that he has learned more about what it means to be a Pilot in one sketchy flight than you have learned in your entire flying career, as you have so ably demonstrated by your remarks.

      Gerry, I totally get how this flight scared the Bejeezus out of you, and caused you to reconsider your involvement in aviation. I’m glad you’re returned to the fold, a much wiser pilot. Flying is a Big Kid’s game. There’s no room for out-sized egos. I hope I don’t have to share airspace with guys like Joe.

      Cheers, Drew Kemp CFII

  5. Tom
    Tom says:

    Gerry, I’m not a pilot ….. yet, but thinking about diving into it. I read these stories because I ALWAYS learn something. Your story teaches new, experienced, young, old and want-a-be’s, like me. It sounds like you made good decisions, learned something for yourself and lived to share with others. Nothing is wrong with that. I would go up with you in a heartbeat, but I’d stay 10 sm away from Joe! Thanks for the story!!

  6. Kim Hunter
    Kim Hunter says:


    I’m impressed by the quality of responses your article generated. I think Dave Sanidge’s comments are especially well done.

    One thing mentioned that I would like to stress is the hazard posed by fatigue. For me, the first thing it does is rob me of the ability to recognize my own disfunction. That can make it difficult to break succeeding links in the chain.

    I hope you continue in your aviation pursuits. If you’re like most of us, you will look back one day and be glad you did.

  7. Chris
    Chris says:

    Great article and thank you for sharing. Always enjoy learning from fellow pilots and their experiences. As pilots, we are always learning something new each time our wheels leave the runway.

Comments are closed.