I almost ran the tanks dry

It was four-plus decades ago, on my solo cross-country as a student pilot flying from Salem to John Day and back, that I almost ran the tanks dry. So in the spirit of learning from others’ mistakes, I offer this true-life-student-pilot experience.

Having accumulated a whopping 31.5 hours in rented Piper Warriors and Archers, my instructor signed me off for my long cross-country on June 11, 1978. Enjoying the luxuriant green of the Cascades, I flew over a dozen deep-blue lakes on this chamber-of-commerce morning. Then on through Central Oregon (our future home) and over the Ochoccos in 1073H, an Archer II.

Of course the tanks were always full upon departure in those rentals, so having enough fuel for the round trip did not cross my mind until I began my descent for John Day and noticed the fuel gauges in the Archer were approaching half-full. Certainly my instructor would have briefed me (wrong) on any potential fuel issues if there was even a remote possibility of running low. I mean he was a seasoned CFI and I was a 31-hour student. All I knew about fueling was that after each training flight, the fuel truck was right there, topping off the tanks before we were even back in the FBO office.

Fuel truck
Fuel? Why would I need fuel?

Landing with slightly over half tanks, I made an Olympic-sprint to the restroom; ahhh… As he signed my logbook, the John Day airport manager asked me if I needed fuel. Integrating ignorance with fear of the unknown, I declined his fuel offer.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction

Ignorance-wise, I did not know what type of fuel the Piper used and did not want to appear stupid. Plus, what if there were six different grades of aviation fuel (?) and what if I chose the wrong grade? What if my Salem FBO didn’t allow fuel from other FBOs? And after all, I had at least half the fuel remaining, with exactly the same distance to cover. So what could possibly go wrong? Yes, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

As a student, another factor that had not yet registered was that the prevailing winds aloft in Oregon were typically westerly in nature, and consequently I’d likely use more fuel on my return flight to Salem.

The very good news was that the winds aloft were much lighter than average on that beautiful June day, because anything more than 10 knots on the second half of my 350 nm roundtrip would most likely have meant running the tanks dry, thus performing an emergency forced-landing in the Cascade foothills or on the Santiam Highway on this gorgeous summer Saturday.

In retrospect, all the emphasis during my initial 30 hours of training was on passing the written test and checkride, versus “real world, practical concepts” such as winds aloft, survival gear, density altitude, and the like.

We learn by experience, not by words

I did begin to feel some anxiety after crossing the crest of the Cascades and noticing my fuel gauges were between one-quarter and empty. Gulp… Being a bit more analytical at age 28, I had recently passed the FAA written test and remembered the concept of “best economy” relative to throttle/mixture settings. Hence, I referenced the owner’s manual and leaned the fuel/mixture appropriately.

I also called Salem Tower 30 miles out and told them I may be low on fuel (duh). Recognizing Archer 1073H as one of the local instructional aircraft, the tower inquired if I was declaring an emergency, which I declined. This question only raised my anxiety level to a new height as I contemplated, “Do I need to be declaring an emergency?” Having logged 3,000 hours since then, I recognize and respect “declaring an emergency” as a most valuable asset for any pilot in distress!

Teach Your Children Well

Highway
When you’re thinking about highways as forced landing spots, you’ve done something wrong.

No sooner had I stepped onto the tarmac in Salem (Thank you, God, and Archer II) when the fuel truck arrived to top off the tanks. I’m sure I looked like I’d been weaned on a dill pickle as we estimated there were only two to three usable gallons remaining.

Again, in the spirit of learning from others, I offer these thoughts in summation.

A most engaging song by Crosby, Stills & Nash in the 70s was “Teach Your Children Well.” Although I accept full responsibility for my knuckle-headed actions, to all flight instructors I’d recommend you never take anything for granted with your students, especially with their early solos.

Sure, it’s easy to assume that any pilot would fuel up under these circumstances, however I’d still highly recommend you explain to all your students the policy and procedures your school has adopted regarding purchasing fuel away from the nest. Had my Salem instructor simply told me, “Top it off in John Day and bring us the receipt and we’ll reimburse you,” I’d not have placed myself and potentially others at risk, not to mention a perfectly good aircraft! Yes, we learn by experience, not by words.

Instructors: Please “Teach Your Children Well.”

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com

25 Comments

  • Great teaching article. Isn’t it astounding to actually learn that the laws of physics and chemistry apply to us as student pilots too? We’re no longer in the womb protected by mother. We’re no longer in the classroom discussing theory. We’re in the real biting, snarling, dangerous world. Flight instructors should do better when it comes to getting students ready for the realities of ‘a real game.’ There should be no such thing as ‘range’ on an airplane. It should not even be in the aviation lexicon. There is only ‘endurance’ at a given fuel burn rate. The earliest aviators knew this. The manufacturers and salespeople gave us RANGE.

  • Yes it was certainly a wake-up-call for me David, that there was still more to learn ! (& still is 4 decades later)! Something I love about aviation… Richard

  • If at 31 hours your instructor hasn’t drilled into you what kind of fuel your plane takes he is not seasoned at all

    • From what I recall four decades ago Mike, he was usually ‘hurried’ & a bit aloof, but clearly I was lacking in ‘common sense,’ assuming he would have told me to fuel-up if necessary… Richard

      • Granted, you might have been able to figured it out on your own, but since you were still a student pilot, your instructor was responsible for signing off that you were ready for your cross country. If he didn’t make sure you had all the information you needed, that’s mostly on him. I know it’s almost 40 years ago, but was the school at all concerned when they founded out you landed on vapours? Did the instructor face any consequences (even a difficult chat with the chief instructor)?

        • I was enough on tilt when I landed I think I just wanted to go home & chill out. No David, I don’t recall discussing it with the instructor or anyone else, but I must have asked him about fueling on our next lesson.
          Like I said, Instructors — Please don’t assume anything & do “Teach Your Children Well.”

  • I took my Private Pilot instruction at Peninsula Aviation at Torrance Municipal Airport (KTOA) flying Tomahawks back in 1983. My CFI, Leif Lusty, required that I have the tanks topped off at each and every stop on my cross country flights. Peninsula would reimburse me for the fuel purchased elsewhere.

    Peninsula topped off their planes at the end of every flight so that each customer started off with a full fuel load. Between Peninsula’s fueling policy and Leif’s refueling requirements, I learned good, safe habits while learning to fly.

    Enjoyed your story as it brought back some fond memories of flight training days!

      • So true Andrew. We have long range tanks in the C-182 & rarely top them off. Visiting backcountry strips (like Idaho) I like to arrive with approx half tanks.

  • Fuel is one of the FAA’s biggest concerns because its grade, quality, quantity, vapor locking, leaking, starvation, mismanagement and burning (especially outside of combustion chambers) cause so many reoccurring problems. It is nearly as important as airspeed and should be a dedicated topic before any x-country.
    A lesson in actually fueling a plane is not a bad idea as well as a tour through the airframe during a 100hr inspection.

  • From what I recall four decades ago Mike, he was usually ‘hurried’ & a bit aloof, but clearly I was lacking in ‘common sense,’ assuming he would have told me to fuel-up if necessary…

  • well I thought I’d had heard ’em all, but not knowing what type of fuel the airplane uses takes the cake…seems that training curriculum let this fellow down…

    • I’m sure it must have been in the curriculum T, during my initial 30 hours of training, but with so much emphasis on passing the written test and checkride (+ my lack of ‘common sense’) set the stage for learning… Richard

  • Thanks for sharing, Richard.
    It made me recall some lack of knowledge when I was building hours.

    • Yes Ricardo, that was just the beginning for me; although healthy & still loving flying, I’ve had a few other ‘learning experiences’ that were close calls…. Richard

  • I did my long x/c at 37 hrs. I flew a C152 , so refueling was required at each of the 2 stops, with only 23 gal usable. I left CMA, and over the Gorman vor, the 1 radio quit. Fortunately I had received my Sporties handheld the day before. so I plugged my headset into the adapter I oped to get and was barely able to contact Porterville from 10 miles out. the next stop was Paso Robles, then down the coast back to Camarillo.
    The vor was still working so I flew the remainder of the 4.4 hour flight , at 90 kts, with my HH.
    After that, I always carried a sectional with my route marked and circled prominent checkpoints, and used pilotage with the vor. There was no gps in 1993 so the vor was the primary nav.
    I now fly a C175B with 52 gal on board, and cruise at 130 kts, and 8.5 gph with a small tablet with moving map sectional.

    • Wow; so nice you had a handheld Jim. I’m glad I learned in the ‘pilotage-days’ also, with VORs & Steam-gauges. I bet your 175 is fun! Richard

      • Richard,

        The 175B Skylark is a blast to fly, especially with new TCM revised cylinders.
        I can usually initially climb out at 1,100-1,200 fpm at 100 mph. It will still be climbing at 800-900 fpm at 10,000 ft.! From some research, I found that TCM has revised the intake valve seats to flow more air and make more power.
        I still have my Sporties 100, but usually use it on the ground for atis or listening to traffic.
        I’ve found that ‘old’ airplanes like to fall apart if not watched closely. And a lot of the old parts have to be replaced after 58 years and 4,000+ hrs.
        I can’t think of any part of the aircraft that I haven’t touched. But, I enjoy keeping this ‘ol girl flying great.!

    • same thing happened to me on a XC from KTOA to KCRQ. Thought I was smooth sailing until I realize the HH range was severely limited. Not very fun to fly in SoCal without Flight Following.

  • I can relate Jim; our 182 is a 1964 with 5700+ hours. Not too many original parts left… She’s super dependable & I love the 40-degree flaps…
    That’s some awesome performance in your 175! RT

  • I really enjoy reading about how we all can overlook something. There is no perfect pilot we can get in a hurry or think we have checked something . Glad everything turned out good.

    • Yes Charlotte, flying once a week or so I rarely have a ‘perfect flight.’ Although usually 1 or 2 ‘little things,’ as we know they can add up into big things and true ‘learning experiences’ or even close calls…. Richard

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