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.
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org