This is a story on how, at 10 minutes after midnight and after 5 hours of flight time, in an unfamiliar airplane, over a highway, I gambled my life and an airplane against a very tempted fate and scythe-wielding death and won the whole pot.
At some point in our training, we are taught about fuel management. 14 CFR §91.167 establishes fuel requirements for flight conducted under IFR. (a)(3) tells us that in addition to fuel to fly to an alternate if required, we need enough to “fly after that for 45 minutes at normal cruising speed.” I’m paraphrasing of course.
Besides fuel, students are also taught about risk management. Every accident has a so-called accident chain. Usually, going from the accident backwards, we can figure out what those links were, and how to avoid making those mistakes ourselves. This is a lot easier to do at 0 knots and 1g to prep our mental tool bag. In flight it can be hard to grasp the gravity of the situation. Some pilots use risk matrices, which are fantastic, but they have limitations. To be most effective, they assume you know all risks. Sometimes this just isn’t possible. Besides, the same risk (i.e. weather, maintenance) can be perceived differently between two pilots.
At one point, that was me learning all those things, and putting them into practice. As a staunch 200-hour glider and airplane pilot building time for my commercial ASEL certificate, one could say I was quite an aeronautical genius, as all low-time, young pilots are—in the killing zone. I often gazed into the mirror while washing my hands and contemplated my staggering cognitive endowment. Okay, maybe I wasn’t that smart, it’s possible.
All joking aside, I try to be open-minded, and to be aware of my ignorance, realizing that I don’t know what I don’t know. I’m no naval aviator or airline salt, but while my total time and training hours were low, it wasn’t of low quality. My instructors were all very well educated and experienced, including naval aviators and airline salts (go figure), even examiners to boot. Lack of adequate instruction and resources is nonissue for me, and I had a very conservative mindset of flying beat into me. As a result, I had high confidence with a deeper than normal knowledge base. Though complacency was not in my cockpit, sometimes stupidity was, and it sure was on this flight.
This was a return flight from a long cross country. Before this, I dropped my instructor off to surprise his family. He was planning on driving but flying beats driving! We decided to take the slightly faster and more powerful Cherokee PA28-140 (well, more powerful than a Cessna 152 anyway). We left late morning, arrived before dinnertime. They loved the surprise!
The flight down was with typical sunny summer weather: cumulus at 4000 but a low chance for convective weather along my route. I decided to file an IFR flight plan because if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. My route was very straightforward. From Lehigh Valley International (ABE) to ETX V29 V1 ASHES then a visual into Grand Strand (CRE). And the return trip was a mirror.
But alas, there were some issues (are any flights without problems?). Using the PAVE checklist, let’s start with the Pilot: I didn’t have too much experience in Cherokees, as I usually flew the school’s Cessna 152s, so I wasn’t as familiar with its performance (like actual fuel consumption) as the Cessna. This was my first solo flight in this type as well.
The Aircraft: The intercom was a cheap one, (as the owner would rather spend money every year or so if at all for an avionics guy to reground a shoddy intercom, but that’s another article) so there was an annoying buzz caused by a sort of feedback loop in the background that bled through the radio. Unless ATC was talking or I was keying the mic, it was blaring with whatever the volume was set to. Quiet buzz, quiet ATC. Those who know this annoyance can understand the fatigue this can cause, and communications difficulties it can create. Another factor was this Cherokee had green needles only, in other words, no GPS. I had an iPad to help with situational awareness and charts, but I was using those needles for navigating (legally). And the most fateful condition, the engine, burned more fuel than anticipated—even more than the “old engine vs. new engine” rule of thumb, but I didn’t know that yet.
The enVironment: The winds were not as strong aloft as I anticipated coming back, so I was behind schedule on the return flight. The high pressure system moving off the coast didn’t move the speed or direction that was forecast, so I didn’t have the tailwind I planned.
External Pressures: I was tired, and I wanted to go home, however I wasn’t against the idea of landing early and taking a nap in the plane, though I’d prefer to avoid that inconvenience.
Well, the flight to Grand Strand was uneventful, and lunch was great. I got to meet my instructor’s family and they were very excited and happy for the surprise visit. Then, after a rest, it was back to flying. I topped the plane off and figured an actual burn of around 9 gallons per hour from the last flight. Not bad but not great either; certainly more than the book said. Interestingly enough, the fuel gauges indicated accurately. I got a full weather brief, filed another IFR plan back home, and off I went.
Remember the fuel requirements? In this case, with the lack of weather, following the 1-2-3 rule, I didn’t need to file an alternate, so I calculated with power settings, altitude, and wind, a 9 gallon/hour fuel rate gave me a 4 hour, 30 minute flight. With 48 usable gallons I calculated 5 hours 20 minutes of endurance.
Wheels up came a bit before sunset, but I don’t mind night flight. The first hour was fine, but the static created trouble. Getting near the Washington SFRA, I didn’t hear a handoff from Myrtle Beach approach. I tried to get a jet flying into Grand Strand to relay for me, but they got just out of range before working it out. I tried guard, but nobody was listening, or meowing for that matter. I thankfully hung onto my previous flight’s kneeboard notes. I had frequencies on it but didn’t know who to contact for where I was. Nearing Norfolk I gave them a call.
“Norfolk, Cherokee —- radio check”
“Loud and clear, how me?”
I explained I never got a handoff.
“No worries Cherokee —-, you’re talking to the right guys now.”
“Sweet” I thought to myself.
Five minutes later: “Cherokee —- did you get a phone call from center?”
“I don’t have cell service, so no. Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, it’s fine, just if you get it, disregard it. Don’t worry about it.”
Oh boy. I wonder what they said! I can’t wait to find out.
I moved my seat back and sprawled across the cockpit, taking advantage of the lack of instructor next to me. It was a clear night, some bumps but mostly glass. Too bad the seat was worn out and felt closer to a wooden bench than a seat. The stars were clearer away from the cities. It was one of those nights I remember thinking about buying a proper camera to take with me flying. And that damn buzzing was driving me insane—this felt like a 10-hour flight. I turned the volume down on my headset, but I couldn’t turn it down too much without missing a radio call.
By now I was approaching Philly from the south. I was paying attention to those fuel gauges. Even though they read accurately as far as I could tell, I still based everything off time and my checkpoint ETAs. Annoyingly, the tailwind I planned on went away. I went from 10 minutes early to 15 minutes late over the course of the flight thus far.
“Not a big deal,” I thought. “I still have that reserve to get me home; that’s what reserve is for.” I didn’t want to stop for fuel for a few reasons, mostly because of nobody being open at 11pm, my iPad didn’t have internet to search for self-serve, and also that I’d land with a little less than the planned amount but I’d make it home. Fifteen minutes became 20, eventually getting to 30 minutes late. I calculated my groundspeed talking to Philly, and it wasn’t looking ideal.
Thankfully, the controller working Philly helped me out. “Cherokee —- proceed direct destination.” I wasn’t GPS-equipped in the airplane, but I took it. It was clear as could be anyway, so I could cancel IFR if I wanted to. I put in a present position to destination course on my iPad and set sail direct to Allentown (ABE). The iPad said I’d be home in 30 minutes. That meant I’d have 20 minutes of fuel to spare based on my calculations, but my gauges were reading less than I wanted to see. I’d land with a neat 5-hour total flight. Cutting it close on a razor thin margin.
By now I had changed from switching tanks from left to right every 30 minutes to 10 minutes. I could land short, sleep in the plane and get fuel in the morning, but watching the needles move closer to zero, they were going down proportionally. I thought I could definitely make it, and I would be on fumes more or less, but I was confident I would make it.
I flew the straightest line I could, got a handoff to Allentown Approach, and held my breath. The ATIS said landing and departing 24, but I requested 31, as approaching from the south it was more or less straight in. Winds were calm, so I got what I wanted: “Proceed in for the left base 31.” As I got closer and closer, the tanks got closer and closer to the E. Legally they’re supposed to read zero when empty, and the gauges were bouncing off empty. I knew where I was flying over, and on a moonless night, an off-field landing would not be easy.
Finally, after getting handed off to tower I was practically over top of Queen City airport, 5 miles southwest of ABE. I seriously considered chopping the throttle and gliding down and getting fuel in the morning when they opened. The gauges both read empty—I knew I didn’t have much time left, but I had backed myself into a corner. I estimated about 10 minutes of fuel in my right tank based off my kneeboard log. I decided to fly the rest of this flight on the left tank. I would switch to the right side if I ran out. I was a couple minutes from home, so I’d be fine—I’m practically there.
I glanced at the Hobbs: 4.9 hours ticked over to 5.0 over middle ground between ABE and Queen City. I was feeling a little uneasy to say the least. The Cherokee couldn’t glide to either airport at 2000 feet indicated from there. It was the most stressful part of the flight.
I kept the speed up and hung onto my altitude for as long as I could, then I came in high on purpose in a dog leg base to final. Then what I was anticipating (but hoping wouldn’t happen) happened: the engine coughed and sputtered into a windmill just as I was coming up to the highway. I ran her dry.
Everything went into slow motion; I swear I could count the propeller blades turning past the windscreen against the lights on the ground. I established best glide and switched to the right tank. I brought the throttle up a bit, trying to convince her to start running again. As I was gliding short of the numbers the engine roared to life, and it was a welcome roar. I shoved that nose down with a lot of throttle to give me the energy to make the runway. From there, I brought her down to a pretty dang nice landing considering the flight leading up to it.
I taxied a little bit faster than a brisk walk to the parking spot so I wouldn’t have to push it. As I lined up to the spot and put the brakes on, the engine was starting to sputter again. I shut her down: 5.0 hours of Hobbs time. It’s a little weird taking a fuel cap off and not smelling fumes. I talk to students about the legality of landing an airplane empty. Of course, so long as you planned the reserve, you can always run out, and burn more fuel than you planned, legally (aside from the careless or reckless catch-22 reg). It’s a whole different thing to actually do it, though.
As I was descending into Allentown, my phone buzzed a few times. After getting out of the plane, I checked my phone and there was a voicemail from center, and a text too! The voicemail I lost unfortunately, but I still have the text. It says; “Good evening. We are looking for the pilot of N—–. You are flying through Washington Center airspace. If you receive this message, please contact Wash center on Freq 123.85.”
I just wonder what would’ve happened had I not been on a flight plan! The next morning, I asked the guy behind the desk how much fuel it took when the next guy topped it off. 47.8 gallons. The Cherokee holds 48 usable gallons, 50 including unusable. That was 0.2 usable left. As I calculate it, at an actual fuel burn of 10 gallons per hour, that gave me about 3 minutes left before that big metal fan in front of me stopped keeping me cool a second time.
Ironically, the next time I opened up an aviation magazine, would you believe it had a story about running out of fuel? There are many lessons to take away here, but the biggest one is be a pessimist when it comes to fuel, especially if you’re a natural optimist.
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: [email protected].