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.
My plane had no instruments for flying in the clouds, and no radio for communication. Visual Flight Rules were the only option, and that didn’t look too promising. The time of go or no-go was approaching rapidly. The low ceiling would not be a problem if it held. Young and foolish? Yes, but the decision was made.
I was distracted by early arrival of a passenger while adding a quart of oil, and closed the cowl without replacing the oil filler cap. That meant that a short while later, at 5000 ft on a thank-God CAVU day, I saw a trickle of oil on the cowl, and the oil pressure needle at the bottom of the green and headed down.
In a ten-day span pockmarked by GA incidents and accidents, a WWII era T-6 wound up engulfed in flames on the Southern California 101 Freeway; other aircraft landed on city streets and highways without incident and wound up on the local evening news. Yours truly joined the ranks of those involved in a GA mishap.
I was pretty sure that we had an oil problem, but the oil temp and CHTs all seemed OK. About this time, the little voice in the back of everyone’s head had begun to chide me for not landing somewhere while things were just bothersome, not really a problem yet. Of course, I overruled it. Memo for file: pay more attention to little voices in the future.
Just as we were flying over Memphis at 11,000 feet, I was enjoying looking out at the city on my side when all of the sudden there was a huge forward surge as the engine quit and alarms, tones, and buzzers all started sounding! I immediately pulled back on the yoke and shouted, “What happened?!”
Bob was listening intently while I droned on about the dangers of getting jet fuel pumped in by accident from the wrong truck. “Like this one?” he said as soon as I stopped talking. I looked at the fuel truck sitting right in front of me, pumping fuel in the nose tank as I was speaking, and read the words, JET FUEL, written boldly on the side of the tank.
We’d set up our GPS to fly from KPDK to KPUJ to perform the ILS/LOC 31 approach and then onto KRYY for the LOC 27 approach. Flying along, everything was going smoothly, heading and altitude right on the money. As I was vectored in for the ILS, things started to go sideways. As I turned on the approach path, I noticed my CDI #1 needles had the barber pole flags. “Hmm… ok… no big deal,” I thought.
I graduated up the GA performance hierarchy through the usual suspects like the Piper Archer and the Cessna 182. But it was buying an RV-4 with an O-320 and a constant speed prop that freed me from all the pedestrian performance concerns of pilots flying lesser airplanes. Or so I thought.
Everything looked perfect – too perfect as it turned out. I kept expecting Bob to advance the throttle (or tell me to) so we could fly out of there, but instead we kept getting lower, flying a final approach to the off-airport landing spot. I couldn’t quite believe it when Bob, instead of applying power and initiating the go-around, started a landing flare!
As I flew alone over the river near Fillmore, California, I noticed a really big area of sand that had been scoured flat and level by that high water. It was white, obvious and very clean looking, and the water was long gone. This is when it occurred to me that a guy might just be able to land on it in a Champ with big tires.
I could see that the weather lifted just beyond the big rock that held the radio tower located off to my left and not far ahead. I could see that I would have about 50 feet between the cloud deck and the highway there, enough room to skirt the rock and fly into better weather. So I just took it…
As I advanced the throttle, the acceleration on takeoff was less than I thought it should be, but I justified this with the thought it was a 140 and not the 180. No alarms were going off in my mind yet. What could go wrong with almost 760 lbs of people and full fuel?
As a student pilot, the ups and downs of the learning cycle can be as exhilarating as your first flight or as frustrating as bad weather on a day you really wanted to fly. On one particular day after not flying for a few months, I had my first “I can’t believe I did that!” moment. I had asked my instructor to go on a “no stress, fun flight.”
One of my most memorable flights was my long solo cross country during my PPL training. The two hours that I spent in the cockpit of my little Cessna would turn out to be two of the most valuable hours in my flight training.
What kind of idiot would knowingly take off into unsafe conditions, simply because they were in a rush to get home? I only skimmed this section of my training manual, secure in the knowledge that I was too smart, self-aware and cautious to ever fall prey to that kind of insidious thinking. Who could be so stupid and reckless? I now know the answer to that question: me.
I was brought to my senses by a tremendous noise followed by an ominous quiet. In this quiet there was no sound of the motor. I realized that the airplane had stopped. I could get out of the airplane. I scrambled through the door only to be met by the tarmac three feet closer than it had been. It was not where I expected. I had crash landed. The wheels were still up. I had landed in a daydream.
I should be in bed. That was the thought that was going through my head as I bounced off the ceiling, again, and basically was tossed around like a dog with a toy. Unfortunately, my airplane and I were the toy, not the dog. We’d flown inadvertently into a thunderstorm.
I have several cardinal rules of flying: Don’t fly in freezing clouds, don’t fly IFR in the mountains, don’t fly with less than one hour of usable fuel in the tanks, and don’t fly in thunderstorms. I have been conscientious about following these rules in my years of flying. Until one day over Pennsylvania.
Fully proud of my license and confident of my newly acquired knowledge and 125-hour engine, I felt fully prepared for the 450nm trip that would take me from my home base at PDK to 5A1 in Norwalk, Ohio. For days I carefully reviewed weather patterns around my planned route of flight. It was not to be.