Running Out of Gas: It Takes Focus
While it might be true that fear is just fear, the kind that comes in knowing youíre running out of gas has a particular texture that seems uniquely capable of turning your brain to mush. I know this because like many pilots, Iíve had the experience of nearly running an engine on air. I could dance around it and say this ďhappenedĒ to me, but thatís a level of denial I just canít stomach. Like nearly everyone who runs out of gas or nearly does, I did it to myself.
I thought of this last week when reading about that Virgin-operated 737 that landed on a fogbound runway in Australia with just 15 minutes of fuel remaining. Ignoring the legalities and the reasons why that happened, I can tell you this: it takes no small degree of focus and deliberation to make things come out alright or at least survive it. The 737 crew had to land with near-zero visibility in an airplane and on a runway not equipped for that. Nothing quite centers the mind like having no choice.
It my case, I landed with about the same amount of time in the tanksóaround 15 minutes. I had taken our Mooney 231 up to central Georgia to cover Mauleís then-new diesel project. That 231 was relatively new to me and we were still wringing out the instrumentation, including a fuel totalizer. For the return trip, the totalizer indicated I could fly the leg with a little over an hour in reserve. Other than a forecast for scattered thunderstorm, the weather was good VFR and I got done late, so I just launched for Venice. I had a tailwind for part of it, a slight headwind for the rest.
Mooneys of that vintage are equipped with low-fuel warning lights which come on when the tank has about three gallons remaining. My habit was to run one tank about 10 minutes into the light then switch to the other tank. I like to have at least a dribble of gas in the empty tank in case the other tank wonít feed. About 40 miles out, the left light came on and 10 minutes later, I switched to the right tank and no sooner was my hand off the valve than the right light came on. What the hell? The totalizer said there should be almost 10 gallons in that tank. I thought to blame a fault in the low-fuel sensor, knowing full well the fault was probably between my ears.
By then, I was passing Sarasota, which was buried in a line of thunderstorms that ruled it out as a bolt hole. I was diverting over the gulf to get around them, adding yet more miles between me and homebase which was, fortunately, clear of weather. I throttled the engine back, leaned it as far as I could and pressed on. With the gauges on E and the bingo lights on, to say I was distracted during approach and landing is to abuse the meaning of the word. Mooneys have an Olympic-class ability to crow hop if landed too flat and too fast. I'm pretty sure I did both. But there was no way I was going around. It took most of the runway, but I got the airplane settled down and stopped. I wasnít exactly so much scared as feeling galactically stupid. This is where the focus and discipline comes in: the more important it is to get something right with only once chance to do it, the harder you try and the less likely you'll succeed.†
The harsh truth emerged at the fuel pit. As near as I could tell, the airplane had about 3.5 gallons remaining. What I discovered was in fueling this particular K model, full was not full. When the fuel was at the bottom of the filler neck, shaking the wings and letting the fuel settle would make room for another three-plus gallons per side. That accounted for about seven missing gallons the totalizer said I should have had. Iíd never run this airplane to its range limits and although Iíd flown plenty of 231s, I just never noticed this peculiarity, if indeed any had it. When I have a totalizer available, I like to run a tank dry and refill it to see what it actually holds, compared to what the instrument says the airplane is burning. But I just hadnít gotten around to that in this Mooney.
If I would have run it out of gas, it would have absolutely been fatal. I have multiple interlocking agreements with several friends that stipulate that if I ever run an airplane out of gas, they are to shoot me. Fortunately, the contracts didnít have to be executed and Iím trying real hard to make sure they never are.