“Superior pilots use their superior judgment to avoid situations requiring the use of their superior skills” – Anonymous
The following incident took place in the winter of 1996. I had gotten my pilot’s license the previous year and this provided opportunities for many impractical adventures. I needed to log precious flight time and just about anything became a valid excuse to go flying (see previous blog posts: ‘Why McDonalds Deserves a Michelin Star’ & ‘Destiny in Space’ which feature the airplane in this story). This time around, it was a craving for deep dish pizza, and a desire to fly into Chicago’s famous ‘Meigs Field’. This airport was immortalized by the early versions of Microsoft Flight Simulator. Unfortunately, in October of that year the great aviation party pooper, Chicago Mayor Richard M Daley had ordered the field shut down… That left us with two options of landing in downtown Chicago: O’Hare and Midway. A college friend (who was also a licensed pilot) and I approached our instructor about how to plan this. He almost immediately scrapped our O’Hare idea. There was a way of doing it, but realistically a little Piper Cherokee had no business delaying 747s at one of the world’s busiest International airports. That left us with Chicago Midway. Still a super busy field, but one that was more suited to handling general aviation traffic in between airline jets.
This was going to be the longest flight either of us had done, and would be quite expensive. Being private pilots now, we could make use of the FAA provision where ‘passengers’ could share in the cost of the flight. Two of our college friends were coming along for the ride. One would fly with us from Newark-Heath to Chicago. The other one we’d pick up at Smith Field in Ft Wayne, Indiana where we would drop her back off again in the evening. We were both eager to get some flying done. My pilot friend wanted to do the outbound leg and land at Midway. I’d be flying the return leg including the inevitable night flying. The morning temperature at our departure field was very crisp indeed, with snow and ice on the ground. After takeoff, we climbed to our cruising altitude. When flying under Visual Flight Rules, this altitude is determined by your flight direction. If you fly between 0 and 179° on your compass, you fly at ‘odd’ thousands + 500ft. Between 180-359°, you fly ‘even’ thousands + 500ft. This provides a solid 1000ft separation between opposing air traffic. Our instructor had recommended 6500 as a good altitude. Because of the thinner air we could run the engine on a leaner fuel mixture, and save a bit of money. This was new territory. My pilot friend had gone to 10000ft once in a Cessna with an instructor, but neither of us had gone above 3000ft while flying as pilot in command…
Everything went well as we climbed through 4000ft. The winter landscape below looked spectacular. Then quite suddenly, the Piper’s engine began running rough… My pilot friend and I looked at each other. I don’t think either of us had ever experienced ‘actual’ engine trouble before and our emergency training had been simulated, with the motor at idle…not making dodgy noises. My first thought was to try turning the carburetor heat on. I reached over and put my hand on the control, ready to pull it. Then I thought about it. It was theoretically possible for carburetor ice to form during a climb, but that seemed unlikely. It was so cold outside that any air going into the engine would be bone dry. At that moment I think our collective light bulb went off. Duh!, if we were going to save money on fuel, we really should lean that fuel mixture, which was now threatening to drown our cylinders! This had to be done manually by pulling the bright red knob on my side of the control panel. Our aircraft was a relative old timer, having first flown in 1965 and had a decidedly ‘Old School’ feel to it. As the mixture got adjusted for our climb, the engine started to act like its old self again and we proceeded to Smith Field. I didn’t realize it then, but that initial thought of turning the carb heat on would end up giving me flashbacks for years to come.
A good hour later my pilot friend landed the Piper at Ft Wayne where we picked up our second 'passenger'. Take off this time was extra exciting, as we knew we were heading into some of the busiest airspace in the World. We climbed back up to 6500ft, this time remembering to lean the fuel mixture as we climbed. I noticed that the fuel gage on our left tank was reading lower than expected. The Piper has a separate fuel tank in each wing, and throughout the flight it is customary to switch between the two. The switch was on the ‘captain’ side of the cockpit and I asked my pilot friend to go ahead and switch it to the other side. We also changed maps at that point. This was once again something new. Prior to this, our flying had been limited to the airspace of the ‘Detroit’ sectional chart. It was now time to switch to ‘Chicago’. There were also noticeably more other aircraft around us. As a twin engine Piper Seneca passed underneath us, the need for that 1000ft vertical separation became reality, rather than a concept in a textbook.
About 20 miles south east of Midway airport we contacted approach control. We were radar vectored in between a steady stream of 737s and cleared to land on runway 22 Left. My pilot friend made a very smooth touch down. Out of the two of us, he undoubtedly was the one with the more natural flying skills. He had recently nailed a night carrier landing on a US NAVY simulator… After landing we taxied to the South ramp where we parked at one of the general aviation operators based there. Before engine shutdown, I took another look at the fuel gages. The right hand tank seemed to be reading lower than expected as well. We decided we’d probably gotten a bit more of a headwind than expected. Our friend who had flown with us from Ohio said goodbye and was picked up by a friend. The remainder of us caught the airport shuttle to the nearest train station and went into the city. Somewhere downtown, was a fresh baked Chicago deep dish pizza with our name on it! We had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon in the Windy City.
We arrived back at Midway around 4pm to make final preparations for our return, which I would be flying. Most of the flying would be at night, which requires some extra precautions. In the dark, you cannot simply rely on outside cues to determine the attitude of the aircraft. Your mind plays tricks with you and it is very easy to get disoriented. The aircraft could be turning itself upside down while your mind is convinced it is flying straight and level. This phenomenon undoubtedly contributed to the death of JFK Jr. three years later during a night approach to Martha’s Vineyard. Night flying, as our instructor had hammered into our skulls, was ‘instrument flying’ and a lot of things needed monitoring. I was very happy to have another pilot on board to share the workload. We obtained a weather briefing for our route which looked fine. Clear skies but very windy. In case there was a strong cross wind, we would divert to Ft Wayne International Airport which had a bigger and wider runway. No sense in risking a difficult landing at night. As our fuel burn had been higher than expected, I did my calculations again. We followed the Instrument Flight Rules on these to be conservative. This meant having enough on board to fly to your destination, divert to your alternate, and then fly another 45 minutes on top of that. What we had on board should have been more than adequate but I had an extra seven gallons put in anyway…just in case. We then filed our flight plan, got our departure clearance and headed back to Indiana.
Now heading eastbound, we climbed to 5500ft and it looked like it should be another smooth flight. About 45 minutes into it though, my pilot friend who was monitoring the fuel gages said they were looking way too low again. If anything, we were now burning fuel even faster than before! I switched fuel tanks to the other side, but that didn’t seem to make a difference. We were getting slightly worried now. Could there be a fuel leak? We discussed it but decided that was unlikely. We had done thorough pre-flight inspections before every flight that day and noticed nothing out of the ordinary. There were no fluid spills, suspicious stains, or odd smells around the airplane. Could I have cocked up my fuel calculations?...visions of being nagged at by my high school math teacher entered my head.
We continued our flight and as we got closer to our destination things got even more worrisome. We were consuming fuel at a truly alarming rate, and our gages were nearly on empty. We were 15 nautical miles away from our destination and getting stressed. What the hell was going on here? We had descended to 3000ft and needed to locate an airport, and fast. My pilot friend contacted approach control at Ft Wayne International (our diversion airport) and advised them of our fuel situation. We had the option of being radar vectored (followed and directed by air traffic control on their radar screen) to their airport, or they could direct us to Smith field which was at least 10 miles closer. I decided on Smith because our fuel gages now both read zero…
We were instructed to descend to 2000ft which is the normal approach altitude for Smith Field. According to approach control the field was dead ahead on our 12 o’clock position, but we were having difficulty spotting it in the dark. There it was! The green and white beacon that marked the airport. I could also see the lights for runway 5/23. My pilot friend reported to Ft Wayne approach that we had the ‘field in sight’ and would be switching over to the local radio frequency. This was to let any aircraft in the vicinity know that we were inbound. Now things really started to get pear shaped and happened very fast from there on out… I needed to get this damned thing on the ground! This wind is strong though… And damn! It’s blowing across the runway… this was exactly the sort of thing we should divert for, but that was irrelevant now. Ironically, Smith field had another runway that would have been perfect for this wind direction, but it had no lights and was only available for daytime use... I overflew the airport and made a steep left turn to get lined up with runway 5 as my pilot friend did the landing checklist. My palms were sweating. We could run out of fuel any second.
I completed the turn. Damn!! The crosswind had blown me right off course, and CRAP!!…I was several hundred feet too high as well. I’d have to side slip it to get her lined up, and forward slip it to get her down. I banked the plane to the left and added right rudder to point the nose forward. Slowly our approach path corrected. Then we were over the runway, still too high and going about 10 knots too fast… Full flaps!! You don’t generally use full flaps in a crosswind because you can lose control of the aircraft. But there was no other option. This is where you normally slam the throttle in, and fly off for another go at the approach… And at that very moment of thought, the voices in my head started chattering. On one side, my ‘inner neurotypical’ was screaming “GO AROUND YOU DONKEY!!!”. On the other side was my more dominant ‘inner Spock’, calmly saying something along the lines of: “Captain, with the amount of fuel you have left that would be illogical”.
I’m rather fond of my logic… Throttle to idle!…ah poop it’s already at idle!! Had I idled it any harder, the knob would have come off the console. Turn the engine off!...nah don’t bother…it’ll quit on its own soon anyway… Nose down! Correct to the left! Uh oh…the end of that runway is creeping up. Left bank!, right rudder!!…a whooshing sound… BANG!!! With a jolt we hit the ground… Brakes!!! I slammed them hard. My pilot friend would have done the same if he could have, but unfortunately the Piper Cherokee only has brake pedals for the captain… Off to the left we veered, straight toward the runway lights! Crap! Right rudder! And off to the right we went…toward the other runway lights. Hmm…how many of those did my insurance say they would cover?… When we finally came grinding to a halt we had less than 20ft of runway left in front of us. What the camel crap had just happened?...
We sat at the end of the runway for at least a minute, regaining our breath. Slowly I released the foot brakes, and added some power to get us taxiing. Neither of us said much. We were both pretty shaken by the whole experience. I’m not sure if our friend in the back seat knew anything bad was going on until my roller coaster landing. It was only a short taxi to the ramp where the operations building was still open. I brought it to a stop by the fuel pumps and we completed the shutdown checklist. Despite all odds the engine was still running. As I emerged from the cockpit drenched in sweat, a ramp worker walked up to us and wished us a good evening. If I remember correctly, the only word out of my mouth was ‘fuel’. I was at this point still completely convinced that I had made a mistake with my fuel planning and my confidence had taken a major beating. Had my atrocious arithmetic nearly killed two of my friends? For a sneaking moment, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do this anymore. My pilot friend asked if I needed him to fly the leg to Newark-Heath. I considered his kind offer for a moment and then changed my mind. I had! to fly the last leg. If I didn’t fly again right the hell now, I knew for myself I would probably never get behind the controls of another airplane again.
The ramp worker gave us a concerned look when he presented us with our fuel bill. ‘You guys were cutting it close’, he said. ‘Both your tanks were dry to the touch…’ After settling up and exchanging a few concerned looks of our own, we reluctantly got on board again and ran through our departure checklists. I was still fully alert on adrenalin, and determined to take control of this little machine for the flight home. Take off went without incident and the engine ran smoothly. But…again…there was that fuel burn. It was way too fast. We had anticipated it this time and had more fuel on board than we would have ever needed for a flight of that length. We discussed it and agreed we would write a ‘Squawk’ note in the airplane’s flight log. We would also call the flight line manager to explain what had happened. Landing at Newark-Heath happened without further incident. The next thing for my pilot friend and I were our final exams of the semester. After that, I flew home to Singapore for Christmas break where I had a solid three weeks to contemplate the future of my flying career.
After returning to Ohio in January of ‘97, I bumped into my pilot friend in front of the student union building. He needed to talk to me, and from the look on his face it was something serious… He’d gotten a call back from our instructor just before Christmas. Contrary to what we had thought, there had been a problem with the aircraft after all. A very serious problem. According to the mechanic we’d basically had a 99% chance of blowing up… A section of the fuel system had ruptured, and only part of our fuel was being pumped into the engine. The rest was being vaporized under the engine cowling in a fine, highly explosive mist. That had quite obviously caused our ridiculous rate of fuel consumption. My calculations had been correct after all… For me, the biggest shocker came at dinner that night. It came in the form of a realization which was to become a common flashback. On our first leg when our engine had started to run rough I had almost activated the carburetor heat. My hand had actually been holding the control knob. Had I pulled it, (and not the fuel mixture lever), a movable flap would have directed air from the ‘heat stove’ (on the exhaust pipe) right through the carburetor which was by then completely surrounded by fuel vapor. That baking hot air would have very likely caused a massive explosion, and that really would have been it.
Something else was nagging at me as well. During the course of my training, I had watched a King Schools instruction video where an anonymous quote was featured:
“Superior pilots use their superior judgment to avoid situations requiring the use of their superior skills”.
Yes, I had managed to get the Piper safely on the ground, with a fuel leak, at night, and in a crosswind. But had it really been necessary for us to get into that ‘chain of events’, where a series of subtle failures comes together to nearly cause a crash? From the beginning of the day there had been suspicious fuel readings. I assumed it had been bad math on my part. But when you’re methodical about flight planning, especially with two qualified pilots crunching all the data, there is a certain redundancy that catches most mistakes. Our instructor was pretty philosophical about it. Some years prior he had similarly almost blown up, when a Beech King Air he was flying began coughing up jet fuel in mid-flight. Yes there were clues but the way you learn their significance, is through experience. Of this, we’d now had our first healthy dose and were still alive to talk about it.
As for the Piper (9W), she was successfully repaired and put back into service. I've had many adventures in that airplane. I flew ‘zero G’ parabolas in her, and used her to fly to McDonald’s at Port Columbus International. That night was the last time I ever flew her. For some reason it just worked out that whenever I flew after that, it was in one of the school’s Cessnas. Sometimes I miss that little blue and white airplane. For a little nostalgia I looked her up on flightaware.com. She’s still going strong for an operator in Georgia, 48 years after she first flew.