Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Uhhh, how many hours can I fly on a tank of gas?

I had quite a good time flying this past weekend. On Saturday, I flew to a private paved airstrip about 18 miles from Fort Deposit. It was a great! Weather was fine…no clouds or haze and perfectly calm. I had such a fun time that I decided to fly a bit more. Two years ago (this weekend actually) when I was moving my plane from Tuskegee to Fort Deposit (about 80 miles), I had a crankshaft seize on me and had to make an emergency landing in a cow pasture. I decided to visit that pasture because it was only another 17 miles or so from where I was. The flight to the pasture was wonderful. Same great weather. I used the GPS to navigate to the field, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to find it. I landed, and almost ran into the fence in the middle of the field when rolling out of the landing.

This landing was more difficult than I remember it being the first time without power. I taxied to the hunting cabin that is on the property and killed the engine. Nobody was there except for a dog that was sure happy to see me! I sat around for a few minutes and pet the dog, then I climbed back into the MX and headed for Fort Deposit, straight line distance about 28 miles. I enjoyed the scenery on my 40 minute flight back. I had a good tailwind going, my groundspeed was about 47 miles per hour.

On Sunday, I flew to my friend’s strip east of Greenville, Alabama, about 22 miles away. His strip is short, but he’s been working on it to make it longer. There is about 700’ of grass and about another 300-400 feet of loose dirt that has yet to be planted. I used up all of the grass and about 100 feet of the dirt when I landed. I talked to him for a few minutes, then left to go back to Fort Deposit. I arrived back at the airport with about an hour or so of light left. I flew some patterns and practiced some landings. I flew up to 2000 feet and shut off my engine and practiced a dead stick landing.

When I got on the ground, I got out and re-started. I strapped in and took off again. I glanced at my fuel tank and decided I had enough fuel to go an play over a nearby hilly field that is one of my favorite low-and-slow places. When I got there, I flew around the field a couple of times, the I new I needed to get back because I was running low on fuel. I gained altitude so I could have a safety margin when flying over the trees on the way back to the airport. Before leaving the comfort of the field, I looked at the tank again, not sure if I was going to have enough, but decided to proceed. About two minutes away from the field, I checked the fuel again and pretty much decided I wasn’t going to have enough to get back, so I headed back to the field and landed on the lane near the field entrance. When I got out, I could see that I only had ounces of fuel left. I grabbed my GPS and cell phone and started to walk towards the city. I took a short-cut on some railroad tracks and about an hour later (3 miles) I arrived at a store where I bought some Gator-aid and begged a ride to the airport. It was dark, so the airplane was going to have to stay in the field overnight.

When I got home, I called my manager and explained the situation and told him that I had to get the plane back to the hangar in the morning so I’d be gone about half a day. About 5:30 on Monday morning, I left my house for Fort Deposit. I parked in town so I wouldn’t have so far to walk to the plane, but I would have to beg a ride from the airport when I flew back. I thought at the time is was a good compromise, but there was the possibility that I would have to walk from the airport to the town, which was about 2 miles by road.

I walked back to the plane, along the railroad tracks, this time carrying about 1 and a half gallons of fuel with me. Carrying a additional 12 pounds of bulky cargo for three miles is a tough job for a man who isn’t quite as young as he sees himself, but I managed to endure the pain. While I was arriving, I was noticing that some relatively dense fog was hanging around. You could see the sun through the fog so I figured it would burn off eventually. Arriving in the field, I poured the fuel in the tank and prepared the plane for flight. Of course, the weather wasn’t cooperating. Low, wispy clouds moved quickly over the pasture and while I was waiting for good flying weather, a short rain shower wetted everything just enough to make things nasty.

As the sun rose, it seemed the fog got higher and higher, but a gloomy grey hung over the field. I decided to fly. When I took off I climbed to about 200 feet and could barely see the ground, to I turned back and landed. I waited another 30 minutes and tried again, thinking I could get above the fog and see the airport, which was only about three miles away. When I got up, I did rise above the wispy fog-like clouds, but clouds stretched as far as I cold see towards the airport and there were no discernable bottoms to the clouds. As I kept going, I quickly lost visual reference to the ground and got very concerned, so I turned back towards the field again, descending, and landed. I had almost given up by this point and decided to walk back to my car.

After walking about a half mile or so, I noticed that portions of the sky were blue and that is seemed there was a high ceiling. I walked back to the plane, thinking I had just enough fuel for one more chance. I took off again and I could immediately see over the trees and could tell that I would be able to maintain visual reference with the ground all the way back to the airport. I skimmed the bottoms of the clouds at about 350 feet (150 AGL), flying over houses, forests, schools and apartments, past a water tower whose top was at my eye-level, and continued on to the airport. All the while I was updating my intentions of what to do if my engine quit right now! Thankfully, I didn’t have to make any quick decisions as the airport runway appeared along with the familiar fields that surround it. I landed, taxied to the hangar and put the plane away. I was relieved to have this done. All that was left was for me to walk back to my car. When I got about a half-mile from the airport, it started to rain. Thankfully, before I got drenched, a pickup truck came by and I stuck out my thumb. The kind gentleman inside gave me a ride to my car and I went home to shower. Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention all the cow pies that littered the only suitable landing spot in the field. Three takeoffs and two landings in the field really dirtied up my plane and her pilot!

I smell better now and I’m glad to have this all behind me. Thankfully, I had enough wisdom to land before I ran out of fuel. To bad I didn’t have enough wisdom to realize that I shouldn’t have flown to the field in the first place. With a loss of ½ day’s pay, 6+ miles walked and much anxiety about leaving my plane unattended with 40 cows, I’ll bet I’ll have enough wisdom next time.