There I Was - Lessons Learned - #2

By Bill Watson, CFI


I've been low on fuel four times while flying without any unfortunate consequences. It was the time where I had "half a tank" of fuel that I ran out of gas.


The story started when I rented Cessna 172 from the local FBO. If I recall this was a 172 model G. As it turns out, in order to impress the instructors, I purchased and actually read the manual for that plane. In the manual describes where the engine will vapor lock if you fly the plane too high and the fuel selector is on both. That's where my history as a Piper pilot comes into play.


When flying a Piper, there is no both selection for fuel. So I learned to fly while selecting either the left or right tank. I felt quite comfortable taking this experience with me and just simply chose to fly the 172 on the left or right tank instead of on both. To me it sounded like a very simple solution to a problem I didn't want to have of vapor locking the plane. It turns out the simple solution had an unexpected complication.


After successfully completing my checkride I flew to various Southern California airports and was really proud how perfectly I was balancing my left and right tanks. I picked up some friends and Santa Monica and in Camarillo and then flew toward Santa Maria.


When I is on final to Santa Maria, I checked my gas tanks and both indicated exactly 1/2 tank. I was so proud I still had this thing nailed. About a half-mile out the engine died. Quickly getting over the moment of a high pucker factor, the little voice in my head was saying to fly the plane! Other people describe it as aviate, navigate, communicate. I rapidly set my best glide speed so I could get as close as I could to the crash site.


As it turns out at Santa Maria field, the runway has a dirt strip leading to the paved runway. For this flight that turned out to be particularly convenient. I made an uneventful landing on the dirt strip and at the end of the rollout bumped up and onto the pavement. Then I pulled to the side of the runway and stopped. I radioed the tower and told them I was going to be here for a minute. The tower asked me if I needed any help and I answered just give me a minute.


At this point I went through my engine out checklist and noticed that I still had the fuel selector on the left tank. Becoming confident on what was happening, I switched to fuel selector to the right tank and turned on the electrical pump. The engine started right up.


I taxi directly to the fuel pit and stood by watching all 19 gallons of fuel fit into the left tank. I then watched the fuel guy put 10 gallons into the right tank. So as it turns out the right tank indicated correctly that it was half full. The left tank however also indicated half-full but was bone dry.


There are several lessons available in this flight. First and always fly the plane. Second, while everyone knows fuel gauges are a little inaccurate, once in a while they are fully mal-functional. Third, when stopping along your path it doesn't hurt to dipstick your fuel tanks. And last, the airplane has a landing checklist for a reason. Select both tanks on final like the checklist says.