I Shivered a little that September morning at Nashua Airport, on a ladder with my finger in the left tank of the Cessna 180 taildragger. Good, the 100LL was puddling over the flaps. Topping these tanks was kind of funky because the airplane had rubber bladders and stiffly hinged flappers under the caps ... new ones, installed after a semi-harrowing adventure earlier that year.
Thinking about the three-hour flight ahead, I ratcheted the cap back on and climbed down. At Altoona, I'd fuel up, offload coffee and replenish my stash of peanut butter crackers. Forgetting headsets, charts, pens, sunglasses, flashlights and potty-bags is no big deal. Running out of peanut butter crackers and Tootsie Pops is a disaster. Then two and a half hours to Cincinnati. It was Sunday, and I'd spent the week "working"-doing type rating check rides in a DC-3 freighter that spent most of its time hauling baby chicks.
"DC-3 National Resource" meant I was a moss-covered historic landmark ... no, it meant "en routing" (doing en route inspections) to travel around the country for check ride work in the Douglas Racer. And riding a 737 cockpit jumpseat was huge fun, even if I know as much about jets as I do about space shuttles. Flying the 180 to New Hampshire was even better.
You may recall I'd sold the Cub (which the grinch Stephen Coonts still won't sell back to me) and my sister's Ercoupe (well, she wasn't flying it and I only used it at night which was pretty weird) to buy this 1956 Cessna 180. What an airplane! Reliable and rugged, as happy in a hayfield as at O'Hare, always a little bit of a challenge to land gracefully. We came to a compromise, a truce: sometimes I won, sometimes the 180 won. It was well maintained and IFR certified with two KX-155s, a good ADF, heated pitot tube and a full panel. After making my bones night-flying in the Ercoupe, I was suddenly immortal, invincible, unstoppable, full of myself ... and full of baloney!
Earlier that year, still on a honeymoon with my 180, call sign 72B, "there I was at 8,000 feet" over the Smokies, between layers on a February night, with a trace of rime on the struts. On early 180s the fuel vent was a little tube pointing forward on top of the left wing, a perfect ice catcher and not visible from the cockpit. You understand, surely, that I'd never fly in known or forecast icing. Still, not being able to see the vent gave me some heartburn. So I asked a bunch of 180 drivers who assured me that an AD on the original Cessna caps had fixed the problem. Fuel would feed just fine even if the tube was blocked. Maybe these guys hadn't spent too much time in the clouds on February nights over the Smokies.
About halfway into the flight, running on the right tank, the engine quit. I always hate it when that happens. Hands flew to the fuel selector, carburetor heat, mixture and, blessedly, it started. But something was very wrong. I'd left Raleigh an hour and a half earlier with full tanks, and the gauges in the wing roots were showing three-quarters full now. Indianapolis vectored me 40 (it seemed like 400) miles west to Beckley, where I landed out of an ILS. Sure enough, a big flower of ice had bloomed on the vent tube, fuel stains ran back across the tops of the wings and there were seven gallons left in the tanks. I made the amazingly mature decision to spend a night in Beckley and scurried home VFR, underneath, the next morning. A couple thousand dollars later, 72B had new bladders, a fuel line rerouted to an under-wing vent and shiny new Monarch fuel caps.
I'd asked Dick Collins to speak at one of my FAA safety seminars (yeah, I know, what's wrong with that picture?) and, when I told him about my adventure, he exclaimed, "Is that still happening? Captain Jeppesen gave my father, Leighton, a plaque for flying the only successful no-engine ILS into Dayton, Ohio, in his 1954 Cessna 180. Same thing. The fuel vent had iced over."
I did consider the wisdom of the single-engine, winter, night, IFR over the mountains thing, but only briefly. If you start putting too many strictures on when and where it's safe to fly, like no single-engine night, or IFR, or over rough terrain, or water, or isolated areas in winter, or without a ballistic parachute, or your St. Christopher medal, you're down to weekend, VFR, hamburger flights. Here it is for me: Take pride in being the best airman you can possibly be; fly good, well-maintained equipment; know that the safety of your passengers is a sacred responsibility. Then chill out a little and accept the reality that when it's your time it's your time, that "Fate is (truly) the Hunter" and that crashing alone sure beats pureed peas running down your chin in the old ladies' home.
Fast forward to September, New Hampshire, an early Sunday morning and my foolproof (you wanna bet) fuel caps. Good visibility, overcast about 2,000 feet, layers with tops at 5,000 feet, clear above. I was filed for 8,000 feet and airborne by 0800. The takeoff and climb were routine except for just the slightest whiff of fuel as I leveled off. Odd, but those tanks were really full so it had to be overflow, or something. When the layer beneath occasionally broke, the early fall New England countryside was breathtaking. Even a little tailwind, sweet. I unwrapped a chocolate Tootsie Pop, settled back and "wondered what the poor people were doing."
Into eastern Pennsylvania, and back to a solid layer underneath. As usual, I'd been running 30 minutes out of each tank when, about an hour and a half into the flight-you guessed it-the engine quit. Same drill with fuel selector, carb heat and mixture and, again, it started right up. What in the hell was going on this time? Both wing root fuel guages were pegged at more than three-quarters full ... but they were even and they weren't bouncing and I'd learned that was ominous. I told Wilkes-Barre Approach I had a fuel problem, needed a vector to the nearest airport and fervently hoped the controller wasn't from Indianapolis. "Oh, no, not that bimbo in the 180 again!"
This time it was only 20 miles to Wilkes-Barre Airport. Piece of cake. The controller vectored me to intercept the ILS, descended me into the clouds and the engine quit again. This time there was nothing left but to set up a glide and tell him I wasn't going to make the airport. I broke out about 1,200 feet agl, surrounded by a sea of green hills and trees ... the Poconos. And then I spotted a kind of white slash between the trees and banked onto a base leg for the most gorgeous highway I ever saw ... the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It was a long straight stretch with no overpasses, no tunnels, no wires, even into the wind. Sunday morning traffic was light and I was a little faster than the speed limit. Come on, guys, get out of the way. A quick sign of the cross, mags and master off and concrete under my wheels. I rolled out and into the median with the prop stopped.
Amazingly, traffic was back to normal within a few minutes. I ignored the stares, crawled out and climbed up on the left strut. "Oh ____." The left fuel cap was hanging by the chain and fuel stains streamed back across the wing. But what about all the fuel in the right tank? That cap was securely in place. And I alternated tanks as a safeguard against something like this happening. When I unscrewed the right cap there was a hiss of suction and I was staring at the rubber bladder, the bottom of the tank, sucked up into the filler neck. Then I remembered the vent line across the top of the cabin connecting the tanks. Because the tanks were full when the cap came off, the powerful siphon had sucked fuel not only from the left side but through the vent line from the right, too. Both tanks were bone dry.
And why had the cap come off, you ask? Well, cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle ... I don't know. I will go to my grave positive that I tightened both caps. The line boy (bless him for watching my preflight) confirmed that when the FAA arrived to question him and check the fueling records at Nashua. So obviously, I hadn't securely seated the left cap. I was first relieved and thankful, then utterly disgusted with myself and then amused. "Only you, Martha ... you and Jack Harmon in the Beech 18."
A Pennsylvania State Police cruiser, two fire trucks and several Wilkes-Barre news vans arrived in close formation. I calmly explained to the young trooper why my airplane was sitting on his turnpike. He agreed it was only logical to dump in some fuel and fly it out, but said we had to wait for his corporal. Now I always thought corporals were pretty far down on the food chain but not in the ranks of the Pennsylvania State Police. This corporal would have the say-so about whether the wings would come off or I would fly it out. And the corporal, when he arrived, was a spit and polish ex-marine who eyed me and 72B suspiciously.
It took a lot of talking and a call to Mike Wells, my mechanic, to convince him that it was "simply" fuel starvation that caused the engine failure. When he balked at allowing a fuel truck on his turnpike, the fire department offered to bring a couple cans of avgas. I modestly downplayed my vast aeronautical experience and huge admiration for law enforcement and the U.S. Marine Corps. What a coincidence, my dad, God rest his recently departed soul, had been with the Ohio Highway Patrol and a Marine veteran of WWII in the South Pacific ... uh, Saipan and Okinawa.