Here's a heartening statistic: To judge from an unscientific search of NTSB accident records, fewer than one in eight fuel-exhaustion accidents during the period 2006 through 2010 were fatal. Notice that these are the accidents that come to the attention of the NTSB because they involve injury or property damage of a certain magnitude. We do not know how many pilots run out of fuel and land without damage or injury; I suspect, however, that their number must fall somewhere between the 246 who escaped with their lives from a banged-up airplane in that five-year period and the 34 who died along with most of their passengers.
Perhaps it is an intuitive sense of these rather hopeful survival statistics that encourages so many pilots to flirt with Empty. Perhaps it is just irrational optimism.
A retired businessman, 83, and an old friend of his had for several years been in the habit of making a summer trip in a B55 Baron from their home in Georgia to Alaska. In August 2008 they repeated the trip, traveling by way of Kansas, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington before departing the Lower 48 for Skagway, their first planned destination in Alaska. According to an Internet posting by a friend of the passenger, the pilot had said that this would be the last time they would make the trip; he intended to sell the airplane.
They left Bellingham, Washington, late in the afternoon. Four hours and 40 minutes later the Baron landed for fuel at Gustavus, in the middle of the fractured coastline of southeastern Alaska. Finding no one at the airport, they took off again and contacted Anchorage Center to report that they were en route to Sitka.
“I hope we have enough fuel,” the pilot remarked.
The controller inquired how much fuel they had.
“About an hour,” the pilot replied.
Sitka, not counting maneuvering for the IFR approach, was half an hour away to the south-southeast — the direction from which they had just come. A couple of minutes later, the controller asked the pilot whether he would rather make the LDA approach at Juneau, only 37 nm from Gustavus, instead. The pilot replied, “I don’t think so, uh ... we haven’t done one, but I think Sitka would probably be OK, wouldn’t it?”
After the controller observed that the current Juneau weather was better than that at Sitka, which was reporting 2,500 overcast and 10 miles, the pilot changed his mind. The controller requested his altitude and instructed him to remain VFR. The pilot responded with, “We’re at 6,500 and we’re pretty well socked in.” The controller then instructed the pilot to climb to 10,000 feet while maintaining VFR. The pilot’s partly unintelligible reply seemed to suggest that he was unsure that he could maintain VFR up to or at 10,000 feet.
“Are you sure you don’t want to return to Gustavus with the weather like it is?” the controller asked, perhaps sensing that things were not going quite by the book.
“I told you,” the pilot replied, “there’s no one there at Gustavus; the place is locked, and we can’t go, no phone, nothing.”
The controller cleared him for the approach, which comes in from the west on a 68-degree heading with a slight right jog for landing on Runway 08. Minimums are 2,100 feet and four miles, with the missed approach point 3.2 miles from the runway threshold; the last segment is to be flown visually.
The pilot failed to intercept the localizer, and the controller instructed him to discontinue the approach and climb. The pilot then declined the offer of another try at Juneau, saying, “No, why don’t we just go to Sitka.” The controller pointed out that the weather was worse at Sitka and the approach there was another LDA.
“Can you do that?” he asked. “At Sitka?” the pilot replied. “Yeah, we ought to be able to do that.”
The minimums at Sitka are 400 and one.
About 22 minutes after their first radio contact, the controller asked the pilot for his fuel remaining and souls on board. The pilot replied that there were two on board and he had “about an hour and 10 minutes of fuel left.”