Aftermath: Almost There

Fuel is a fluid: It flows, but it does not stretch.

The distance from Campbell Airport (C81), a little north of Chicago, to St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport (PIE) in Florida is about 920 nm.

A Piper PA-28-181 Archer has two 25-gallon tanks, but is officially credited with 48 gallons of usable fuel. The pilot’s operating handbook says that at 75 percent power and best-power mixture, it burns 10.5 gallons an hour and cruises at 125 knots. The required fuel reserve for night VFR is 45 minutes at a “normal” power setting. Since a more conservative setting than max cruise certainly qualifies as normal, the reserve might arguably be six gallons. In addition, some extra fuel is required for taxi, run-up and climb; let’s say 1.5 gallons.

Question: Ignoring wind, how would you plan this trip? Would you choose to make one fuel stop or two?

This is the kind of problem that might be presented to a student preparing to earn his private pilot license. The arithmetic is simple. Although in level, coordinated flight you probably have access to almost the whole 50 gallons, we’ll go by the book and start with 48. Subtract 1.5 for taxi and climb, and six for reserve. That leaves you with 40.5 gallons. Divide by 10.5 gph, and you can fly for three hours and 50 minutes, covering about 480 nm.

So you could make the trip in two legs, provided that one was not shorter than 440 nm (because 440 plus 480 equals 920). Or you could make two stops, in which case leg length would be of less concern. Or you could lean the mixture and slow down to, say, 115 knots. That would reduce your fuel flow to around 8 gph and prolong the flight by 40 minutes, but it would increase your maximum leg length by 100 nm.

Such was the calculation that presented itself to a father who intended to take his 15-year-old daughter and her best friend from chilly Illinois to Florida for their spring break. The 53-year-old businessman, a 1,600-hour pilot and, according to an obituary, a “larger than life” figure and pillar of his community and church, had owned the Archer for seven years and probably had a pretty good idea of what it could and couldn’t do — including some notion of how the fuel gauges behaved. The Archer, not a lightning-fast airplane, would require at least 7 hours and 20 minutes to cover the distance. Throw in a meal or two and the time to refuel and stretch your legs, and just getting to Florida and back was going to eat up two days of the nine-day vacation.

QUESTION: Ignoring wind, how would you plan this trip? Would you choose to make one fuel stop or two?

Perhaps it was with this in mind that he decided — or they decided, since his daughter liked to call herself his copilot — to leave Friday night, fly all night, and be in Florida to greet the semitropical sun. It was an ambitious plan, and could be pretty exhausting for all aboard; and so it was perhaps natural that the pilot might choose to cruise at 75 percent power and best-power mixture.

What was harder to understand was why he made the first stop in Nashville, Tennessee, after flying only 366 nm, 74 nm short of the minimum leg length for a one-stop trip. He now had either to throttle back and slow down, or to make a second en route stop.

He did neither. Instead, at 4 in the morning, after 4 hours and 21 minutes airborne, he ran out of fuel 6 miles short of PIE. He tried to land on a broad, well-lighted highway, and would most likely have succeeded had an unlucky set of high-tension power lines 160 feet above the road not gotten in the way. The crash killed the pilot and his daughter; the other girl, although seriously injured, survived.

There can be many reasons for running low on fuel sooner than expected: headwinds that prolong a flight, tailwinds that make you optimistically skip a planned stop, tanks not filled to the brim, too rich a mixture, a miscalculation in flight planning. As the end of the flight nears, the proximity of the destination becomes as tantalizing as the gauges’ approach to empty is ominous. The pilot is transfixed by indecision. He knows he is perilously low on fuel. But gauges are crude and approximate, “unusable” fuel is really usable in level, coordinated flight, probably the manufacturer built in a little safety margin, and besides, he has always been a lucky person.

The pilot started nibbling on his legal reserve somewhere south of Tallahassee. There were still a couple of airports along Florida’s west coast at which he could have landed to refuel from self-service pumps. For that matter, if, 100 miles short of PIE, he had throttled back and leaned the mixture, he could have made the airport. Arriving in darkness with a quart or two of fuel remaining would not have been something to be proud of, but it would have been better than what actually happened.

The National Transportation Safety Board took its time with this accident, issuing its determination of probable cause 19 months later – six months to a year is more typical. The cause, the Board wrote, was “the pilot’s inadequate fuel planning, which resulted in a total loss of engine power due to fuel exhaustion.” But a further finding was sufficiently sensational for local newspapers to return to the cold case with fresh headlines. “Contributing to the accident,” it went on, “was the pilot’s impairment due to cocaine use.”

The toxicology report revealed evidence not only of cocaine use implicitly judged to have been within the timespan of the trip, but of earlier use of crack cocaine — a cheaper, solid version of the drug that is smoked rather than inhaled or injected — and of cocaine in tandem with alcohol. The drug “likely affected [the pilot’s] fuel-planning abilities and en route fuel management.”

The toxicology report revealed not only evidence of cocaine use during the trip, but earlier use of crack cocaine.

Cocaine is a stimulant that people use because it makes them feel powerful, alert, focused and confident, and produces, for an hour or two, a sense of excited euphoria. These agreeable effects are followed by physical discomfort, nervousness, fatigue coupled with insomnia, and a renewed craving for the drug, which is highly addictive.

The NTSB provides a laundry list of “additional effects ... expected ... with chronic ingestion,” including “inability to focus on divided-attention tasks, inability to follow directions, confusion [and] time distortion.” From this description, you would suppose that any habitual cocaine user would be an incompetent wreck, but in fact, in some fields, notably entertainment, cocaine use is common and the drug’s stimulant effects are apparently found to be more helpful, at least in the short term, than damaging.

Although the NTSB report implies that the pilot’s use of cocaine may have been habitual, it seems probable that if he ingested it before or during this trip it was simply in order to help him remain alert during the long hours of night flying. If so, he may not have reckoned with an unintended side effect: the feeling of empowerment and self-confidence that the drug creates.

There is much to deter a pilot from making an inconvenient en route stop when he is practically at his destination. The decision to do so must arise from reason and cool analysis, not from emotion.

The “impairment” to which the NTSB referred may have taken the form of a euphoria — that adolescent feeling that nothing can go wrong — just sufficient to overcome the pilot’s rational caution.