Where Did The Gas Go?

Some days when all goes wrong, the Pennsylvania Turnpike works very well.

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.

OK, I made that up. My father, who died years before, had owned a furniture store in Cincinnati and fought WWII by working nights at the Wright engine plant in Evendale.

Whatever (but I'm pretty sure it was the State Trooper/Semper Fi thing), the corporal decided to let me fly off his highway and out of his life. The avgas was on its way and I surrendered to the TV and news guys waiting beside their vans. "Gosh," I shrugged into the microphones and cameras, "no big deal, really, something any pilot could handle. We're trained for it. Happens all the time." I was superb ... relaxed, smiling, charming, pretty, an academy award performance. When I later saw the videotape I was so strung out and wizened, I looked more like Grandma Moses instead of Holly Golightly. That prompted a consultation with the dermatologist about Botox or a full face lift?

Anyway, with fuel in the now securely capped tanks, the troopers stopped traffic for a half-mile stretch and I got the hell out of Dodge, TV cameras running. Yeah, 72B won on the landing at Wilkes-Barre Airport. It was dreadful!

I flew home late that afternoon and had my NASA form in the mail early Monday morning. FAA assigned the investigation to the Harrisburg FSDO inspector who assumed it was merely a "precautionary" landing. I didn't argue since I had, after all, taken the precaution of landing on the turnpike instead of in the trees.

If you read my stories you'll know they're pretty short on lessons or morals. Do you really need some dingbat telling you to put your fuel caps on tight? Besides, if you play by the rules you know the odds of a catastrophic, unannounced engine failure are astronomical. In 26 years investigating accidents I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of unannounced, unavoidable mechanical failures. But I am living proof that human beings are less than perfect and will always devise newer, more clever ways to screw up.

So, listen, I like to tell airplane stories and I want you to stay around to read them. If you fly single-engine airplanes do this for me. Go way, way back to basics and find out where the damn thing will land if the engine quits. Doesn't matter if you're flying a Bonanza, an RV, a TBM, a Pilatus, a Cub or a Caravan. Practice until you can put your airplane on the first third of the runway, or better, on or beyond a predetermined spot without power. A 180-degree, power-off approach. I know, I know, it's not required on the flight test, it involves dangerous low altitude maneuvering, shock cools the engine, it's not real-world flying, the sink rate is excessive, plus it raises your cholesterol and causes warts. Practice it anyway. Make a sport of it, like an old-fashioned spot landing contest. It's part of the art of flying an airplane and it can save your butt like it did mine.

I don't think my turnpike experience was "cute" and it isn't something I'm proud of. But it reinforced my creed. Did I do my best? Yeah, I honestly believed I'd done a good preflight and then I used all my skills to make a safe landing on the turnpike. The airplane? 72B is a fine machine, beautifully maintained (wanna see my checkbook?). Passengers? Thankfully, none, but I wouldn't have done anything different if there had been.

So? So, it wasn't my time. But, please, God, I really mean it about the pureed peas and the old ladies' home.

Epilogue About six months later, somebody decided that, before I could use my single-engine sea rating for flight checks, I should be retested by a "real inspector" instead of the designated examiner I'd flown with in Georgia. A friend had an 85 hp Aeronca Chief on floats tied up in the mud where the Little Miami joins the Ohio River, near Lunken Airport. So I drove over to CVG one morning and collected a nice little FAA man from a Michigan FSDO. He was nattily dressed for the en route inspection he'd just done into Cincinnati: wool slacks, a knockoff Harris Tweed sport jacket and polished tassel loafers. He was even carrying a leather Coach briefcase.

We arrived at the river okay, but getting him through the mud and into the Chief without falling in the water took some effort. He wasn't very tall and I had commandeered all the cushions, but he didn't object that he couldn't see over the panel. I think he was too terrified to say much of anything. So I sort of gave myself the check: "Here we go, with an idle taxi into the big river ... whoa, hold on, that's a barge swell ... OK, you'll wanna see a step taxi and how about a downwind turn ... ."

After a couple takeoffs and landings he shouted (no headsets) that was fine, he'd seen enough. We needed to get back to CVG so he'd have time to clean up for the flight home. So I secured the Chief and drove him back across the river to Greater Cincinnati.

"Fine flight check, Martha. Say, are you married? Really? Well, I'm single, too. Listen, we might get togeth ...," and my cell phone rang. I grabbed it, hugely grateful for the bailout.

"Hello, Ms. Lunken? This is the Pennsylvania Highway Department. You contacted us about an unpaid toll ticket at the Wilkes-Barre entrance to the turnpike last September." I began to laugh and kept laughing until tears were rolling down my cheeks and I had to pull over. "Hi," I choked and burst into another fit of laughter, "uh, I'm driving and really can't talk but I'll call you this afternoon."

I guess it all looked and sounded pretty wacky because this nice FAA guy seemed to forget about completing the "togeth" thing. As we pulled up in front of Terminal 3, I assured him I'd keep in touch, but that didn't seem to matter any more. "Hey, thanks ever so much. Have a safe trip. Oh, there's a men's room just past security where you can sponge off your jacket and the shoeshine guy will have you looking as good as new."