I Learned About Flying From That: Engine Failure With an "Eye in the Sky"

How one pilot's deference to a PIC's poor judgment leads to an unnecessary close call.

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Illustrated by Barry Ross

This engine failure did not occur in my airplane, and I wasn't the pilot. Nevertheless, I was personally and embarrassingly involved in the process that led to the incident.

It all started when I, as an aviation journalist, embarked on a series titled "Careers in Aviation" and arranged to write about a day in the life of an air traffic reporter — you know, one of those eye-in-the-sky folks who describe how traffic is moving, or, in the case of the Los Angeles area, not moving.

Very early one morning I showed up at Van Nuys Airport in the San Fernando Valley, a few miles north of Los Angeles. There I met the traffic reporter, whom I will call Terry. She was a Las Vegas showgirl-turned-pilot and she looked the part — tall, blonde, fairly stunning and, as was soon revealed, stereotypical in other respects.

Terry greeted me distractedly. She was fuming because she was being delayed by the reinstallation of a radio in the panel of a rented Cessna Cardinal she was to fly — and she was scheduled to give her first traffic report in a few minutes. Terry handed me a ladder and asked me to perform a visual check on the fuel level while she prodded the avionics installer.

The ladder was very short — good enough for 6-foot Terry but not so good for 5-foot-7 Keith. I did my best. (Well, not really. My best would have been to tell Terry I was not quite "up" to the task and ask her to check the fuel herself.) Standing on the ladder, I could unscrew the cap of the wing tank but I could not see into the tank itself. So I stuck a finger into the opening until the fingertip got wet. This rough measurement indicated that the fuel level was about three inches below the top of the tank. I got a similar result with the other tank, and I passed this information on to Terry. She said, "OK, let's go — we're late." This phrase should never be uttered by a pilot prior to exchanging the earth for the sky because it tends to signify a certain lack of respect for the preflight procedures.

I was an experienced pilot, so why did I go along with this unseemly haste? I have a very lame excuse. It's an old and often tragic story in aviation, and it has to do with the authority that's vested in the captain. Airline crashes have occurred, with the loss of all on board, because the captain did something dumb and an intimidated first officer did not stop the process even though he or she knew it was dumb. In the present instance, I was "only" an observer, so I let my common sense give way to the authority of the pilot in command and her presumed familiarity with the Cardinal's fuel tanks. I will never do that again.

We jumped into the airplane, and Terry taxied to the run-up area and went through the pretakeoff procedure. However, she held on the ramp and did not advise the tower that she was ready for takeoff. She had more pressing business, because it was time to give her first traffic report. But she was still on the ground, so what was she going to do? No problem. The radio talk-show host's voice came through our headsets. "It's time to check on how folks are doing on the freeways. Terry, how does it look from your eye in the sky?"

Terry keyed her microphone. "Well, Bill, traffic on the Ventura Freeway is moving nicely in both directions, but the San Diego Freeway is pretty slow — no surprises there. … " And she went on, totally spinning a traffic report out of thin air, so to speak. She saw me staring at her and gave me a wink. I wondered if she remembered that she was faking her job in the company of a journalist.

Anyway, she finished her fairy tale and we became airborne to see what the traffic was really like for her next report. All went well for quite a while as Terry flew over various freeways and periodically went on the air to describe the scene below. It was a beautiful, sparkling day that suddenly turned gloomy with the sound — or, rather, lack of it — that is dreaded by all pilots. Out of the blue, our one-and-only engine gave a couple of burps and went silent.

Most of us are familiar with the aviation homily "Altitude is like money in the bank." At 1,000 feet agl, our bank account was pretty low. Terry lost her cool in a hurry. She turned to me, her pretty face distorted by panic, and cried out, "What'll we do?" This was my captain speaking. I replied, "I'd suggest an immediate 90-degree turn to the right," and pointed to VNY, which fortunately happened to be in the vicinity.

Terry turned the airplane toward the airport, and, while starting her descent, she unaccountably chose to give a sort of play-by-play broadcast to her radio audience, screaming that the propeller was coming off. (It wasn't.) I told Terry to get off the air and fly the airplane. I then contacted the tower and issued a mayday, advising that we were dead-stick and making a straight-in to Runway 34. Traffic got cleared away in a hurry.

Terry calmed down by this time and did a creditable job of making it over the airport fence and onto the grass just short of the runway. We were met by four firetrucks and two cars filled with FAA personnel. (The FSDO was conveniently located just off the airport). The feds proceeded to crawl over the entire airplane as soon as it was safely stopped.

One of them delivered a succinct verdict: "No fuel. The tanks are bone dry." The chief inspector made a note of this. Terry whispered to me, "It's OK; this man's a friend of mine."

By this time, a news reporter had arrived, and Terry proceeded to give her a wildly imaginative account of our mishap.

The inspector — I think his name was Al — waited patiently until the interview was over and then invited Terry and me to join him in his office for a cup of coffee. I had a feeling that he had more on his mind than refreshment.

After he had poured the coffee, Al smiled in a most friendly way and casually asked Terry how she had come to run out of gas. I had been a pilot and aviation writer for enough decades to know something about FAA types and their friendly smiles, but there was no stopping Terry.

She declared indignantly, "I've been complaining to the FBO about those fuel gauges for weeks! They don't work worth a damn and those people won't fix them!"

I winced as Smiling Al jotted this down. Terry had just tied a noose firmly around her neck. Of course, it is violation of FARs to fly an airplane that does not have every item on the minimum equipment list working properly, and that would certainly include the fuel gauges.

Al thanked Terry politely for her explanation and said he would be in touch. I was dead certain he would. After we left the office, I urged Terry to get a lawyer. She assured me that she had a very good attorney who handled her show business affairs.

"No, Terry, an aviation lawyer," I said.

A few days later Terry invited me to lunch with her lawyer. It was the show business attorney. He listened to the story and nodded sagely.

"Don't worry about a thing," he counseled her, patting her hand in a fatherly manner. "I'll take care of it."

If Terry got any comfort out of Al's friendly smiles and her show business lawyer's paternalistic hand-patting, it didn't last long. The radio station fired her and the FAA suspended her pilot certificate.

Terry appealed her suspension to the NTSB. I was summoned to the hearing as a witness. I was thinking that my own certificate would be in jeopardy for the part I had played in the hasty preflight, but the FAA prosecutor told me I had nothing to worry about. I had heard those words before, but this time they turned out to be true.

I got quite a story for my article about a day — probably the last day — in the life of an air traffic reporter. As for Terry, I lost touch with her. Perhaps she went back to being a Las Vegas showgirl. It might have been less exciting, but certainly a lot safer for everybody.

To this time, 30 years later, I cannot look back on the event without a sense of acute embarrassment for allowing a PIC's flawed judgment to override my own training, experience and common sense.

To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go to barryrossart.com.