Close Calls: A Hard Day’s Flight PDF Print E-mail
Written by Anthony Nalli   
Thursday, 24 February 2011 09:53

Professional pilots are required to track their duty times in an effort to reduce the risk of errors that may be brought on due to pilot fatigue. No such mechanism formally exists for private pilots, but seldom do most private pilots fly long enough to warrant one. But that’s not to say that there isn’t a point where the skills and attentiveness of a non-professional pilot, not used to a long and taxing day of flying, might begin to suffer. On any given day, how much flying is too much?

One day a few summers ago, that number of hours was somewhere between eight and nine for our pilot.

The trip had been planned for months. Our pilot was going to attend a fly-out with some friends to join up with a group of other aircraft from the Northeastern United States. It was an early wake-up call that Saturday morning with the usual pre-flight routine: weather briefing, flight planning, gathering the gear, pre-flighting the aircraft, and meeting up with the passengers.

Their journey across upstate New York and the other New England states was the longest of all the airplanes participating. Their flight time would be a little over four hours each way. With a fuel endurance comfortably over five hours, the capacity of the bladders of those on board had more of an effect on the decision whether or not to break the trip up into two legs than fuel. Our pilot decided that with full tanks — switching every hour — fuel wouldn’t be a problem. As for passenger bladders, well, that second cup of morning coffee was discouraged.

It was a perfect flying day and the trip in was pleasurable for all on board. Their anticipation peaked as their destination airport came into sight. Our pilot landed and parked, and the four of them joined their comrades in the lobby of the fixed base operator (FBO).

By early afternoon, the group carried on to their planned spot for a late lunch/early dinner. Eating and socializing, hours and hours went by as the entire group shared stories and had a great time. Most of the group was either staying the night or making a very short return flight home. Our pilot and friends, though, had planned on making this a day trip from the start and found themselves heading back to the FBO preparing for the return flight just as the sun was setting.

The trip home under the moonlight was quiet and peaceful. During the latter half of the trip home, our pilot hummed to himself as his passengers slept. By now, our pilot was himself feeling tired and happy to be within an hour or two from home but still felt more than sharp enough to carry on.

Approaching their base airport, our pilot woke his passengers and landed his faithful bird between the welcoming lights of the otherwise dark runway. They parked the aircraft and headed to their respective beds, all happy to be home.

So where was the close call? Well, a few days later our pilot was preparing for a short pleasure flight. As he was performing his walkaround and dipping the fuel tanks, he found that the right tank had more fuel than he was expecting and was shocked to discover that the dipstick emerged from the left tank dry! He checked inside the aircraft to find that the fuel tank selector was on (you guessed it) “left.”

Thinking back, our pilot determined that on the late and quiet trip home from the fly-out, he must have neglected to make the last switch of his tanks. He was astonished that during the left turns in the circuit, considering just how little fuel remained in the left tank, that there was enough fuel to feed the engine.

Of course, this wouldn’t have been an issue if he had switched tanks in the last hour of the trip as he should have. What if the trip was just a little longer … enough to run the left tank out? What if fuel flow was interrupted during a low altitude turn in the circuit?

There are many “what ifs” from an entirely avoidable engine outage caused by fatigue-induced pilot error, and it was such a simple missed step: a tank switch. Our pilot feels lucky to have learned a valuable lesson without having had to pay anymore than a startling discovery after the fact. Our pilot now sets a fuel timer on his GPS and, more importantly, is much more cognizant of human factors and personal limitations.

Fly safe(r).

From the June 2010 issue of Cessna Owner