By Wayne York
It all began on a fine, but windy, morning last December when I set out from the Albuquerque Sunport on a VFR flight to Holloman AFB in southern New Mexico, where I was to present a Wings Safety Seminar to their aero club. I was flying a T-210 (my usual ride). The weather was severe clear with a forecast strong tailwind. During my preflight, the fuel gauges indicated over half full, so I did not top the aircraft off (which was unusual for me). The flight down was smooth, fast, and uneventful.
After my seminar, I prepared for the return flight to Albuquerque. Again, I checked my remaining fuel levels and decided that I had enough gas left for the return trip. This was my first BIG MISTAKE! During my initial T-210 checkout years ago, I spent hours reading the POH and working the associated aircraft performance charts. I had, however, forgotten just how much fuel this airplane actually burned. The winds on the ground were light, so I was hoping the strong headwind had decreased. However, I found this not to be the case once I leveled off and checked my ground speed. The flight down, which had taken only 50 minutes, was going to take me some 30 minutes more. Not good news, but still doable, I felt.
Eventually, the Carrizozo Airport appeared at my 2 oclock position. It was decision time. Again I checked the fuel gauges against the remaining flight time to Albuquerque. I had a gut feeling that I should drop down and take on some gas, but I remembered having read in both the AOPA Airport Directory and Pilots Guide to Southwest Airports that pilots had to call the city in order to purchase gas for their airplane. Not desiring an extensive delay on my return trip, I decided that I had enough to get me home and pressed on. This was my second BIG MISTAKE!
I turned the corner just as soon as I cleared the White Sands Restricted Area and headed directly for the Sunport. By now, I was becoming concerned over the decreasing fuel levels in each tank, since the headwind had not decreased and my ground speed had not increased. I began feeling uneasy about my decision not to stop at the Carrizozo Airport (my last chance for gas), despite the possible delay. However, I was now committed to the Sunport no matter what. I had adjusted the mixture for maximum endurance and was hoping for the best (not a great position to be in).
Fast forwarding now, I had just about run the right tank dry approaching the Manzano Mountains, just southeast of the airport, and was burning fuel from the left tank. When I contacted Albuquerque Approach, they vectored me right for the end of runway 35, which was the landing runway due to the wind. Good news, since that was the closest runway available. I was number two to land behind a Southwest jet on a right base to final and, while very concerned with the fuel remaining in the left tank (indicating five gallons as I recall), I thought I would land safely. WRONG!!! I had broken the cardinal rule of believing the aircraft fuel gauges. Here was yet another BIG MISTAKE.
At approximately 3 miles out turning final at 1000 feet, the engine began to surge. I quickly turned on the boost pump and selected the right tank again. The engine caught for a second but surged again. As I was attaining my best glide speed, I again selected the left tank but the engine did not recover. Major decision time was at hand. I immediately determined I could not make the runway, leaving an emergency landing off the airport as my only other option.
I advised the tower of my engine failure and told them that I was going to have to land off airport. I had just passed the Albuquerque National Dragway, which had a great straight asphalt landing surface, so I advised the tower that I was going to consider landing there. As I turned left to set up for a semi-base leg, I started to evaluate the dragstrip. While it did offer a straight asphalt surface, which was good, it also offered electrical wires with their associated poles as well as numerous timing lights and signs on both sides, which was bad. These obstacles, combined with what would have been a strong crosswind during landing, convinced me to abandon any thoughts I had of trying to land there. At the same time, I was concerned that I may not have been able to make the tight descending turn required without possibly stalling the airplane and a cross control slip was out of the question as well. So the dragway was out.
Luckily for me, a fairly open and flat pasture was just south of the dragway and it was now going to be my landing site, like it or not. Now, even more decisions had to be made, and I didnt have much time left to make them. I had to decide on my landing configuration and do it fast. I decided to lower the landing gear because the airplane was obviously light and I could not see any major obstructions that might shear it off during the landing. I decided not to use any flaps because I was concerned with the quartering tailwind, I did not want to float any more than necessary. In hindsight, that decision is debatable, but that was my decision in the heat of the moment.
I maintained flying speed until my flare and touchdown, which, to my delight, was quite smooth. I held the yoke full aft to hold the nose wheel off the ground as long as possible and, since I could not see any big holes, ditches, fences or other major obstacles, did not apply any braking. I could hear and feel small tumbleweeds and cactus plants brushing against the bottom of the airplane, which actually acted like a speed brake slowing the airplane down. Once stopped, I called the tower to advise them that I was on the ground and okay. They advised that the emergency crash/rescue vehicles were on the way.
With that taken care of, I completed the shutdown checklist and climbed out of the airplane to survey the damage. As an aside, my hand held GPS was still sitting on the glare screen where it had been throughout the flight. A post-flight survey showed a somewhat dusty, but apparently undamaged craft. I was amazed and, needless to say, delighted.
Two days later, the airplane was towed out of the pasture onto the dragway asphalt, fueled and an inspection and engine test run performed by an A&P mechanic. All checked fine, and two hours later, after obtaining permission to takeoff and advising the tower that they would be getting pop up traffic from the dragway, the airplane was flown, gear down, the remaining short distance to the Sunport. A thorough gear inspection was performed and no damage was noted.
Was I lucky and could it have been worse? YOU BET!!! In my 30-plus years of flying, this was a first for me. So what can we all take away from this incident?
Fuel planning has to be a major part of your flight/mission planning process, and a major consideration when deciding whether or not to take on fuel. Having the engine quit just as you roll into the chocks is not considered perfect flight planning and/or good form. Landing short of the runway, however, is even worse.
When calling the FSS for your preflight weather briefing, make certain you get the winds aloft. They have to be key elements in your flight planning process.
While turbos are great, they do love to consume gas during the takeoff and climb portions of your flight. Dont forget to consider this when making your fuel decisions.
Pay attention to your gut feelings. If you are feeling uneasy about your decision(s), you probably should do what you were considering in the first place. In my case, it was to take on gas.
Do not put your trust in and life on the line based on what the airplane fuel gauges are telling you. They only have to be accurate when empty and you dont know where empty actually is on the gauges.
In closing, this incident did not need to happen nor should it have happened. I knew better than to try something like this. Im just glad that Im alive to tell my story. I know the outcome could have been much worse. The FAA database is full of similar accidents which did not turn out as fortunate as mine. I trust all my fellow pilots out there will learn from my mistakes on this flight. I know I have.