Running out of fuel and crashing is something you might expect from an inexperienced private pilot, but not from a crew of professional pilots or even experienced pilots. Yet that was exactly the case when it came to an accident that occurred on April 8, 2003. It involved a Dassault DA-20C Fan Jet Falcon that was being vectored by ATC in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) for another approach. The flight crew didn’t clearly communicate the gravity of its fuel condition in a timely manner, and the airplane’s engines failed due to fuel starvation. Fortunately, all occupants survived the crash. The accident should cause many pilots to resolve to pay more preflight attention to fuel requirements, to never hesitate to make a fuel stop and to never allow the fear of raising the FAA’s wrath to interfere with alerting controllers to an impending fuel crisis.
At 6:50 p.m., central daylight time, the jet, which was operated by Grand Aire Express Inc. as flight GAX179, was destroyed when it was ditched into the Mississippi River near St. Louis, Mo. The airplane was approaching to land on runway 30R at the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport (STL), when it lost power to both engines. The Part-135 non-scheduled domestic cargo flight was operating on an IFR flight plan in IMC at the time of the accident. The pilot and copilot received serious injuries. The airplane had been en route from the Del Rio International Airport in Del Rio, Texas.
The flight crew received vectors from air traffic control (ATC) for the ILS 30R approach to STL. During the first approach, the STL tower controller initially cleared the airplane to land on runway 30R. The STL tower controller, however, then told the flight crew to climb to 3,000 feet and to contact the departure controller. At 6:36:43, the departure controller radioed, “Radar contact, climb and maintain 5,000.”
The flight crew replied, “5,000…you know what’s, uh, what’s up with, uh, why we got a missed approach on that, one-seventy-nine?”
The controller responded, “Maintain 5,000. I didn’t understand your last.”
At 6:37:01, the crew radioed, “We’re climbing 5,000, and I’ve a question that we were missed on that three-zero-right approach. You know how far we’re gonna go out this way?”
The controller didn’t answer the question, but gave the flight crew a turn to a heading of 180 degrees. After the flight crew acknowledged the turn, the controller said, “Grand Express one-seventy-nine, it’d be best to ask the tower once you get on the ground. We don’t know what happened.” Investigators later determined that the go-around had been ordered because adequate separation from another arriving aircraft couldn’t be maintained.
At 6:37:46, the flight crew asked how long it would be before they could expect to be landing, and the controller said they would be put onto about a 20-mile final. Then the flight was given a new heading of 120 degrees and told to maintain 190 knots for spacing. They were handed off to another controller who told them to maintain 5,000 feet.
At 6:43:16, the flight crew asked, “How far are we going to stay on this heading, sir?”
The controller replied, “It’ll be about 10 more miles, sir. Will that be all right?”
The flight crew asked, “Is it possible? Can we turn, ah, a little bit earlier than 10 miles?”
The controller said, “Okay, I’ll turn you in sooner.”
The flight crew thanked the air traffic controller. They were given a speed reduction to 170 knots and were told to turn to a new heading of 30 degrees. At 6:45:42, the flight crew asked how long they would have to fly the new heading and noted, “We might have, uh, little bit, uh, fuel, uh, limitation here.”
The controller advised them that they were on a base turn to “join final” and advised, “I may have to take you about half-mile across final.”
At 6:46:22, the flight crew stated, “Sir, we have to make landing here. We have, uh, limited fuel here.”
The controller then gave them a left turn to “heading three-three-zero; intercept three-zero-right localizer.” The flight crew acknowledged. They were subsequently cleared for the ILS approach to runway 30R and handed off to the tower. The flight crew checked in with the tower, were told to increase speed to 200 knots and were given a wake turbulence caution for a jet that was seven miles ahead of them.
At 6:48:45, the flight crew radioed, “Grand Aire one-seventy-nine…duh…we might have to go ahead and declare an emergency here.”
The tower controller replied, “Grand Aire one-seventy-nine, Saint Louis tower, roger. Continue. State the nature of the emergency.”
The flight crew stated, “Looks like we’re gonna be…uh…short of…uh…we…uh…we have to make this approach, one-seventy-nine.” The controller told them to continue.
At 6:49:17, the tower controller radioed, “Grand Aire one-seventy-nine…uh…give me the best speed you can to the airport. You’re cleared to land runway three-zero-right. Traffic on a three-mile final.” The flight crew acknowledged the landing clearance.
At 6:49:46, the tower controller radioed, “Grand Aire one-seventy-nine, you need to maintain…uh…2,100 feet and maintain 2,100 feet until you intercept the glideslope please. Low-altitude alert. Check your altitude immediately. Altimeter three-zero-two-niner.”
The flight crew replied, “But we lost both engines. We can’t. We have to make landing at sata…uh…anywhere, sir.”
The tower controller said, “Grand Aire one-seventy-nine, roger.”
At 6:50:34, the flight crew radioed, “Emergency, emergency. We’re going…uh…we’re going…bo landing…goin’ bo…landing…we’re going [unintelligible].”
The tower controller said, “Grand Aire one-seventy-nine, roger. We have equipment responding to your situation.”
The airplane’s wreckage was almost completely submerged in the Mississippi River. The day after the accident, it was recovered from the river in two major sections and placed on a barge. The examination failed to disclose any problems with either the engines or the controls. A large amount of water was drained from the fuel tanks and no measurable quantity of fuel was ever recovered.
When interviewed by investigators, the copilot said that the left engine stopped producing power about 30 seconds after the right engine stopped producing power. He stated that when the right engine failed, the fuel quantity indicator read zero, and when the left engine failed, the fuel quantity indicator read 100 pounds. He also stated that after ATC instructed them to climb to 5,000 feet after their first approach, he questioned the pilot in command about landing at the Spirit of St. Louis Airport. The copilot said that the pilot elected to continue with the second approach to STL. The Spirit of St. Louis Airport is located about 14 nm west-southwest of STL.
According to the operator’s records, the pilot had accumulated 3,221 total flight hours, including 1,270 in the same make and model airplane as the accident airplane. The copilot had accumulated 5,758 total flight hours, including 1,532 in the same make and model airplane as the accident airplane. Both pilots held ATP certificates.
The pilot said that the airplane had taken off from Del Rio with 6,200 pounds of fuel. The airplane was limited to 25,000 pounds takeoff weight. The actual takeoff weight was 24,646 pounds. After the accident, the fuel totalizers showing left- and right-engine fuel flow read 2,978 and 2,944 pounds, respectively.
The weather for STL at 6:53 p.m., was: wind—20 degrees, eight knots; visibility—2 sm, light rain and mist; ceiling—500 feet broken, 1,200 feet overcast; temperature—4 degrees C; dew point—4 degrees C; altimeter setting—30.25; remarks—surface visibility 21⁄2 sm, ceiling variable from 500 to 1,000 feet. The probable cause was the pilot in command’s improper in-flight decision not to divert to an alternate destination, resulting in low fuel supply, and failure to relay his low-fuel state in time.
Peter Katz is editor and publisher of NTSB Reporter, an independent monthly update on aircraft accident investigations and other news concerning the National Transportation Safety Board. To subscribe, write to: NTSB Reporter, Subscription Dept., P.O. Box 831, White Plains, NY 10602-0831.