Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Really Low On Fuel

A dark and stormy night in Alaska

Early in September of 1977, a fellow Alaska registered guide asked me to fly some avgas to a hunting camp he operated on the west side of the Alaska Range. On the morning of September 7, I loaded my bigfoot Super Cub and lit out for Merrill Pass and the Stony River country beyond. It was just another trip with an airplane crammed full of avgas cans and crates.

Three hours and 45 minutes after liftoff from Anchorage’s Merrill Field, I lined up on the guide’s invisible tundra strip for the landing. Big tundra tires don’t leave much of a track in Alaska’s vast bush country, and if I hadn’t known where the guide’s camp was, I would never have found it. I off-loaded the avgas and cached it for future use.

The days are short, and quickly getting shorter, in Alaska’s September. It was nearly dark as I readied my Super Cub for the return. It also had started raining.

I had filtered some of the guide’s canned avgas into the Cub’s tanks, closely calculating the required quantity. My Super Cub had a vernier mixture control and an EGT gauge, so I could lean the fuel/air mixture with considerable accuracy. I took from the guide’s avgas cache only what was necessary to make the safe flight back to Merrill Field that night. I carried no reserve fuel.

I took off and climbed out to take up a straight-line course for the mouth of the pass, but darkness and rain had reduced visibility so I had to give up on that plan right away. I began following the Stony River’s meandering route upstream. The river was all I could make out on the ground. Getting myself as comfortable as possible in the cramped front office of the little Super Cub, I began to unscrew the mixture control, watching both the river and the EGT. The control was threading its way out, but the EGT was showing no change. I had already turned the red control knob enough to create at least some increase in exhaust gas temperature, but—fat, dumb and happy—I continued to unscrew the maddeningly ineffective thing. Suddenly, the whole assembly came off in my hand! The bolted connection at the carburetor had failed. I was without any mixture control at all. Without that leaner mixture, I was in really hot water.

Merrill Pass is unfriendly. Many Alaska pilots won’t fly it even on sunny days. It isn’t really as bad as it sounds, but in the dark of a rainy Alaska night, it isn’t a very cheerful place. Still, I was committed. In the dark, I could neither return to nor land at the guide’s invisible strip. Only an engine failure would force me to use a Stony River sandbar at night. I would have to punch on through the pass, weighing my options after I had reached the east end over long Chakachamna Lake. From there, it’s pretty much downhill.

After passing tiny Two Lakes, I could barely see the canyon that would signal the climb from 1,200 feet MSL to the necessary 2,400 feet that would see me over the very narrow rock saddle of the pass. I was so busy looking out under each wing that the rain-streaked windshield didn’t bother me at all. I had made more than 60 trips through this pass. But with peaks rising to 8,000 just off either wing, slopes too steep to support vegetation and the volcanic cone of Mount Spurr rearing up 11,000 feet dead ahead, I wasn’t as comfortable as I would have been during a daylight flight. I knew that I had enough fuel to get me through the mountains and out to the Big Susitna River delta before things would go south on me. The 20 minutes beyond were in serious doubt.


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